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.

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