The Death Penalty

I am not an expert on the US election; and I have not yet heard any comment on the death penalty. However, the death penalty may be beginning to climb back up the political agenda in the USA. Currently the Supreme Court is considering the Baze vs. Rees case which will whether or not lethal injection is “Cruel and unusual punishment” and as such contrary to the Eighth Amendment.The current debate concerns whether or not lethal injection is cruel and inflicts unnecessary pain and suffering. One problem is that significant medical training would be required to ensure that this process was rapid and painless, yet doctors are unwilling to participate. It seems that State authorities have attempted to find doctors willing to participate but they have refused. There are also grave concerns that lethal injection could result in people suffering severe pain yet no one being able to establish this. As an interesting aside the last British hangman Albert Pierrepoint, having witnessed an early execution by lethal injection apparently regarded the process as sadistic.

A recent (and quite disturbing) BBC Horizon documentary in which Michael Portillo analysed methods of capital punishment seemed to come to the conclusion that none of the mechanisms of execution currently used are predictably humane. Portillo, however, seemed to be convinced that producing hypoxia with non-irritant gases such as nitrogen would be humane. However, leading anti death penalty campaigner Sister Helen Prejean has suggested that no matter how humane the method used the mental anguish a condemned person suffers constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” though self evidently her views whilst drawn from extensive close personal observation of the process are biased from one side of the argument.

In an election year it is relatively unlikely that any of the American presidential candidates will be willing to come out openly against the death penalty. Bill Clinton memorably left off campaigning to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector during the 1992 presidential election campaign. However it may be that the tide of public opinion is becoming less supportive of the death penalty in the USA and only 42 executions were performed in the USA last year. Whether the Supreme Court will stop lethal injections remains to be seen, as does whether or not capital punishment will continue or indeed whether public opinion in the USA will swing back more strongly in favour of it.