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The Truth About Capital Punishment: It’s Inherently Cruel

by Daniel Gordon on Jun 22, 2006

Daniel Gordon

On June 12, the Supreme Court ruled that Clarence E. Hill, a Florida prisoner facing execution, had a constitutional right to challenge the lethal injection procedure the state was planning to use on him. The Court's decision was unanimous. Why this consensus?

Because briefs to the court from physicians presented a ghastly truth: The method used to execute people in Florida and many other states sometimes produces excruciating suffering.

This raises an even bigger question. Can there be an execution that isn't cruel? The answer is no. We should draw a lesson from past failures to invent an ideal form of execution. The death penalty cannot be perfected. It should be abolished.

The quest for the perfect execution — a technically advanced, quietly routine, uneventful procedure — is counter-productive. It's impossible to completely humanize an execution. There's always suffering for the victim and a crisis of conscience for society when the government kills a human being. By trying to invent a benign form of death, we only create a spirit of denial toward the agony of executions.

As practiced by Florida and most other states with the death penalty, lethal injection involves three chemicals. The first is a short-acting barbiturate that's supposed to anesthetize the prisoner. The second is a neuro-muscular blocker that causes paralysis but doesn't affect awareness. It is not a pain killer but is given for purely "cosmetic" reasons, to make the prisoner appear serene. The third chemical scours the nerve fibers and veins, inducing cardiac arrest. It is the actual cause of death.

Evidence given to the Court suggests that prisoners sometimes get insufficient doses of the first chemical, the anesthesia. Since the second chemical causes paralysis, attendants at the execution can't tell if the prisoner is anesthetized or not. A prisoner could be unable to move and communicate but still be conscious during an agonizing cardiac arrest.

No wonder the court decided that Hill had a right to proceed with his claim that Florida was violating the Constitution's Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

This case is all about cruelty — but no one is deliberately cruel. Cruelty can come not only from sadistic intentions but from utopian efforts to invent a perfectly civilized execution process. In fact, democratic societies have long tried to soften the death penalty but never have really found a perfect technique.

In the French Revolution, the guillotine was introduced for humanitarian purposes. The blade acted quickly compared with the choking of hanging, but it gruesomely disjoined the victim's head and body. In 19th-century America, hanging by dangling and slowly suffocating the subject was replaced by hanging where the victim was dropped to sever the spinal cord.

Electrocution came into vogue in the 1890s as a supposedly more efficient and less mutilating alternative to hanging. The electric chair usually killed the subject very quickly but it had unpleasant byproducts for observers. It tended to burn the flesh and could make the victim lose control of muscle movement and bodily functions.

Starting in the 1980s, lethal injection became the main method of execution. In 1992 a federal court in Arkansas declared that there "is general agreement that lethal injection is . . . the most humane type of execution available and is far preferable to the sometimes barbaric means employed in the past." How quickly this judgment has become out-of-date!

The use of a paralyzing chemical serves us, not the prisoner. It turns death into a silent and motionless experience — a non-event for the observer. We get satisfaction from knowing that executions are no longer jarring spectacles in which the body of the prisoner is visibly ruptured, as with hanging or the guillotine, and not cauterized as with the electric chair. Turning executions into a perfectly bureaucratic process make us feel civilized.

But the older methods were effective at making death quick and painless. In contrast, lethal injection keeps the body externally whole but sometimes causes inordinate pain.

Is there a perfect form of execution that keeps the victim's body intact, that eliminates pain and prevents trauma for the observer? No one has found one yet. But even if such a method existed, it would only anesthetize us to the awesome passions and moral issues that are connected to the governmental killing of a person.

Past executions look barbarically cruel, but future executions may turn out to be barbarically anodyne. The only way out of this bind is a future without the death penalty.


Daniel Gordon teaches history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and is a writer for the History News Service.