Monday, May 5, 2014

Not For Their Sake, But For Ours.



I'm not totally opposed to the death penalty in principal. I think some people commit such heinous crimes, that they are a cancer on society and society has the right to surgically remove them in the same way a surgeon excises a tumor for the patient's health.

Having said that though, I have so many conditions that the death penalty would probably be very rare if all of them were met.

First, we'd have to be absolutely, positively sure that the defendant was guilty by irrefutable evidence and that isn't always easy to come by. Reasonable doubt isn't even enough to kill someone. There must be no doubt whatsoever. The estimate is that one in every 25 death row inmates is not guilty.

Second, I'd have to be satisfied that justice was being meted out fairly, which it obviously is not today. As long as African-Americans are so much more likely to be put to death than their percentage of the population would indicate, then we know that judges and juries place less value on the life of a black person than a white person and are less cognizant of the heavy weight of responsibility inherent in these decisions.

Third, I'd have to be convinced that executions could be done humanely, which has surely not been the case so far.

We have run the gamut in trying to figure out the best way to kill people in our history. We went through a spell when hanging was the approved method. But hanging wasn't always reliable. Hangings didn't always result in broken necks and quick deaths. Sometimes, the victim hung and choked and gagged and writhed at the end of the rope for long minutes before he or she died.

Then we discovered the gas chamber. Ah, what a much more clinical way of causing death. But gassing people isn't exactly fast and painless death either. Victims fought against their restraints. Their muscles seized, their veins bulged. they moaned or cried out.

Then came the electric chair, which we sometimes affectionately called Old Sparky. You could not deliberately devise a more gruesome and horrifying death than death by electrocution, watching hair burn and skin blister and eyeballs pop out of heads.

And, finally, we discovered the perfect way to kill. Lethal injection. Hey, its just like having anesthesia administered before going into surgery and most of us have been through that. Just count backwards from ten and you're sleep before you ever hit one. Problem solved.

Except, it wasn't. We didn't always get the mix of chemicals right and the people we had administering them weren't always trained to do it properly. What the heck, how educated do you have to be to kill someone? Again, witnesses reported obviously agonizing death struggles that lasted for long minutes before the inmate died, minutes when the body bucks and the jaws clench and the prisoner tries to speak.

We carry on about how brutal Muslims are for beheading people but actually, beheading is probably faster and less painful than all the things we've tried.

The firing squad never really caught on in the U.S. though it's what I would choose if I had to make that choice. As far as I know, Gary Gilmore was the last American prisoner executed via firing squad and that was his request, not because Utah wanted to do it that way. Why, I wonder? If your shooters are good marksmen (and if I had anything to say about it, all the guns would be loaded, not just one), it would be over in seconds.

Do we have a bias against beheadings and firing squads because we somehow hold the belief that if we don't see blood, it can't be that bad? Are these forms of killing people for the sake of our own delicate sensibilities rather than the victims?

Our highest rates of executions occurred between 1992 and 2005. Since then we've slacked off to a rate between 37 and 52 a year. Thirty-two states approve of capital punishment though not all of them use it very often. The states that feel mostly positively about it are mostly southern and red.

In the most recent case in Oklahoma, Governor Mary Fallin felt so strong that two inmates must die now that she defied her own state Supreme Court which had declared that not enough was known about the secret and murky combination of chemicals being used to insure a humane death. (European manufacturers will no longer sell us the drugs we used to use, not wanting them to be the cause of bringing about death). Fallin insisted the execution would go on, (while still refusing to reveal what drugs Oklahoma was using and where they'd been obtained, with or without the Supreme Court's approval. Some Oklahoma legislators threatened to have the judges impeached. The justices finally backed down and reluctantly gave their okay. I bet they wish they hadn't buckled in light of the what happened next. And we still don't exactly what happened to Inmate Lockett.

We do know that he didn't have a good vein for an intravenous placement (which is the case for many criminals who've been intravenous drug users) so it was finally inserted into a vein in his groin (though the protocol calls for both arms), an extremely delicate procedure. This took from 5:27 until 6:18. At 6:23, the sedative was introduced. At 6:30, Lockett was still conscious. At 6:33, he was pronounced unconscious and the next set of drugs were administered. From 6:44 to 6:56, problems began. Lockett was obviously not unconscious. He was groaning, writhing and trying to talk. The blinds in the death room were drawn so we only have the warden's word for what happened after that. Supposedly, Lockett's vein exploded. There wasn't another viable vein in which to reinsert the needle. The doctor said he'd not received enough chemicals to kill him and they didn't have anymore available anyway. At 6:56, the execution was called off. At 7.06, Luckett was pronounced dead. According to officials, he died of a heart attack.

Furthermore, the second execution scheduled for two hours after Lockett's was postponed for at least two weeks (his attorneys have asked for a six-month stay). In the meantime, the state of Oklahoma is going to do an investigation of what caused such an appalling miscarriage of competence. (How much do you trust them to come up with honest answers?)

Don't get me wrong. I can't summon up much mercy for either Clayton Lockett,who buried a teenage girl alive, or the second inmate, Charles Warner, who raped and killed an 11-month-old girl.

But executions aren't meant to torture for evil deeds. They are simply meant to rid ourselves of malignancies on the body of society. They should be quick, clean and humane, not for the sake of those being put to death but for the sake of our own humanity.

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