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Archives for Death Penalty

Humane Executions?


It hath often been said, that it is not death, but dying which is terrible. – Henry Fielding, Amelia

In the United States of America we’re slogging through a two-year long marathon to decide who will be the next president of the United States with news of each milestone being covered as though it were the determining factor in establishing the winner. I am happy to report that there is other news. It concerns the death penalty. And it is a subject with which two countries that treasure human rights above all else – the United States and China – are dealing.

In the United States the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on January 5 addressing the important question, simply stated, of whether being executed by a three-drug lethal injection is more likely to hurt than being put to death by an injection of a single drug because of the protocol accompanying the injection. If it is more painful, it may be unconstitutional and if it isn’t, it isn’t.

The people who are best able to answer that question are unable to give an opinion. Next best, however, are lawyers and Supreme Court Justices and it is the lawyers who presented the arguments as to why the three-drug injection is apt or not apt to hurt, and the Justices who will decide whom to believe.

Some medical evidence suggests that a single barbiturate is easier to administer and less likely to cause pain than the three-drug approach now commonly used. The one-drug method is used by the humane society in Kentucky and other states when euthanizing animals and is reportedly painless yet effective. According to Adam Liptak of the New York Times, however, one of the objections to switching to the single drug method employed on animals is that it is employed on animals. Death penalty proponents think that human beings are better than animals and should not be put to death the same way animals are put to death. It devalues the entire procedure.

As the Supreme Court case demonstrates, many people in the United States are concerned about the pain inflicted on those being executed despite Justice Antonin Scalia’s sensitive observation during oral argument that there’s no constitutional requirement that executions employ the “least painful method possible.”

While the Supreme Court contemplates the question, China has announced it, too, is trying, to use Chief Justice Roberts’ words from that same court session, to have a procedure that produces a “humane death.” Traditionally China has executed people with one shot to the back of the head. Mindful of the sensitivities of the survivors, those being shot have been asked to open their mouths when the shot is fired so that the bullet can pass through the head and out the mouth without disfiguring the victim.

Early in the New Year, Jiang Xingchang, vice-president of the Supreme People’s Court announced that lethal injection was more humane than the shot to the back of the head and that China would eventually replace the latter method of execution. It is already being employed in some places in China, using the the same three-drug formula being scrutinized by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thanks to a relatively new invention, however, death by lethal injection has been made much more pleasant as well as efficient, in China.

According to USA Today, in 2004 authorities began acquiring “death vans” designed by Kang Zhongwen in which executions by lethal injection take place. Mr. Kang says that the van’s introduction shows that China “promotes human rights” by among other things enabling executions to take place in the communities where the condemned lived thus making it more convenient for family members who want to attend, a truly thoughtful touch. Mr. Kang was quoted in USA Today as saying of the van: “I’m most proud of the bed. It’s very humane, like an ambulance.” He then shows how the bed in the van slides out so the victim can lie down and when secure, be powered into the van.

All in all, it seems like a highly civilized approach to state-sponsored death. Whether China will be influenced by the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion of three drugs vs. one drug only time will tell.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Scooter vs. Karla Faye


Great wisdom is generous; petty wisdom is contentious.
— Chuang Tzu, On Leveling All Things

I’m almost turning into a Republican what with defending the administration at every turn. Being an impartial sort, however, it seems only right that I do so when the opportunity presents itself so as to introduce balance into this space. Now it’s the Scooter Libby commutation, offering proof, as do other things, that as President George Bush gets older he gets wiser. The Iraq war was the first evidence of this, serving as it did as Mr. Bush’s acknowledgement of the error of his youthful ways and the implicit acknowledgement that today’s youth is wiser than he was at their age. .

As has been recounted repeatedly, Mr. Bush did not flee to Canada during the Viet Nam war to avoid having to go to war, as so many with less courage did. Instead, he went AWOL, a military term applied to those who without proper authority do not show up to perform their required military service. By being AWOL, Mr. Bush showed himself willing to risk criminal prosecution and possible confinement if the fact that he had gone missing was noticed. Fortunately for him, no one noticed that he was gone and he was never prosecuted for his courageous criminal conduct.
As president, Mr. Bush felt comfortable disrupting the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men and women by asking them to help him invade Iraq. He knew that they, being wiser than he had been, would not make him look foolish by imitating him and refusing to serve, hoping as he had, that their absences would not be noticed.

The commutation of Mr. Libby’s sentence is another example of his newfound wisdom. It shows a compassion that was missing when Mr. Bush was governor of Texas.

Terry Washington was a 33-year-old convicted murderer with the communication skills of a seven-year-old. A request for commutation of his sentence because of his mentally retarded state was presented to Mr. Bush. The request was accompanied by a memorandum prepared by Mr. Bush’s then in-house execution expert, Alberto Gonzales, one of whose tasks was to prepare memoranda on requests for commutation. Mr. Bush met with Mr. Gonzales for 30 minutes before denying the request for commutation.
Mr. Washington was not the only prospective decedent whose sentence Mr. Bush refused to commute. In his first 28 months as governor Mr. Bush denied 30 pleas for clemency. One of his most notable was Karla Faye Tucker.

Ms. Tucker was a convicted murderess who converted to Christianity during her incarceration and prior to her execution. There was considerable talk that, given her conversion, clemency might be appropriate. In 1999, political news pundit Tucker Carlson interviewed then Governor Bush and asked him whether he met with any of the people who had come to Austin seeking clemency for Ms. Tucker. Mr. Bush said he had not but, according to Mr. Carlson’s report, the governor said he had watched Ms. Tucker’s interview with Larry King. Mr. Carlson reported that Mr. Bush said that “He [Larry King] asked her real difficult questions, like ‘What would you say to Governor Bush?’” Here is Mr. Carlson’s description of Mr. Bush’s description of Ms. Tucker’s response to the question: “ ‘Please,’ Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, ‘don’t kill me’.” Mr. Carlson reported that he later reviewed the transcript of the “Larry King Live” show and Ms. Tucker never uttered the words mimicked by Mr. Bush. Critics of Mr. Bush seized on his mocking of Ms. Tucker as proof that he was an insensitive boor. He may have been, but his thoughtful treatment of Mr. Libby evidences his newfound wisdom.

The decision on whether or not to spare the well-connected Mr. Libby the shame and embarrassment of a few months in prison was a tortuous process that took more than the 30 minutes allotted by the governor to consider the commutation of the mentally retarded Mr. Washington and others facing Texas-administered life extinction. People familiar with the discussion who were not authorized to speak and, therefore, spoke anonymously, said Mr. Bush spent weeks thinking about the Libby case. Although Mr. Bush said he thought the jury verdict should stand, another anonymous two who spoke to the New York Times said that in fact the advisors “were digging deeply into the substance of the charges against” Mr. Libby and considering “did he lie?”

Although 30 months in prison is bad for someone as respected as Mr. Libby it is less severe than killing someone who is mentally retarded. The treatment of Mr. Libby is clear evidence of the fact that the Mr. Bush who rules the United States is a far more compassionate conservative than the Mr. Bush who ruled Texas. You might not have noticed had you not read this column.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 6:44 AM | Permalink

Seeing May Be Believing


Wedding is destiny,

And hanging likewise. – John Heywood,
Proverbs (1546)

June 24 was a big day in the Philippines. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo signed a bill abolishing the death penalty. According to Amnesty International, the signing brought to 25 the number of countries in the Asia-Pacific region and 125 worldwide that have ended capital punishment in law or practice. When signing the bill President Arroyo said: “We yield to the high moral imperative dictated by God to walk away from capital punishment.”

Anticipating her meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican she said: “When I meet the Holy Father soon in the Vatican, I shall tell him that we have acted in the name of life for a world of peace and harmony.”

In the United States God has taken a somewhat different approach. He believes that if the United States insists on standing against the rest of the world not only in its foreign policy but in its use of the death penalty, the death penalty, should be a pleasant experience for all involved. Hence the use of “lethal injection.” (It is virtually impossible to make the invasion of foreign lands a pleasant experience for those invaded since those invaded are routinely killed and their property destroyed. ) To understand God’s and some scientists’ concerns, it is necessary to refresh readers’ memories as to why lethal injection gained favor over gas.

Many years ago in Arizona as a convict lay strapped to the gurney waiting for death dealing gas to fill the room, the curtain was pulled so that observers could enjoy the ritual. To their dismay, as the death-inviting substance filled the chamber, slowly snuffing out the life of the prospective decedent, he did not respond by smiling cheerfully and mouthing friendly goodbyes to one and all but instead raised the middle finger of one hand, defiantly extended it towards the onlookers, and mouthed obscenities directed at them thus effectively spoiling their experience.

It was in response to that unfortunate display of bad manners that death by lethal injection was introduced. In recent times, however, that practice has also fallen into bad odor since it was discovered that the drugs used are not as pleasant for the victim as had long been believed. As a result of evidence suggesting the recipient of the favored drug concoction administered in the death chamber experienced discomfort, in May 2006 the United States Supreme Court heard arguments addressing the question of whether that constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Because the United States is a very civilized country executioners are not waiting for the Supreme Court to speak. Instead they are trying to come up with a drug cocktail that viewer and victim alike will find pleasant, thus rendering a Supreme Court decision irrelevant. The difficulty in inventing the cocktail is balancing the needs and comfort of those watching executions and the needs and comfort of those being executed.

The issue was neatly framed by Denise Grady of the New York Times who described the dilemma in a June 23 article as follows:

At the core of the issue is a debate about which matters more, the comfort of prisoners or that of the people who watch them die. A major obstacle to change is that alternative methods of lethal injection, though they might be easier on convicts, would almost certainly be harder on witnesses and executioners. With a different approach, death would take longer and might involve jerking movements that the prisoner would not feel but that would be unpleasant for others to watch.

If the experience can be made more pleasant for all involved, by using a different combination of drugs, then perhaps there may be a benefit no one has discussed-live television of the execution. Up to now that has been impossible.

In 1991, KQED, a public television station in California went to court to get permission to place its cameras in San Quentin’s gas chambers to offer viewers live coverage of life’s end when the first execution scheduled to take place in that state since 1967 took place. It was unsuccessful. In 1994 Phil Donahue went to court to seek permission to film the execution of David Lawson in North Carolina. He, too, was unsuccessful even thought Mr. Dawson said he liked the idea of live coverage of his execution. He said it would give his life meaning. It would probably do the same for those who not only believe in the restorative powers of execution but also consider real live executions a form of entertainment.

If we can’t model ourselves after the Philippines by banning the death penalty, at least we can let people see what it is less enlightened countries have banned.

Editor’s Note: For a different perspective on this issue, see Josh Trevino’s “The Monster at Rest” and Scott Olin Schmidt’s “The Politics of Tookie.”

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 12:09 AM | Permalink

The Death Penalty-How and If


Hanging was the worst use a man could be put to. – — Sir Henry Wotton, The Disparity Between Buckingham and Essex

It’s a sad thing when the jury gives the answer the Court is seeking. But it shows how civilized our country is when we struggle with something the rest of the world no longer needs to discuss, discussion having been rendered moot by the banning of the practice.

According to Amnesty International, the United States, together with China, Iran and Viet Nam account for 97 percent of all known executions that took place in 2004. In April and May the United States had three encounters with the death penalty. The amateurs came out best.

The first took place in the United States Supreme Court. On April 26 the Court struggled with the important question of whether administering the death penalty by lethal injection caused pain for the victim. It is a great civilization that wonders if killing someone is painful for the object of the exercise. We do not cut off heads or hang people in public forums. We try to make execution of the guilty as pleasant for them as is humanly possible.

In executing people by lethal injection a combination of drugs is used that, in Tennessee at least, may not be used when euthanizing animals, because the effect on the animal is considered painful and thus inhumane. On April 26 the court wrestled with the question of whether what was painful for animals could nonetheless reasonably be used on people in connection with a Florida execution. During oral argument, and with perfectly straight faces, the Justices considered the most humane way for a civilized society to kill the undesirables among them. Members of the court asked whether Florida had taken steps to make sure that the drugs were administered in the most humane and painless way possible

Justice Scalia, a poker player who calls a spade a spade, and is not concerned about killing people who deserve to be killed, trenchantly observed that hanging was not a “quick and easy way to go” although he stopped short of suggesting its reintroduction, notwithstanding the obvious entertainment value inherent in a public hanging.

While the court dealt with the abstract question of how to humanely kill, Joe Clark dealt with it on a more personal level. Mr. Clark killed a gas station clerk in Ohio back in 1984 and was sentenced to death by lethal injection. His execution took place on May 3, 2006. His execution proved to be a technical challenge. It took 90 minutes to get rid of him. It was his fault. Not that he struggled. He simply didn’t have a really good vein through which the death dealing liquids could be inserted.

Death’s ministers poked around his body for about 25 minutes until they located a compliant vein. The vein soon tired of its task as conduit and when the inmate lifted his head and announced he did not seem to be dying, the sluggard was abandoned in favor of a more compliant participant. The process was then resumed and Mr. Clark was dispatched. While the Court struggled with how state sponsored executioners should humanely kill their fellow man and the Ohio folks did it, a small group of amateurs showed an unexpected touch of humanity seemingly lacking in the others.

In a courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, a group of 12 men and women had to decide whether to sentence someone to death for his involvement in the events of 9/11. Throughout his trial Zacarias Moussaoui displayed his contempt for them, for the victims and for the court system in which he was being tried. He did all in his power to make himself repugnant to the jurors and most of the rest of the country. The jury found that Mr. Moussaoui had concealed his knowledge of Al Qaeda’s plans to fly planes into buildings. Had that information been disclosed, even an agency as incompetent as the FBI might have taken notice and done something about it. His failure to speak up is what qualified him, as the expression goes, for the death penalty. The jury declined to impose it.

Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan had co-signed Mr. Moussaoui’s indictment. Though disappointed in the jury’s verdict she said: “It sends a very helpful message to the rest of the world about the American judicial system. Fairness is paramount. It shows that in a highly charged case such as this, an American jury could reach this verdict.” Others can judge for themselves what it says to the rest of the world when the highest court in the land spends time deciding on the most humane method of killing its citizens as retribution for crimes they have committed and executioners in Ohio spend 90 minutes killing one of its citizens.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 4:46 PM | Permalink

The Monster at Rest


Stanley Tookie Williams is dead. It is big news: if we accept Google News cites as a meaningful indicator, his death is more important than the Pope, more important than the Senate Democratic Leader, and more important than the supposed cinematic controversy of the moment. We care, and care deeply, about the killing of this man.

Support for the death penalty is the giant conceptual hole in modern conservatism, and I part ways with my fellow-travelers in being resolutely against it. If we consider the state competent to kill in peacetime, then surely it can administer Medicare Part D. If we believe the state competent to judge whether a man lives or dies in peacetime, then surely it can judge what’s best for our children. If we allow the state to decide whom it should kill in peacetime, then surely it can expand its role immensely in the provision and allotment of abortions. Executions by the state implicitly undercut everything that conservatism purports to advance; I am at a loss to explain it except as a surrender to the most base urges of man.

There is something about the mass urge to kill in the company of friends and neighbors that is ugly, primal, and enduring. Whether it is the Roman blood sport, the communal lynching, or the hideous spectacle of “ultimate fighting,” men have always seen fit to gather and gaze upon the death or suffering of their fellows. It is an impulse so pervasive as to be banal: not merely as in the stories of Shirley Jackson, but in what passes for children’s literature in the modern day. The latest mediocre cinematic installment of the mediocre Harry Potter series has as its centerpiece a blood sport tournament in which youthful participants — and even non-participants — are routinely killed or threatened with death. This central grotesquerie has gone entirely unremarked by the film’s reviewers and strident fans. It’s not that they are unaware of what happens: rather, they do not see it as something morally abhorrent or unusual. The collective acceptance of organized death-as-spectacle is that ingrained.

This is the rationale for the death penalty in the United States. It is not a deterrent; it is not a just punishment; it is not a pragmatic alternative to incarceration. It is a shoddy acquiescence to the same impulse that sent gladiators and hapless blacks to their deaths in bygone days. How, really, may an unseen green chamber deep within a California prison compares to the spectacle of the Colosseum, or a bonfire with a writhing Negro? In America, it must do. Unrelated observers, detached from any real sense of personal aggrievement at the crimes thus punished, are afforded the opportunity to clench their fists and set their jaws in righteous affirmation at justice done. Those with a real sense of aggrievement may do the same, or they may not: either way, they face their remaining days with the same profound loss that has afflicted them for so long.

Stanley Tookie Williams spent the flower of his youth as a hideous slaughtering beast, and there is no reason to take his much-touted redemption as anything but cheap charlatanism. He never acknowledged his certain guilt for those dead at his hands, and his enduring legacy on the streets of America’s cities is one of death and violence. Even in death, he is surrounded by the infantile hucksterism that he assembled about himself in his final years. From the predictable grandstanding of Jesse Jackson outside the San Quentin gates; to the inability of his friendly witnesses to conduct themselves with dignity and respect at his execution; to the farcical removal of his remains to South Africa under the aegis of a fellow convict, Williams ended his life as he chose to live it — loudly and without reference to the central fact of the horrors he visited upon so many. He dies a martyr in the eyes of those who mourn and admire him. These people are fools.

They have ample counterparts in the fools on the other side, more numerous if less luminous, who believe that his killing by the state represents some manner of justice. They are men who do not examine their endorsement of this killing overmuch. It does not bear examination. They are likely to be the same men who decry government inefficiency and denounce the activist state, except, of course, when it’s killing people. Then, presumably, big government comes into its own. If they believe in God, this killing usurps what is His, and worse, holds forth the possibility that the condemned may find mercy and repose in the Lord. If they do not, then the suffering and humiliation of the killer is ended in an existential snuffing. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, he might as well live. If reason ruled, he would.

This is not the realm of reason. Stanley Tookie Williams was never within it; and those who wished him dead followed in his bloody footsteps in their surrender to the urge to slaughter. The former, at least, lived as amoral outright. The latter, in their appeals to “justice,” do not. The moral quality of this is left to individual circumstance: hypocrisy is not the worst of evils, nor is it inherently an evil at all. It is enough to say that it is there, and the urges which produce it demand satiation as they have throughout history. What fortune there is an entire class bent upon providing it.

In his final throes, the condemned provided grist for the media mill assembled to chronicle the desserts of his bestial deeds. We read that he “struggled mightily against the straps holding down his shoulders, arms and chest to raise his head and stare, hard, at the press corps on the western wall of the witness room.” Going gently into the good night would be bad press. It was not the Tookie way. Nor is it the way of the base urge that made him a corpse, and removed him forever from the grasp of man’s justice.

Posted by Josh Trevino at 12:22 AM | Permalink

A Grim Primer


Hanging was the worst use a man could be put to. – Sir Henry Wotton, The Disparity Between Buckingham and Essex.

Herewith a primer on the death penalty. It is the device society has chosen to teach murderers that the taking of human life is wrong. It is also a way of insuring that were they to prove themselves poor students, they would nonetheless not repeat the offense.
Proponents of the death penalty, while believing in its usefulness in a civilized society, nonetheless want it to be humanely administered lest they appear to be a cruel and insensitive lot. All would agree that the sight of a man twitching at the end of a rope no longer inspires the kinds of pleasure that it did in less civilized times and it is that love of things humane that has made lethal injection the preferred method of dispatching the unwanted.
According to Capital Punishment U.K’s history of lethal injection, J. Mount Bleyer, a doctor in New York first proposed lethal injection in 1888 saying it was more humane than hanging and deprived the victim of “hero status”. Now lethal injection has been challenged in Tennessee. Although unsuccessful, the challenge gave proponents of humane execution a scare and may be a harbinger of things to come since the death dealing cocktail used in Tennessee is used in all states that use lethal injection.
Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman was sentenced to death for the 1986 murder of Patrick Daniels. Hoping to avoid execution, he claimed that the lethal cocktail’s side effects make it a form of cruel and inhuman punishment.
The objectionable part of the cocktail is Pavulon. Pavulon paralyzes the skeletal muscles but not the brain or nerves. The recipient of the chemical, it has been disclosed, cannot move or speak nor can he or she let onlookers know that contrary to appearances, what is happening is no fun at all and even extremely painful. Because of that, Abu challenged the proceeding. The lower court judge, although upholding the constitutionality of using the particular cocktail observed that “Pavulon gives a false impression of serenity to viewers, making punishment by death more palatable and acceptable to society.”
Commenting on the use of that Pavulon in executing people Sherwin Nuland, a professor in the Yale medical school said: “It strikes me that it makes no sense to use a muscle relaxant in executing people. Complete muscle paralysis does not mean loss of pain sensation.” The Tennessee legislature, if not the Tennessee Supreme Court agrees with him. It passed the “Nonlivestock Animal Humane Death Act” some years ago.
Nonlivestock is defined to include pets, captured wildlife, exotic and domesticated animals, rabbits, chicks, ducks and potbellied pigs.” It says that “any substance which acts as a neuromuscular blocking agent, or any chemical which causes a change in body oxygen may not be used on any nonlivestock animal for the purpose of euthanasia.” The American Veterinary Medical Association has come out against using Pavulon. According to a 2000 report from the Association, cited in Adur’Rahmas’ appeal: “the animal may perceive pain and distress after it is immobilized.”
Abdur’Rahman may have thought that if the American Veterinary Medical Association considers the use of Pavulon inhumane when administered to animals, the Tennessee Supreme Court might consider it inhumane when administered to humans. He was wrong.
In a unanimous decision for the court released in mid-October, Justice E. Riley Anderson said none of the reasons advanced by Abur’Rahman for finding the cocktail to be a form of cruel and unusual punishment was persuasive.
The judge said the court had never been asked to decide the constitutionality of administering the particular ingredients found in the death dealing cocktail but presented with the issue, found their use to be constitutional. Explaining the court’s reasoning Justice Anderson wrote: “In ascertaining ‘contemporary standards of decency,’ a court must look to ‘objective evidence of how our society views a particular punishment today’ . . .. The most reliable objective evidence of contemporary standards is most often found in legislation.” He went on to say that “ there is overwhelming evidence that lethal injection which is commonly thought to be the most humane form of execution, is consistent with contemporary standards of decency.” He did not say why the legislature which “provides the most reliable evidence of contemporary standards” passed a law that suggested legislators believed Pavulon’s use violated contemporary standards of decency when used to euthanize nonlivestock animals.
Had humans been included in the legislature’s definition of non-livestock animals, the case would have been decided differently. Had a homeless, unadoptable cat that was destined to be euthanized with the lethal cocktail appealed to the court, Justice Anderson would have sided with the cat. Abdul’s problem was that he was a human. Barring the success of his appeal, that will soon no longer be a problem for him.
Editor’s note:This post was written by Christopher Brauchli but published, for technical reasons, by Spot-on editor Chris Nolan.

Posted by Chris Nolan at 11:39 AM | Permalink

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