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.

  • Gum

    Why are Sister Helen Prejean’s views biased? She isn’t a murderer nor is she a relative of someone murdered. Rather she has dedicated her life to helping those about to face death (an unusual situation you must agree – whether for or against the death penalty it is unusual for anyone to know the time and means of their own death). So surely she is impartial?

    Bill Clinton’s involvement in the execution of Rector was shameful. He was an extremely retarded man and Clinton’s sheer opportunism, killing a man to earn a bump in the polls, still fills me with disgust.

  • Dec

    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.

    The issue would appear to be that participation would be a breach of the Hippocratic Oath.

    I too am struggling to discern would you consider Sister Helen Prejean’s views “self-evidently biased”.

  • Dec

    One problem is that significant medical training would be required to ensure that this process (lethal injection) was rapid and painless

    Medical training should well remove some of the blunders that continually dog executions by this method, but I’d be interested in seeing the research that claims it would ensure a rapid, painless death.

  • By definition execution is a cruel and unusual punishment- cruel because it puts the prisoner through undue stress prior to his/ her killing, alongside the simple fact that it ends in their expiry (is there anything more cruel?). It’s also unusual because the rest of the West has caught itself on, leaving the USA looking like an inhumane anachronism.

  • Turgon

    Gum and Dec,
    Fair criticism: I have amended post in accordance.

  • A slight cheer-ette for the Nebraska Supreme Court, which (last Friday) ruled that the electric chair was not an acceptable means of execution. This leaves Nebraska is the curious position where Courts may impose the death sentence, but (since electrocution was the only approved method) no way of carrying out the sentence.

    A somewhat louder note of approval for Senator Ernie Chambers, who is against capital punishment, and is pressing the State legislature to outlaw the practice. When this came up last year, the bill failed by a single vote.

    Seven States still allow condemned prisoners to opt for electrocution. Two others retain this method in case the Supreme Court rules against lethal injection.

    The three most reactionary members of the US Supreme Court, the rump of the legal murder cabal, are all perturbing psychological cases. None more morbidly so than Justice Antonin Scalia. I do hope that one of Slugger’s resident religiosi will defend Scalia’s rant at the University of Chicago at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in January 2002:

    Scalia cited the New Testament to claim that government “derives its moral authority from God … to execute wrath, including even wrath by the sword, which is unmistakably a reference to the death penalty.” He then made the following remarkable declaration:

    “Indeed, it seems to me that the more Christian a country is, the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral. Abolition has taken its firmest hold in post-Christian Europe and has least support in the church-going United States. I attribute that to the fact that for the believing Christian, death is no big deal.”

    Scalia went on to attribute any Christian opposition to the death penalty — including that of the Pope — to the “handiwork of Napoleon, Hegel and Freud.”

    “The post-Freudian secularist,” he remarked, “is most inclined to think that people are what their history and circumstances have made them, and there is little sense in assigning blame.” With these words the high court judge indicated his own view that crime is not to be explained as a phenomenon with social roots, but rather as the expression of the evil character of individuals.

    Scalia continued: “You want to have a fair death penalty? You kill; you die. That’s fair. You wouldn’t have any of these problems about, you know, you kill a white person, you kill a black person. You want to make it fair? You kill; you die.”

    “Does [the death penalty] constitute cruel and unusual punishment?” Scalia asked. “The answer is no. It does not, even if you don’t allow mitigating evidence in. I mean, my Court made up that requirement…. I don’t think my Court is authorized to say, oh, it would be a good idea to have every jury be able to consider mitigating evidence and grant mercy. And, oh, it would be a good idea not to have mandatory death penalties…”

    Scalia not only reiterated his support for the death penalty, but called on any judge who found the practice immoral to resign. “In my view,” he said, “the choice for the judge who believes the death penalty to be immoral is resignation rather than simply ignoring duly enacted constitutional laws and sabotaging the death penalty.”

    With characteristic cynicism, Scalia quipped, “I am happy to have reached that conclusion [that the death penalty is not immoral] because I like my job and would rather not resign.”

    In response to a question from the audience at the Chicago forum, Scalia espoused the following unconstitutional standpoint on the relationship of church and state: “You’re talking about whether the religious viewpoint should have a role in the legislative and political process,” he said. “Of course it should. It always has in this country.”

    He went on to claim, “I don’t think any of my religious views have anything to do with how I do my job as a judge.”

    Scalia then quickly proceeded to vote for educational vouchers for religious schools.

  • OK, to be serious:

    Hillary Clinton favours the retention of the death penalty.

    One summary of her position is:

    As First Lady, Clinton supported Bill Clinton’s reauthorization of the federal death penalty under Senator Biden’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994–the first federal bill of the modern era to authorize capital punishment for a nonviolent offense (drug trafficking). She also supported legislation that substantially limited death penalty appeals. To her credit, she supports mandatory DNA testing for all federal death row inmates, but she has given no indication that she believes that large-scale reform of our capital punishment system is needed.

    Barack Obama:

    wrote in his recent memoir that he thinks the death penalty “does little to deter crime.” But he supports capital punishment in cases “so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment.”

    John McCain seems to be (by my standards) at least as far out as Dagenham East (four stops beyond Barking, for those not knowledgeable about the District Line). He is on record as extending the death penalty for the terrorist murder of Americans abroad (some interesting subjective judgements there); would “broaden” the use of the death penalty; would limit appeals against the death sentence; and would sentence to death international drug pedlars

    The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (mentioned in my previous posting here) (has a one-page summary of the positions of all candidates (including those lost by the wayside) on capital punshment.

  • There’s an article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle about this issue: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/02/10/INU0UTBQK.DTL&type=politics

  • Damien Okado-Gough

    Malcolm,
    Thanks for the quote. Interesting views from Scalia regarding Europe’s current position on the death penalty.

    Here’s the view of the current Japanese Justice Minister, Kuniyo Hatoyama, a man well known for his idiocy.

    Indeed, recently, in defence of the new system here of fingerprinting and photographing all foreigners at ports of entry, he claimed that a friend of his has a friend who is in al-Qaida, who was able to travel in and out of Japan on false passports, hence the need for such a system. Mr Hatoyama went on to bolster his claim that he had recieved prior warning of the Bali bombings through his friend from this al-Qaida man. Of course, even the lecky press here had to ask why he didn’t pass this info to the police and all hell broke loose for Mr Hatoyama, but he didn’t have to resign. He’s still there.

    Anyway, on the subject at hand, here are Mr Hatoyama’s views on Europe’s position on the death penalty:

    “[i]As the Japanese place so much importance on the value of life, it is thought that one should pay with one’s own life for taking the life of another. You see, the Western nations are civilizations based on power and war. So, conversely, things are moving against the death penalty. This is an important point to understand. The so-called civilizations of power and war are the opposite of us. From incipient stages, [b]their conception of the value of life is weaker than the Japanese[/b]. Therefore, they are moving toward abolition of the death penalty.[/i]” My emphasis.

    Almost immediately after this interview he went off and signed documents which saw three men killed by hanging within a couple of days.

    Full interview here: http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20080127x3.html

  • Rory

    “You want to make it fair? You kill; you die.” argues Judge Scalia.

    If it is to be as simple as that would we then not be required to execute the executioner and then his executioner and so ad infinitum until the last man standing was obliged to take his own life?

    I suppose it would help with the problem of over-population.

  • eranu

    if someone didnt want to suffer the death penalty, id suggest they shouldnt have committed whatever brutal murder that caused it to be given in the first place.

  • Metacom

    Apart from any moral concerns (and I’d lean toward the anti camp on that one) its just not very practical. It takes too long and its too costly. To be worth anything it would need to be swift and certain and that just ain’t gonna happen. I’d be happy enough caging these predators for the rest of their lives. And I do mean cage. No gyms, cable TV, college courses etc etc. Just four bare walls and no distractions from contemplating why they’re there.

  • Greenflag

    Scalia’s simplicity sounds fine in theory.

    This true story from National Public Radio (USA) gives a personal perspective on some of the issues behind a lot of american homicides . The Irish Republic had approx 75 homicides last year -the USA about 40,000. Allowing for the population differential thats about 12 to 1 i.e your chances of being murdered in the USA are 12 times greater on average than in the Irish Republic and much greater still if you happen to live in or close to a poor neighbourhood in the USA.

    .

    ‘Patricia Ann Nuckles had come home, where her attacker was hiding in a closet, hoping to jump out the back window and escape. But she opened the closet door and fell backwards. The man tied her hands behind her back, Black (the girls father) says.

    Nuckles told the man that he needed to get help with his drug habit, her father says. Her captor gave her advice about how to prevent a burglary.

    “He asked her for sex and she said, ‘You’ll have to kill me first.’ And so he did,” Black says.

    “We were all just devastated. Nothing like this had ever happened. I mean, we’d known death, but not like this.

    “I’d never been in favor of the death penalty, but I wanted that man to hurt the way he had hurt her. I wanted him to hurt the way I was hurting.”

    Black says he wanted to know “what kind of a monster would do a thing like this.”

    He went on to learn that the man, Ivan Simpson, was born in a mental hospital.

    “When he was about 11 years old, his mother took him and his brother and sister to a swimming pool and said God was ordering her to destroy them,” Black says.

    The two boys escaped, but Ivan Simpson “watched while his mother drowned his little sister.”

    Black and his wife went to the district attorney’s office to ask that Simpson’s life be spared. “He was quite upset when we told him that we did not want this man killed,” Black says.

    Black read a statement in court saying, “I don’t hate you, Ivan Simpson, but I hate with all my soul what you did to my daughter.”

    Black looked into Simpson’s eyes. “The tears were streaming down his cheeks,” Black says. Before he was led away , Simpson apologized twice for “the pain that I’ve caused,” Black says.

    Black says he couldn’t sleep that night “because I really felt as though a tremendous weight had been lifted from me … and that I had forgiven him.”
    Simpson was executed.

    Now was that execution ‘justice’ ?

    If you were the father of the girl would you have asked for the death penalty to be lifted ?

    Speaking for myself – I just don’t know and don’t ever want to know !

  • Rory

    The example you give us, Greenflag of Ivan Simpson’s slaying of Patricia Ann Knuckles and your self-questioning, “What if it were my daughter?” quite starkly and truly illuminates the heart of this question.

    If it were one of my children (and I do have children) I believe that, if, in the immediate aftermath of the act, I was able, and had the means and strength to hand, I would kill him without hesitation and not anticipate remorse.

    But if he was apprehended by the authorities later, I would hope that I would then allow the man the right of a fair hearing, not necessarily for his sake, or because I am always supportive of law ‘n’ order (because I’m not), but for my own sake and to protect the children yet living and those yet not born from that which I am able to help protect them from – from the condemnation of an unjust society and murder by an unjust legal system.

    At least that would be my prayer for me.

    And I would hope that grief and rage and any resulting moral blindness that I might construct to assuage my own guilt at my failure to protect my child from one of those bereft of law of God or man would not allow me to abandon my support for a thoughtful moral form of justice in which it had been my hope that the dead child would inherit. For if I did abandon that support for that protection which was within my influence then I wrong the memory of the child and I would spit away the hope that living children might so inherit justice.

  • Greenflag @ 06:22 PM
    and
    Rory @ 07:13 PM

    The example you give us, Greenflag of Ivan Simpson’s slaying of Patricia Ann Knuckles and your self-questioning, “What if it were my daughter?” quite starkly and truly illuminates the heart of this question.

    No, it doesn’t. Whether one promotes or rejects capital punishment, it merely proves that last week the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing (TCASK) knew how to “sell” a story. It is the same question that was regularly and falsely presented to Conscientious Objectors in two World Wars: “What would you do if a German was raping your sister?”

    It also illustrates that those nearest to a traumatic event should have their immediate reactions regarded compassionately, but be excluded from being Judge or Jury.

    We either believe in justice and the rule-of-law, or we do not. The alternative is rule-by-mob, the right of the vigilante to exact “revenge” on whosoever is believed to have offended.

    After justice has had its say, there should remain, sine die a proper right of appeal, which is more than so many, wrongfully executed, can ever have.

  • joeCanuck

    The horrible possibility remains that an innocent person might be executed.
    There have been three high profile cases here in Canada in the past 15 years where men were found guilty, and spent many years in jail, only to be eventually found innocent through DNA evidence and the actual killers identified.
    If they had been found guilty 40 years ago, they’d be long gone, hanged by the neck.
    I would only execute people who had been found guilty twice, in completely separate cases.

  • joeCanuck

    presented to Conscientious Objectors in two World Wars: “What would you do if a German was raping your sister?”

    Lytton Strachey, member of the Bloomsbury Group, replied to this – “I would attempt to interpose my body between his member and her.”

  • Greenflag

    ‘“What if it were my daughter?” quite starkly and truly illuminates the heart of this question. ‘

    For the vast majority of people ‘justice’ is mostly an abstract concept until it directly affects themselves – their families or
    friends. When we find ourselves in that situation we want to see justice done .And if the ‘law’ is perceived as not implementing ‘justice’ then the law is brought into disrepute . This is also at the heart of the ‘capital punishment’ question . A majority of people in the UK probably favour the death penalty for at least the most ‘horrific’ of murders.

    ‘I might construct to assuage my own guilt at my failure to protect my child from one of those bereft of law of God or man would not allow me to abandon my support for a thoughtful moral form of justice in which it had been my hope that the dead child would inherit.’

    As you put it earlier ‘your response in the immediate aftermath’ would have been different . This is why some criminal justice systems allow/allowed for crimes committed while under emotional distress.

    There’s no perfect justice. It’s an eternal aspiration which is why people of faith may find solace despite the imperfect justice of this world whereas those of no faith have only the ‘law’ of man to have faith in .

  • Greenflag

    ‘No, it doesn’t. Whether one promotes or rejects capital punishment, it merely proves that last week the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing (TCASK) knew how to “sell” a story’

    Whether the TCASK are behind that ‘story’ or not I’m unaware nevertheless the whole issue of justice, the death penalty, and forgiveness are enmeshed and there are no easy answers just difficult choices.

    ‘It also illustrates that those nearest to a traumatic event should have their immediate reactions regarded compassionately, but be excluded from being Judge or Jury.’

    Can’t disagree .

    ‘We either believe in justice and the rule-of-law, or we do not.’

    When the ‘rule of law’ is perceived as being unjust/corrupt/biased then what ? The ‘law’ is sometimes perceived as a means by which those with ready access to it can use practiced solicitors to evade /avoid ‘justice’. Perhaps belief mixed with a healthy skepticism would be better .

    ‘The alternative is rule-by-mob, the right of the vigilante to exact “revenge” on whosoever is believed to have offended.’

    Okay there’s no going back to the blood feuds of the Balkans, the vendettas of the Messogiorno or Corsica or the hill billys of Appalachia or county Tyrone . We all know where that leads.

    ‘After justice has had its say, there should remain, sine die a proper right of appeal, which is more than so many, wrongfully executed, can ever have.’

    Fine . Just one point . How many have been wrongfully executed as compared to those who have been wrongfully murdered ?

    ‘The horrible possibility remains that an innocent person might be executed.’

    The horrible reality is that 40,000 people(approx) will die in homicides in the USA in 2008 and in Ireland probably 80 / The USA has the death penalty – Ireland does not . Will homicide numbers go down in the USA if the death penalty is abolished ? Would the number of murders increase in Ireland or the UK if the death penalty were restored ?

    If and I say if it’s perceived by the vast majority of the people that the ‘death penalty ‘ in some circumtances is ‘justice’ then should the slim possibility of an ‘innocent’ being executed by the State outweigh that consideration by the people ?

  • Greenflag

    ‘Lytton Strachey, member of the Bloomsbury Group, replied to this – “I would attempt to interpose my body between his member and her.” ‘

    Which would have prompted the hopeful reply by many outside the Bumsbury group that the German shoulder would at the requisite point substitute his bayonet for his member and do the world not to mention the fatherland a favour 🙂

    ‘I am for the restoration of order but , but not for the restoration of the old order’

    Mireabeau

  • Greenflag

    LOL 🙂

    In the above shoulder should of course have been soldier . .

  • joeCanuck

    I am surprised how casually (callously?) you dismiss the case of wrongfully executing someone, Greenflag.
    Just one of those things, eh?

  • Greenflag

    ‘I am surprised how casually (callously?) you dismiss the case of wrongfully executing someone,’

    I’m not dismissing casually or callously just pointing out that there is no perfect justice and postulating what would be the effect on the USA’s homicide rate if they do away with capital punishment and the reverse in Ireland or the UK.

    I suspect that in both cases the effect on the homocide rate in each country would be minimal would be minimal .

  • RepublicanStones

    if someone didnt want to suffer the death penalty, id suggest they shouldnt have committed whatever brutal murder that caused it to be given in the first place. – eranu

    yeah good one, after all we all know that the judicial system of every country is infallible.
    isn’t it???