Capital punishment is a subject -- like abortion -- that brings out strong feelings in most Americans. Many Americans object to such punishment on the grounds that even the most dire crimes do not warrant execution and also because some executed convicts will, in fact, have been innocent.
Proponents of capital punishment, on the other hand, argue that execution serves two very important purposes: first, that capital punishment has a deterrent effect, i.e., other potential criminals will refrain from criminal activity because they fear punishment of this sort; and, second, that such punishment satisfies a basic human need for revenge and provides psychological closure for victims' families.
It has been some time since the Supreme Court of the United States re-examined the constitutionality of capital punishment. The Constitution protects Americans from having "cruel and unusual" punishment inflicted upon them. The opportunity for a re-examination of one form of capital punishment comes from a Florida case.
Florida is one of only four states that executes criminals by using an electric chair. Most others use lethal injection. Seventy-five years ago, the electric chair was considered both an innovative and humane form of execution. In principle, the electric chair administers a short burst of high voltage electricity which immediately stops the heart and brings on almost instantaneous death.
In Florida, however, for whatever reason, the past three electric chair executions have not been bloodless. During the last execution,
when the current was switched on, blood poured down the face of the condemned from behind the mask.
Reaction to these executions from Florida has been odd, at least in my opinion. The Supreme Court of Florida has a site on the World Wide Web. In addition to posting its opinions on that site, a dissenting justice has also posted photographs of the executions to which he objected. These photographs have elicited many comments.
According to a news story, a Florida woman e-mailed the Florida Supreme Court : "The photos on this web site are WONDERFUL." At what point do justifiable feelings of revenge turn into unsavory blood lust?
The whole point of this controversy (including the case now before the United States Supreme Court) is not about whether to execute convicted criminals. The debate is over whether these executions should be performed in a grisly manner and then put on public display.
and those guilty of serious crimes were often forced to have their stomachs cut open, their intestines pulled out and set afire. Women were often burned to death. Historians of these executions have argued that in addition to the deterrent and revenge aspects of such executions, they were also used by the government as a form of free public entertainment. Eventually, governments moved away from such executions as spectacle because they realized that they were attracting and encouraging the worst sorts of perverse behavior.
Whatever one might think of capital punishment in theory, it seems to me that no rational person ought to want to create the kind of displays of pain, blood and torture Florida has created by continuing to use an antiquated electric chair. The governor and legislature of Florida should be reminded that "law and order" does not require a form of execution that has been described as barbarous.
In addition, while the dissenting Florida justice who posted pictures of these executions may have believed that to do so would aid his cause, in fact, we must ask whether it was wise. Certainly, were a privately owned web site to display such pictures, it would be labeled as pornography.
The Supreme Court of the United States will hear arguments on this case most probably in February. Let us hope that our legal system can welcome in the new millennium with a decision which eschews such barbaric forms of punishment as some, at least, in Florida seem to think are appropriate. And, as such forms of punishment disappear, perhaps we will all be spared their visible remains as well.