Thursday, July 24, 2014

There Is No Right Way to Kill People

Yesterday, the web was ablaze with gruesome news. The execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood took much longer than expected and has created a huge controversy about lethal injection. CBS reports:

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne's office said Joseph Rudolph Wood was pronounced dead at 3:49 p.m., one hour and 57 minutes after the execution started.

Wood's lawyers had filed an emergency appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court while the execution was underway, demanding that it be stopped. The appeal said Wood was "gasping and snorting for more than an hour."

Word that Justice Anthony Kennedy denied the appeal came about a half hour after Wood's death.

Wood, 55, gasped more than 600 times before he died.

You can go and read more about the execution, but I can already tell you what you'll find: the defense attorney and abolition advocates arguing that the execution was botched, cruel, and horrific; the family and district attorney reminding everyone of the death of the victims; this or that doctor saying that, actually, he wasn't suffering, just "snoring" - interpretations of pain, interpretations of suffering, moral equations, this, that.

But the bottom line--as argued by Austin Sarat as well as by Forbes Magazine's David Kroll, is this: There is no right way to kill people. For all the effort we've made to make the procedure "appear swift and medical" as Kroll said, it still serves no purpose beyond killing people.

Death is suffering. The idea that we can surgically separate death--which is, according to the Supreme Court, constitutional, fine and dandy--from suffering, which is a violation of the 8th Amendment, is ludicrous. There have been botched hangings, electrocutions, gas chamber killings, lethal injections--every year, 3 percent of executions are botched. That everything is sterile and medical, and people were white robes and not executioners' capes and hoods, means it's more difficult to see the difference, but in a way it reveals a deeper truth: that the idea that there's a "clean" execution, done "right", is absurd.

In 1980, Justice Blackmun wrote this in a slightly different context:

From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. For more than 20 years I have develop...rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor...Rather than continue to coddle the court's delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved...I feel...obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies.

He was so wise. If he could only see the futile tinkering. This chemical, that chemical, one shot, three shots. There is no right way to kill people. Of course many of these people committed horrendous crimes and merciless killings of innocent victims. But do we really want to license the state to achieve symmetry in that department?

If, like me, you're sick of tinkering with the machinery of death, sign my petition to the CA Attorney General not to appeal the recent decision that declared capital punishment in CA unconstitutional. We need 50 more signatures to make it to 500 before tomorrow. Let's make it happen.

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