20 December 2006

Don't Fear The Reaper

Florida Governor Jeb Bush has suspended executions in his state following the botched job done on convicted killer Angel Nieves Diaz. According to medical examiner Dr. William Hamilton, officials inserted the needles that deliver the caustic brew through the veins and into the surrounding tissue. The execution took 34 minutes.

Doctor Hamilton refused to speculate if the execution was painful. David Elliot, spokesman for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said "We just think the Florida death penalty system is broken from start to finish." The relatives of Mr. Diaz are expected to file suit.

This is only the latest in a series of challenges of death penalty opponents to the death penalty on Eighth Amendment grounds. Maryland inmate Vernon Evans Jr. is challenging his death sentence on the grounds that it violates Constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment, saying that he faces particular risk of excruciating pain because his veins have been ravaged by decades of heroin abuse. A witness to the execution of Ohio inmate Joseph Lewis Clark has testified at his trial, saying that she heard "loud, intense, guttural moans and groans, like someone was in agony" during Clark's execution. Federal judges in Missouri, North Carolina and California have ordered changes to those states' procedures, and judges in Ohio and Arkansas have issued stays of execution until similar lawsuits could be heard in their states.

My initial reaction, as well as the reactions of many commenters to the stories, is one of indifference at best. After all, the victims of these men died under much more painful situations, so why should we care that their final moments are less than completely comfortable? In fact, many of the techniques suggested by the commenters are far worse than a trip of chemical bliss across the great divide.

However, I find myself in the role of devil's advocate, simply because we are supposed to be the good guys. It's all about that "moral high ground" you see. Executions are not supposed to be simply about punishment and deterrence, they serve to remove from society those individuals who have proven, through their actions, that they do not deserve societies' protection. Society should be benevolent in it's purpose, removing these individuals not out of malice but out of a sense of duty to the greater good.

There are some who adamantly oppose the death penalty in any form, calling it state sponsored murder. There are some that take the exact opposite stance, saying the punishment should fit the crime and that the killers should face the same method of execution as their victims did. Those who oppose the death penalty doubt the effectiveness, either as a deterrent or as a valid punishment. Those who approve of the death penalty point out, quite correctly, that an executed killer is very unlikely to kill anyone else.

My take on the death penalty is this, that which serves to further the cause of survival of the human race is right and proper, and that which does not serve that purpose is wrong. Murder is wrong because it does not further the cause of human survival as a species, therefore murderers should be removed at the earliest opportunity to prevent further harm. This means that duly convicted murderers should face the death penalty.

The eighth amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." The basis of the amendment comes from the desire of the Congress to prevent the same kinds of abuses of power of English officials that historically set bail and methods of execution. Various courts have ruled on the Eighth, and some methods of punishment are forbidden completely, such as drawing and quartering, burning alive and disembowelment. Certain other punishments have also been outlawed by American courts, such as the revoking of citizenship of natural born citizens and punishment of individuals based on disease or illness rather than specific acts.

Robert Heinlein, in the book Starship Troopers, postulated that all punishment by it's very nature is cruel and unusual, since it is not a normal state of being to be punished and any punishment is by varying degrees cruel since it is a denial of various rights. He writes that the statute should be against excessively cruel or unusual punishments. Courts seem to agree, since they rule against punishments only when they are deemed excessive. Also, since the statute is against cruel AND unusual punishments, cruel punishments are allowed if they are not unusual and unusual punishments are allowed as long as they are not cruel. The Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty is constitutional except in cases of minors or mental incompetents.

Taking all of this into consideration, it would seem that death by lethal injection is indeed Constitutional since more that one state uses it (so it's not unusual). When done right it is not excessively painful either, so it doesn't meet the definition of torture or cruelty. If the execution of Angel Diaz was botched by the executioners it doesn't negate the Constitutionality of the execution method. Certainly an investigation should take place and training should be held to educate the executioners so that further incidents are prevented, but this method of execution, and execution itself, does not seem to violate the Constitutional ban.

Time to pay the piper.

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