Killing me softly

At the start it is only fair to state that I am opposed to the death penalty. I respect those with a different opinion but I am clear that I do not support capital punishment. No one directly connected to me has ever been murdered so maybe I am naive and could change my mind but currently I think that would be unlikely.

The USA has had another problem with an execution. In this case an inmate in Oklahoma started fitting, the execution was abandoned and he died some 40 minutes after the execution began, it appears whilst prison staff attempted to save his life: a sequence of events which would be comical were it not serious.

The problem the Americans have had with capital punishment is in part from their constitution banning “cruel and unusual punishments.” When this was placed in the constitution it seems to have been to prevent bizarre tortures etc. Certainly for most of the existence of the USA it has not been seen as a bar to executions: initially by hanging then largely by electric chair. Unfortunately for the proponents of capital punishment this part of the constitution has been repeatedly used to try to suggest that execution is cruel and unusual. The solution proponents of the death penalty have used has been in part to devise more “humane” or at least more “seemly” methods of execution. It is worth pointing out ,I believe (but cannot find an online reference) Albert Pierrepoint apparently witnessed a lethal injection and regarded the process as barbaric. Pierrepoint felt that most of the distress was in the process of setting up an execution and he was extremely careful to minimise the time from the condemned person leaving their cell to them being dropped through the gallows trap door. This, he felt, minimised their suffering. If Pierrepoint’s view is to be accepted (and he did see a lot of executions) the process cannot be made non cruel the question is how much cruelty can be accepted. Robert G. Elliott an American executioner also tried to minimise the distress and pain of electrocution yet remained opposed to the death penalty.

The other reason for the USA’s move has been to make executions what one can only call more “seemly.” One suspects it is an attempt to make the process of killing someone more like a medical procedure: like going to sleep for an operation and simply not waking up.

There has been much concern mainly in the anti death penalty lobby (but also in those seeking “humane” executions) about which drugs are used and how they are obtained. The European drug companies which manufacture most of the drugs used have largely refused to allow their medications to be used for these purposes. This has led to local compounding pharmacies being used. When these pharmacies are used there has been concern that the drugs may not be adequately pure, of predictable potency etc. If they are not the condemned might not die but more likely if the anaesthetic is inadequate they could be paralysed and unable to breathe yet conscious. Additionally the potassium chloride causes a profound burning pain when injected in high concentrations (as is needed to stop the heart) and if the person is conscious this will cause pain.

There is an even more basic problem with lethal intravenous injection which is getting an intravenous cannula. This is a skill which doctors, nurses and other health care professionals are taught but requires training and practice which the execution technicians may not have. Additionally the patients executed may be overweight and IV drug abusers which makes finding a suitable vein even more difficult.

It appears that yesterday’s debacle was largely due to this: the intravenous cannula was either not in in the first place or else came out of the vein.

The fundamental problem is that anaesthetising a person is actually quite difficult – which is why specialist doctors have the job of doing it. It requires skill at placing the intravenous cannula and then often differing amounts of drug increased as needed to obtain effect. Doctors are forbidden from taking part in executions by the American medical authorities and as such execution technicians are used. These people cannot hope to have the level of skill which doctors with years of training and practising day and daily have.

There have been suggestions of using intramuscular injections (usually into the buttock) but that would take much longer to have an effect and would not be reliable in terms of a given amount of medication causing death.

There are other ways to kill people quickly but most (hanging, shooting in the head, decapitation etc.) are either not completely reliable, cannot be guaranteed not to cause suffering or else are gory and messy. Some years ago on a TV programme about the death penalty with Michael Portillo nitrogen gas was proposed. That sounds clean and effective but how would one know if the gas supply failed. Also hypoxia (which is what nitrogen would do) can cause fitting etc. which would be unseemly and might cuase distress to the victim prior to unconciousness.

Whatever method is used does not avoid the issues of the mental torment of awaiting execution and its preparation (see Pierrepoint above) and (from the link above) Clive Stafford-Smith, who has represented death row inmates, says the mental torture of being on death row is far more horrific than what awaits them at the end.

The bottom line is that there is no completely reliable mechanism to cause rapid and painless death certainly not one which does not sometimes require repeat interventions by an expert such as a trained anaesthetist. People are large animals and killing them instantly is difficult short of using massive force.

The question then of finding a humane method of execution or else abandoning execution is therefore not really a valid one. The question is does one believe in the death penalty? If so one must accept that it is not a medical procedure and that at times it will be slower, more gory and less seemly than some might like. If one still supports the death penalty after that then fair enough. Support for or opposition to the death penalty is not the sole arbiter of a decent person or society. If on the other hand one demands that execution always be clean, quick and painless then essentially I suggest one cannot support it. Personally I just cannot support capital punishment.

As a final though: seeing how difficult it is to perform capital punishment cleanly one might think that voluntary euthanasia might not be as easy and peaceful as its proponents at times suggest.

, , ,

  • HopefulPessimist

    Surely the difference with voluntary euthanasia is the presence of medically trained experts who can ensure the right dosage and application of the appropriate drugs. For clarity I should state that I support voluntary euthanasia for those with terminal illness, I feel the right to die with dignity should be available to those who want it.

  • Paulk

    I too am opposed to the death penalty. I’m not going to dispute that Lockett’s crimes were barbaric, but what is equally true is the manner of his execution was also barbaric. America as a society need to ask the question “Do we want to stoop to the level of the criminal in order to obtain some form of justice?” It is not about ensuring the human rights of the prisoner it is simply that are they as a “civilised” society (and so, supposedly better than them) content to effectively torture someone to death… also if after some time new evidence is produced which exonerates the excuted prisoner, which has happened in the past…. what then? They’ve tortured and killed an innocent man/woman. At least if they’re imprisoned it doesn’t have that finality about it they can at least be released with some compensation and try to get their life back. I too am fortunate that nobody in my family or friend circle have ever been killed so maybe this opinion doesn’t have that emotion to draw on but i’d like to think i’d be better than a killer when looking for justice.

  • Metacom

    There are plenty of reasons to oppose capital punishment and I find many of them compelling. But not wanting to “stoop to the level of the criminal” is not one of them. I find any argument for moral equivalence between a lawful execution and the heinous crime this man committed offensive. Might those high minded folks who campaigned to deny access to the drugs to conduct this execution humanely bear some responsibility for this debacle?

  • My main objection to the death penalty is the risk of executing an innocent person. But I would be content with a serial killer having been found guilty in separate trials being executed to prevent them killing again. It doesn’t seem possible for two or more miscarriages of justice to apply to one person.

  • Charles_Gould

    I am opposed to it because of the possibility of miscarriage of justice.

  • Turgon

    Interesting remark re the drugs. However, much maybe most of this problem seems to have been from the cannula failing. The reality is that compounding pharmacies are actually perfectly competent. I always felt that attempts at stopping lethal injection using the compounding pharmacies argument was a red herring.

    The doses used according to the protocols are many times greater than one would use in medical procedures. As such even if the drugs from the compounding pharmacies were not as potent or pure I am sure there is enough drug to put the people to sleep and then kill them.

    Rather the problem is that whatever drug is given, if it is meant to be given into a vein, but is not given into a vein it will not work properly.

    That brings us back to what appears to have been the problem in this case which is the cannula. As I noted above putting cannulas in is not easy without some medical training and practice and is likely to be especially difficult in overweight people or former drug abusers.

    I suspect the only way to make lethal injection reliable would be to employ skilled doctors to put in the cannulas and give appropriate doses of drug at the correct time which would vary (in both dose and time) on a case by case basis. That is the crux of the problem. If one makes execution a medical procedure you need to do it as a medical procedure with doctors etc.

    I suspect it is easier for the authorities to defend the compounding pharmacies quality control than the quality of the execution technicians skills. The skills or lack thereof of the execution technicians, especially if indeed this case was about a failed cannula, would also, I submit, be a more fruitful grounds for anti death penalty lawyers.

    This is back to what I said in the opening post. If one wants capital punishment one needs to accept that is will not always be clean, fast, humane and non gory. If after all that one accepts capital punishment fair enough: if one opposes capital punishment fair enough. The position I think is intellectually and morally flawed is to accept capital punishment but only if it always accords to what one wants in terms of clean, painless etc. That is not going to happen every time.

    Even if it were possible that still raises the issues described by the likes of Stafford Smith that the waiting on death row is actually worse than the execution itself.

  • Oscar Wilde said
    “The brutal punishment of a brutal crime brutalises society more than the original crime”

    This is one of the very few completely serious sayings of Wilde – it must have been important to him.

  • Barnshee

    It was- in my memory- agreed that the killing of people by the state via the “death penalty” was barbaric and should cease. A wholly supportable situation. How that reflects the views of the relations of the surviving relatives of victims I am not so sure. I suspect that a significant number of relatives would cheerfully “pull the switch” on the murderers of their loved ones

    The balance to the “deal” was that “life” for premeditated murder was life. And this is where the arse fell out of it. –I like the old USA system– 99 years or 300 years etc – with 50% remission etc.

  • Turgon

    Actually I have found an article which may well disprove my thought that the doses of drugs used are more than adequate. There is a suggestion that the only drug used in adequate dose and certainly the only one if the cannula fails is the one which causes paralysis. This could easily result in a conscious person being unable to breathe and dying of asphyxia. This is not, however, a flaw due to compounding pharmacies but rather a fundamental flaw and lack of scientific rigour in the protocols used.

  • Oscar Wilde may have been thinking of self-interest in that quote. Anyway I hardly think he is a bastion of morality that we want to base our lives on.

    Anyone who opposes capital punishment must logically be a pacifist as the two positions are ethically identical. Personally I am happy to follow the old fashioned biblical position that a deliberate act of taking the life of another requires the taking of the life of the murderer.

    I also find it ironic that the majority of those who oppose the death penalty in the West support the barbaric slaughter of cutting to pieces the unborn child in the womb. It is referred to as “termination” – even that sanitised expression infers a death of a person as you do not terminate a thing!

    So we allow to live the murderer and then murder the innocent child. As Chesterton said, “Civilisation is a good idea – we should try it sometime.”

  • I live in a state that has never had the death penalty, so as far as having to worry about sentencing someone to death I’m in the same position as the rest of you.

    I personally favor using the guillotine for executions: it is a cheap, cost effective and very reliable technology. Unfortunately, my fellow Americans like to use execution methods that seem to be both high tech and humane, but are quite faulty. The guillotine also has the unfortunate baggage of having been invented by a Frenchman and also having been used as a weapon of state terror during the French Revolution. The electric chair and the gas chamber are both quite unreliable and some of the individual examples are quite old. Lethal injection is better but not since the EU has screwed things up. So presumably a few prisoners will suffer until a reliable formula can be arrived at that the various states using this method can share.

    As far as all of you who oppose the death penalty on the grounds that the state might accidentally execute an innocent man–it has probably already happened several times before. But there have also been people imprisoned for long periods after having been legally convicted for crimes that they didn’t commit and that time can’t be given back to them. So logically all of you should only be in favor of fines for all crimes as the money can be refunded with interest in the event of a mistake. There is also the problem of those people killed by prisoners serving life sentences who escape. Serial killer Ted Bundy killed several people in Florida after escaping from prison. And there is the problem of figuring out if there will be a net gain by abolishing capital punishment and thus eliminating the threat of executing innocent prisoners but also eliminating the deterrent value of capital punishment on some offenders.

  • Serial killer Bundy would fall inside my criterion for execution.

  • Gingray

    An excellent article – I had often wondered how euthanasia differed from an execution and it looks like the US has an awful way of killing people that is rarely humane.

    For the record I am opposed to the death penalty for a variety of reasons, with a big part being my belief that the state should not have the authority to take a persons life as punishment for a crime, no matter how hateful that crime is.

    Truthfinder, you are wrong however if that means I must be a pacifist. I do think war for wars sake is wrong, but taking a life in self defence is a different matter. A cop patrolling an area, or a soldier on police keeping duties attacked by gunmen may have no other option to defend themselves – that is not the same as coldly planning and carrying out an execution.

    I also find it odd that some Christians are so pro death penalty because the bible says so, while ignoring the fact that Jesus was a victim of a miscarriage of justice and was executed for this. My understanding of the new testament was that Jesus felt God would judge us all in the end and it was not mans place to take a life, but hey I do realise the bible is full of contradictions so it is very possible it can be both pro or anti death penalty depending on your own personal views.

  • SDLP supporter

    Turgon, a good and thoughtful contribution, as are some of the responses. My rational self, infused with (not enough) Christianity tells me that capital punishment is wrong, though at times I see blood red and would want to get rid of some people, had I the chance. I don’t know how you can be pro-choice and anti-capital punishment and vice-versa.

  • Harry Flashman

    “I also find it ironic that the majority of those who oppose the death penalty in the West support the barbaric slaughter of cutting to pieces the unborn child in the womb.”

    Ah now there don’t be opening that 200-ton can of worms.

    I also have great difficulty comprehending the morality of people who will gather in tearful, candle-lit vigils for the execution of some vicious murderer but who then get into a spittle-flecked rage if anyone questions the morality of eviscerating an unborn human baby in its mother’s womb.

    There are two logical positions; you oppose execution and abortion on the grounds of the sanctity of life, the most obvious, then I dare say you can make a case for defending the sanctity of life of an innocent baby while still believing that a convicted murderer lawfully tried and found guilty of his crimes has forfeited his right to life, a bit trickier morally.

    But to get passionate about defending the right to life of a convicted murderer but being blasé about slicing and dicing an unborn baby. Now that takes morality in a direction that someone of my modest intellect can simply not conceive.

  • foyle observer

    Capital punishment is completely and utterly wrong simply because NO ONE has the right to take someone’s life.

    You cannot serve justice by ‘and eye for an eye’.

    How the hell can you say, ‘he / she murdered someone, so we’ll murder him / her’ and think that justice has been served?

    Discraceful, draconian, barbarbic.

  • zep

    An excellent thread which makes a nice change from the usual guff (I myself am fully complicit in said guff, I admit it).

  • My understanding of war is that it is the State taking life of another human being. Correct me if I am wrong on that. In the carpet bombing of strategic targets such as WW2 in Dresden innocent non-combatant lives are inevitably taken. Lets not even mention Hiroshima! Anyone opposing the State’s right to take the life of a murderer yet feels the State has the right to kill innocent people in a war under the guise of collateral damage is dancing on the head of a moral pin. That was my point. I cannot understand how a person can oppose capital punishment on moral grounds and reject pacifism.

    I do not believe the Bible (OT or NT) supports the abolition of the death penalty. God instituted the death penalty under State authority. The Apostles upheld that power. Capital Punishment does not undermine the sanctity of life. It does the very opposite by elevating the sanctity of life in demanding the death penalty for anyone who murders an innocent person.

  • zep

    “I do not believe the Bible (OT or NT) supports the abolition of the death penalty. God instituted the death penalty under State authority. The Apostles upheld that power. Capital Punishment does not undermine the sanctity of life. It does the very opposite by elevating the sanctity of life in demanding the death penalty for anyone who murders an innocent person” –

    Funny that, because the death penalty is used in Pakistan to punish certain ‘crimes’ against Islam – did god and the apostles have that in mind when he came up with the idea?

  • “I suspect the only way to make lethal injection reliable would be to employ skilled doctors to put in the cannulas and give appropriate doses of drug at the correct time which would vary (in both dose and time) on a case by case basis.”


    Actually I think there is a much better case for using skilled nurses, especially phlbotomists (?) than doctors as inserting IVs is typically a procedure handled more often by nurses than by doctors. At least in the U.S. (which is where these executions are taking place) doctors are more involved with diagnosis, treatment decisions, and surgery. Nurses carry out more routine procedures–which inserting IVs is.

    “How the hell can you say, ‘he / she murdered someone, so we’ll murder him / her’ and think that justice has been served?”

    @foyle observer,

    Since murder is defined as the unlawful and deliberate taking of human life, capital punishment does not qualify as revenge murder. This is just as imprisonment by the state is not considered to be kidnapping, where as when it is carried out by private individuals it is.

  • Tochais Síoraí

    Re capital punishment & abortion it is illogical to have a different position on these if you believe an embryo has the same rights has a fully formed human.

    If you don’t i.e you believe an embryo is not the same as a fully formed human being then it can be logical to oppose the death penalty and support abortion (although of course at what point that embryo is entitled to rights as a human being is a truly difficult one even for those who support a woman’s right to choose)