Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Penalty Of Death

Let's get one thing out of the way right up front: Capital punishment itself is clearly Constitutional:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger...

That's the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, just in case you haven't seen its text lately. (Yes, I added the emphasis; the Founders were terrible at HTML.) So the Supreme Law notes and tacitly permits execution, though the Eighth Amendment, which forbids "cruel and unusual punishments," would seem to qualify its application.

This, you may be assured, is highly vexing to the Left. Liberals' campaign against the death penalty has a long lineage, and despite never having acquired majority backing has succeeded in reducing the use of execution in several ingenious ways.

The most successful attacks on the death penalty have been through Eighth Amendment arguments against execution's "cruelty." If we must take a man's life, the argument runs, at least we can do so without making him suffer. This line of attack has been used to invalidate every method of execution ever employed in the United States:

  • Hanging;
  • Firing squad;
  • The electric chair;
  • The gas chamber;
  • Lethal injection, by certain drugs.

...and has succeeded in preventing states that still employ the death penalty from using them, on the representation that they're unnecessarily painful, and therefore unConstitutionally cruel. In the case of lethal injection, which is still employed in some states, the assault has focused on the particular drugs used to terminate the condemned man's life. As effective drugs have been eliminated from the execution pharmacopeia, less effective ones have come into use, with the paradoxical effect of increasing the visible suffering of the condemned, thus strengthening the argument against capital punishment per se.

Wesley Pruden of the Washington Times presents us with some recent horror stories:

The executioners of Joseph Rudolph Wood, 55, were so long about it earlier this month — nearly two hours — that his lawyers had time to file an unusual emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in mid-execution for relief on humanitarian grounds. “He has been gasping and snorting for more than an hour,” his lawyers told the justices. “He is still alive.” The justices, perhaps eager to finally get away for their summer holiday, declined to stop it.

Wood began gasping shortly after the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone were administered. Witnesses said Wood’s mouth dropped open, his chest expanded dramatically and then contracted, and they counted 600 violent gasps over the next 90 minutes. The director of the state Department of Corrections said he “conferred and collaborated with our IV team members and was assured that the inmate was comatose and never in pain or distress.”...

Ohio put Dennis McGuire to death in January with a cocktail of new and untested drugs that, if not mixed properly, cause unimaginable pain. McGuire screamed that he felt as if his body was on fire, and death did not follow his gasping and writhing on a gurney for 25 minutes. The Ohio attorney general had argued earlier, when his lawyer tried to block the execution with the untested drugs, that the U.S. Constitution bars cruel and unusual punishment but “you’re not entitled to a pain-free execution.”

In April, Oklahoma tried for an hour to execute Clayton Lockett, a murderer and a rapist, while he lay convulsing and writhing on a gurney, and never succeeded. He died of a heart attack while waiting for the state to get on with it.

Pruden notes that such events have resulted in a significant conservative reaction against capital punishment:

Polls show that 80 percent of Republicans favor the death penalty, but a small but expanding group of conservatives argue that fealty to authentic conservatism leads away from capital punishment. Some of the names, ranging from Jeb Bush to Newt Gingrich to Rick Perry, are surprising. The death penalty is as popular as ever with many conservatives, but methods of dealing death are not. Inefficiency inevitably costs money, and wasteful government inefficiency, after all, is not a conservative virtue.

The reasoning will strike many persons as cruel in and of itself. Abolish the death penalty because it's inefficient? But keeping a condemned man around to the end of his natural life is pretty inefficient too! Add to that the extreme mental cruelty of imposing lifetime confinement without hope upon him, and the shadow of the Eighth Amendment begins to creep across the doorsill once more.

Constitutional or not, the Left's attack upon methods of execution has made deep inroads into Americans' willingness to have even the most vicious murderers put to death.


Is capital punishment something we ought to allow, Constitutional or not? Have two somewhat contrasting views on the subject. First, the argument against it:

"Deserves death? I dare say he does. Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the very wise cannot see all ends." [From The Fellowship Of the Ring]

And for the contrary view:

"Once you know a man deserves to die, you have to kill him. If you don't, you're committing a crime against everyone who doesn't deserve to die. If you get him down but can't bring yourself to do it, and he gets up off the mat and kills you instead, you're only getting what you deserve yourself." [From On Broken Wings]

No, "be not too eager to deal out death." It's very good counsel. But we know that there are times when self-defense, or the defense of innocent others, requires the taking of a life. If it's licit at such times, why wouldn't it be permissible as a matter of dispassionate justice? Surely execution -- as a method of retribution for murder, at least -- is proportionate and confers protection upon anyone else the condemned might have menaced were he allowed to live.

The joker in the deck is, of course, that there's no way to reanimate a wrongly executed man. Any other form of punishment can be compensated for to some extent, should it be discovered that it landed upon an innocent party. But a dead man is beyond all such things.

The imperatives of justice, the needs of the bereaved for catharsis, and the putative security of other innocents must be balanced against two countervailing theses: cruelty, and the possibility of a mistaken execution. And though for many centuries the scale has tipped toward execution for the most heinous crimes, it begins to seem likely that sometime in the foreseeable future it will swing in the other direction. Whether we'll come to regret that, only time will tell.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

The problem with the death penalty is most Americans do not see evil. Very few Americans are exposed to it and this clouds their view more than anything. For those of us that have seen evil we know that some folks need to be taken out of the gene pool.

As far as the method of death, I do not think the murderer cares of the suffering of his victim. Why should we care about his. I am one who thinks murderers should be executed in the manner they killed. Now that would be justice.

Adrienne said...

I have mixed feelings about the death penalty. For one thing, it costs more to put someone to death than it does to house and care for them for life.

The other concern is since the advent of DNA so many incarcerated individuals have been proven to be innocent.

I understand what anonymous is saying about the perpetrator of a crime doesn't care how much the victim suffered so why should we care about their suffering.

But isn't that what separates us from the criminal?

I remember not to long ago some really vile person dying and Michelle Malkin titled an article rejoicing in the persons death and hoping for their eternal damnation. Details escape me. I was shocked that a Catholic would spew such venom about the death of someone - in particular, an unrepentant person.

Such a misuse of the virtue of Hope. Shouldn't we be hoping and praying for repentance and conversion for all people?

Of course, this doesn't apply to people who misuse the word "literally." ;-)

Dystopic said...

Anonymous has the right of the thing. Most Americans do not see naked evil. Intellectually, they understand there are traitors, murderers, rapists and the like but they do not have a sense of the scale of evil. You can see this in the attempts to explain away a criminal's past. He came from a bad family, they might say, or he suffered poverty.

Adrienne, however, I must disagree with on the first point. Perhaps it does cost more to put a criminal to death, but this is only because the pharmaceutical cocktails are too expensive and prisoners await execution for decades, sometimes. A more speedy execution with a firing squad would be far less expensive (a few hours of time for the firing squad members, and some inexpensive ammunition). There would be some pain, of course, but that seems to be unavoidable. It seems to me that cruel and unusual punishment does not mean an execution must be painless. Rather, it would imply that the we do not unnecessarily prolong agony intentionally and through cruel malice (like, say, torture).

While we pray that the criminal learns and repents of evil, I wouldn't hold my breath for most of them. They did not get where they are in life by listening to God. We may wish repentance and God's grace upon even the most vile and cruel individuals, but that does not mean we suffer them to live. Some will fake repentance. Others may be genuine. God will know the difference where we do not.

Malcolm Hays said...

In recent weeks, it seems to have been demonstrated that the lethal injection method is somewhat unreliable and could certainly fall under the umbrella of "cruel and unusual punishment".

Personally, I think I would favor a much quicker and more certain method. For example, the bolt gun used to slaughter cattle. It's quick and while probably painful, you would not feel it for long. And it would be easy enough to strap a human into position so that the bolt would strike the exact part of the brain so as to cause near instant death.

The sad truth is that some folk commit crimes so vile that they are beyond repentance/redemption and just need to be removed from the rest of humanity for the good of humanity.

Adrienne said...

Dystopic - I agree with you on how long it takes to actually carry out the sentence of death.

The reason the drugs are so expensive is because pharma doesn't want to sell their drugs if they're going to used for the death sentence.

Maybe we could send them to the local veterinarian for dispatch.

My point about Malkin was her "hoping" the person was in hell. I think that's a perversion of the virtue of Hope.

I like what my pastor says about such things: Pray and hope that God's will be done.

Francis W. Porretto said...

I'm a qualified supporter of the death penalty..."qualified," because I want to be as certain as human fallibility will allow that the condemned is really guilty as charged. But don't mistake me:

"Once you know a man deserves to die, you have to kill him. If you don't, you're committing a crime against everyone who doesn't deserve to die. If you get him down but can't bring yourself to do it, and he gets up off the mat and kills you instead, you're only getting what you deserve yourself."

[From On Broken Wings]

And I don't see that someone who deserves to die has any claim on our mercy.

Adrienne said...

Francis - I am also a "qualified supporter." Some cases are just so clear that to do otherwise would be wrong.

Differ said...

Hypoxia is painless and fairly quick.

LindaF said...

I guess I just don't understand why we can't use narcotics - it would be a relatively quiet death.

Anonymous said...

I am unabashedly pro-life. So I believe that the death penalty is as much a murder as an abortion. I for one do not want the stain of a prisoner's murder upon my soul even if it is shared by the rest of the nation's citizens.

Steve S

SewerDweller said...

I am against the death penalty. Not because I do not believe that the death penalty is morally wrong.

But because I believe the Government is incapable of administering said death penalty with any accuracy.

In short, I don't trust them not to screw it up.

We're discovering over time, with programs like the innocence project, that we're executing the wrong humans on a regular basis. This is unacceptable.

Anonymous said...

Cruel Unusual and long-delayed is how we might describe the kind of justice that families of victims receive from our States an Federal systems.

Private justice will probably err more often, but be more satisfying. Effective, reasonably-swift, Rule of Law by an elected legitimate government can stop this (mostly).