Archive for Monday, October 15, 2007

Methods don’t alter death penalty madness

October 15, 2007


— So we have a national moratorium of sorts. An unofficial stay of execution. All quiet in the death chambers.

In the days since the Supreme Court decided to take on another death penalty case, 11 states - including Texas, the capital of capital punishment - have suspended executions. In two more states, inmates slated for death next week may be granted a reprieve. Even the Europeans who led Wednesday's World Day Against the Death Penalty must have missed having their favorite international target.

But there isn't much hoopla among death penalty opponents or much anger among proponents. The case that will be heard this session isn't about the morality or constitutionality of the death penalty itself. It's about the way execution is executed.

The case brought by two death row inmates in Kentucky doesn't ask whether the death penalty constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment," but only whether lethal injection is cruel and unusual. The justices will be asked to rule on the method, not on the madness.

Is there something just a little chilling in this? A searing moral debate reduced to an argument about the details of injections, syringes, dosages, pain and the competence of executioners? How many angels - or devils - dance on the head of a needle?

When the Eighth Amendment was written, the Founders looked to Europe for examples of "cruel and unusual punishment," such as drawing and quartering. For more than a century, most executions in America were by noose or firing squad. But by 1890, we were enthralled by technology and queasy about public executions. The electric chair and the gas chamber became the "advanced" tools of the trade.

Each step toward a more humane standard of state-inflicted death seems to have been followed by horror stories. By the late 1970s, the search for better-dying-through-chemistry led states to adopt the needle as the gold standard.

Forgive me for being graphic, but graphic is the issue. Lethal injection is a cocktail of three drugs. The first is to put the prisoner to sleep. The second is to paralyze him. The third to stop his heart.

That neat, medicinal description doesn't say what happens when the procedure is botched. If the first dose doesn't work, is administered improperly or wears off, the inmate dies in a pain he is paralyzed to express.

There's no doubt that executions have been botched. There was the dyslexic doctor from Missouri who admitted that he didn't always calculate the dosages correctly. There was the Lancet study showing that almost half of the inmates were conscious when they received the heart-stopping drug. Then there was the inmate in California, who watched the executioners repeatedly poke him with needles and asked, "You guys doing that right?"

Fordham Law School's Deborah Denno grades the quality of executioners found in her surveys this way: "We wouldn't allow them to cook a hamburger. This is a level of gross incompetence." The American Medical Association has barred its doctors from performing executions.

Once again, what looks antiseptic is not. We have seen another failed attempt to find the execution that fits what the court has defined as our "evolving standard of decency." A case about competence may drive another hole in the notion of a death penalty with decency.

Americans overwhelmingly support capital punishment, though not by the margins of the past. When asked to choose between the death penalty and life without parole, they are evenly divided. Twelve states had already suspended death sentences before this case began and last year there were only 53 executions among some 3,300 inmates on death row.

We have gradually become more wary of convicted criminals found innocent and of racial bias in sentencing. Now lethal injection is also being desanitized.

Ironically, we know how to end life painlessly. There are Web sites from here to Holland with information on "death with dignity" and instructions that involve sleeping pills and plastic bags. Surely there are better "cocktails" than the one on trial. But how merciful do we want our capital punishment? How merciless?

The argument about the ways and means of execution reflects our great ambivalence - the thrust and the recoil - between the desire for punishment and the revulsion from inflicting cruelty, pain, death. I have long shared that ambivalence.

But as the Supreme Court takes up this issue again, I remember what Justice Harry Blackmun said after a 20-year struggle about just ways to administer the death penalty: "From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death."

We are still tinkering. This time, we're tinkering with the dosage and the training. Tinkering with competence and mistakes. We are tinkering, tinkering, tinkering to avoid the possibility that we can't have our death penalty and our humanity too.

- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Haiku_Cuckoo 10 years, 6 months ago

Ellen doesn't devote a single sentence, in fact not even a single word, to the ghastly methods in which these convicted criminals murdered their victims. It's all about criminal rights apparently.

Chris Golledge 10 years, 6 months ago

Cukoo, if seeing or knowing about suffering that a criminal experiences makes you feel better, well, then you are talking about revenge. That path will lead back down to drawing, quartering, disembowelment, etc.

If you divorce yourself from the revenge motive, then what matters is only that the criminal can no longer do harm to others. If the best way to accomplish that is the death penalty, that's fine. If the best way is life without parole, equally fine. It's easier to try to mitigate the damages of making a mistake if you haven't killed the person, but if you are going to kill someone, there's no good reason to inflict more pain than necessary. Personally, given a choice, I'd take a hollow-point bullet to the brain over anything else I can think of, but, of course, that would be messy and our society likes things neat.

jayhawks71 10 years, 6 months ago

I am against the death penalty. I would be for retribution for a crime if you eliminated the error associated with conviction. Sorry, I don't want to find out later that "Suzie" or "Mike" fingered the wrong guy and now he is dead. Ooops! I am just not willing to take that risk. Further, the death-penalty doesn't save anyone any money (not that it should even be part of the decision, but it is). Beyond a reasonable doubt is a very subjective target. Your reason and my reason probably don't line up.

God-given right? Wait, you can't even show a lick of evidence of a god yet we are now getting rights from this mysterious creation of the human mind? Sorry, keep the bible in your desk drawer and out of my courtroom.

ksdivakat 10 years, 6 months ago

I think that they do have to consider that DNA evidence seems to be releasing more and more people from death row, and I sure wouldnt want to be that executioner that puts an innocent man to death. This does need to be rexamined and a new determination made. Should DNA evidence be part of a death sentence? The prosecutor should have 100% DNA evidence that links that person to the crime, without DNA no death sentence should be imposed.

Haiku_Cuckoo 10 years, 6 months ago

It is estimated that at least 50 innocent people have been put to death in the last 100 years, in addition, there is an average of 1 innocent person a week released from death row.


Kam_Fong_as_Chin_Ho 10 years, 6 months ago

Killing convicted murderers = Bad and politically incorrect. Killing innocent unborn children = Perfectly acceptable.

pace 10 years, 6 months ago

the reason the article speaks about the method of execution and not the various crimes is that is the supreme court case, the article is addressing. It will be interesting. Executions should be tidy, not botched jobs done by the cousin of the local political bigwig. I also think executing a couple of guys who didn't do it sure lets the ones who did have a free ride. Sometimes it is a cover up by the courts or police, sometimes to get thing off the books or to hike their success record. I am not against a death penalty. I cheered a little when Ted Bundy died. I don't cheer for sloppy political hack systems.

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