Saturday, July 26, 2014

Guillotine, Anyone?

In a world that finds it so easy to kill -- planes shot out of the sky, refugee centers shelled, suicide bombers sending body parts flying everywhere -– our prison system is having a heck of a time executing its prisoners on death row.

The latest botched execution left Joseph Wood III gasping his last breaths for several hours while his lawyers scurried around looking for a judge to stop the whole unseemly mess.  They were too late and Wood finally died and Arizona joined a list of other states who can’t seem to cleanly kill their convicted murderers.

Well, dying can be hard.  The body fights to live.  And most normal human beings don’t relish or revel in the killing.  Unless they live in Texas and/or are Governor, Rick Perry.  Now, there’s a guy and a state that loves its executions, can’t wait to get the show on the road.  Not for Texas those annoying stays of execution, not even for DNA testing that could prove innocence.  Nosir, nosir, bring it on!

But a whole lot of other states have had serious enough questions about how the death penalty has been meted out.  A gander at the disparity between incarceration rates for whites and blacks on run-of-the-mill drug charges should give anyone pause; both races use drugs approximately the same, but blacks are convicted and incarcerated at a much higher rate.  Extrapolate that bias up to the ultimate punishment, toss in the growing number of innocent people who have been freed thanks to DNA , and it’s easy to see why many states are backing away.

And because dying’s hard, and messy and ugly, over the years we’ve tried to invent ways to make it “nice” so we could pretend to ourselves that we weren’t really “killing” someone, we were “putting them to sleep.”  Except now drug companies no longer want their nice clean deadly drugs used in the process (bad publicity), doctors won’t go anywhere near the execution chambers, so we’re left with states scrambling around putting together all sorts of odd drugs that they hope will get the job done.  And then getting all secretive about what they’re using until execution chambers are turning into Dr. Frankenstein labs with Monty Pythonesque Royal Executioners mixing up weird brews to try on the condemned – “More cowbell! More cowbell!”

Meanwhile we keep telling ourselves that the people the State’s killing on our behalf are Evil Incarnate, the Devil himself who must be erased from the face of the earth if civilization is to survive.  But in our heart of hearts, most of us know that’s hokum.  A close look at those executed shows only a small percent of truly dangerous, evil sociopaths.  The rest are sad human failures, too often victims themselves of abuse and neglect, failed people whose messy lives and bad decisions have caused enormous misery to others.

And that begs the question: Is this sorry S.O.B. worth killing?  Because that’s the other side of the equation that few want to consider: Killing is bad for the killer.  Normal humans cannot ever totally escape the harm done to themselves when they cross one of mankind’s oldest taboos.  While justification is there  – It was a matter of life and death, it was self defense, he was judged and convicted and deserved it, it was war and I was a soldier, I was a policeman and was just doing my job –  there always will be that small knife-pierce to the heart: I have done murder.  And that knowledge will be a part of your soul forever.

So, no, killing isn’t easy.  Which is why Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court, has proposed a quasi-Swiftian idea:  Bring back the firing squad or guillotine.  Stop making death look easy.  As Kozinski notes, “ . . . executions are, in fact, brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality.  Nor should we.  If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.”

So here we sit, Justice, American style, unequal for all.  Commit the same crime and, depending on whether you’re black or white, rich or poor, which state you live in,  you could be executed,  or you could spend the rest of your life in prison.  You could die quickly or you could spend hours gasping for breath.  It’s pretty much a turkey shoot.

Which raises a final question:  Is our whole justice system “cruel and unusual?”  Then maybe that’s what we should be working on instead of searching for secret new lethal cocktails for our execution chambers.


Alon Perlman said...

Ethically responsible writing
But let us simply be callous.
The math alone on the appeal process says no.
And to this day even with DNA, wrong convictions occur.

But that brings us back to ethics.

But at the threshold of door to ethics we are asked; "Is the ratio of one innocent dead important to us versus a thousand we know will kill again?".

Sewertoons AKA Lynette Tornatzky said...

The transparency needed for the drug "cocktails" and the the medical abilities of those administering the drugs, if addressed and not thwarted by the courts, I hope will NOT be a reason not to address the bigger issue here, the use of the death penalty at all, even though they need scrutiny.

As a country we kill less than China, Iran or Saudi Arabia, but more than Sudan, North Korea and Afghanistan. Europe (except for Belarus), Mexico, Canada, Australia and many others have banned the death penalty.

Bob from San Luis said...

196 +/- countries in the world, 57 of which still kill their citizens in the guise of a death "penalty", and we are in such good company as Somalia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and so on. Then there is the costs involved; separate jailing facilities (death row), mandated appeals with many times public defenders and all of the assorted costs of keeping those who have been convicted away from the general prison populations.
I am opposed to the death penalty on moral grounds; a country should not kill its own citizens, period. Life in prison without parole, period. If you still feel the need for vengeance, make a separate prison just for those with the life without parole sentence and make it more harsh, just not inhumane.

Churadogs said...

In a perfect world, we wouldn't need a death penalty. And since we don't live in a perfect world, and our justice system is far from perfect, a death penalty gets even more wobbly. I wonder if more people would favor eliminating it if we actually had (and meant) life without parole. So often, jurors vote for life, thinking it means life only to have the guy out on parole or wasting everybody's time showing up for parole hearings, like Charles Manson does.

I proposed in a column years ago, maybe for the worst of the worst, we could have a special trial after the trial, declare the person "legally dead." He's goes into prison, no visitors, no family contact, no mail, no outside contact, no nothing -- he's "dead." Bye-bye. Until his corpus eventually turns into a corpse.

Mike Green said...

The problem I have with the Death penalty is that there is no proof whatsoever that death is a punishment. All we have are religious pontifications ( And as far as I've seen there are great differences of opinions on this) that the person being justifiably killed is going to their just desserts. There is not one smidgen of proof that someone who is killed wishes that they didn't die, if fact most religions say that the experience is just the opposite. No matter really because the inescapable fact is we will ALL experience the same thing, no exceptions. So why do we consider what we all will experience without exception a punishment? It makes no sense. I like the "legally dead idea but then again I think permanent chain gang making sand out of rocks in the middle of town would serve the public better. That all said if States want to keep killing people (for no good reason as far as I can tell) there is a simple;e and painless way to do it. Put them on a jet at 30K feet and open a window (give the crew oxygen of course) They go to sleep and die.

Mike Green said...

On the end of the world: [ 119 ]
Someday, someday, this crazy world will have to end,
And our God will take things back that He to us did lend.
And if, on that sad day, you want to scold our God,
Why just go ahead and scold Him. He'll just smile and nod.

Calypso of Bokonon. (The what the Hell, why not? religion)

Churadogs said...

Mike, Ah, yes, good old Bokonon. We don't have any proof of the afterlife, so it's a handy thing to use to keep order here on earth. I believe that, like dogs and monkeys, humans are hard-wired with a sense of "fairness." We long for and seek out "justice." and fairness when wrong is done to us and ours. Without it the world seems out of balance. And when justice goes missing, we cook up religions and beliefs about the afterlife to help restore that sense of balance when thing go wacko. ("Since we humans can never punish you enough to balance out the evil you did in this life, God will make you pay after you die, forever and ever, neener-neener."

The oddest thing about crime and punishment, to me, is the formal process of "reconciliation" that can take place between criminal and victim. Something about that extraordinary process is magical; both redemptive and transformative and holy while being utterly practical at the same time -- the sacred within the commonplace. I suspect people who undergo that process may end up in a far better place than those who carry through with the usual legal punishments and think they have "closure" when the murderer is executed.

Anonymous said...

Could always move to Israel or Gaza or Ukraine or Africa, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, no Death Penalty to worry about.

Could also allow a thorough review within 24 months and if still found guilty, execute by any reasonable means within 30 days. May execute the very liberal attorneys and judges who continue to create the delays. There is absolutely no reason Charles Manson should still be breathing air!

Churadogs said...

Anon, in a perfect world, your suggestions might be reasonable. But our "justice" system is so far from perfect right now . . . too many "guilty" people getting proven "not guilty" via DNA and other means, even years after conviction, so your 30 days might mean some dead innocent people, which most people don't feel at all comfortable with. It's not an easy topic and I don't think there are easy answers. And, oddly, Charles Manson's still breathing may mean that some innocent person has a shot at getting exonerated. So, more complexity. Sigh.