Thursday, May 19, 2005

Killing them softly

The Supreme Court issued an opinion Wednesday that proffered a Lethal Injection Ruling on whether it might be cruel and unusual to kill someone via lethal injection.

Essentially, the Court decided on the argument that Lethal Injection might be constituted as cruel and unusual punishment because it "
can paralyze inmates before subjecting them to suffocation, a burning sensation and a heart attack," according to the article on

I don't know how much sense this makes; really. Short of carbon monoxide poisoning, which I understand makes you fall asleep, then suffocate, is there any way to die that isn't at least somewhat painful?

The decision was just a temporary stop, and the stay was lifted shortly thereafter; but I have problems with the decision. The person is being executed because (s)he has committed a crime sufficiently heinous that the citizens of the state, through an exhaustive appeals process felt that that person should pay with his or her life. If that is the case, and the people believe that you are deserving of capital punishment, does it really matter if you might feel some pain in the 3 minutes before you die? I doubt the 9 year old Vernon Brown strangled was free of any pain.
The Court made the right decision, in my opinion, to allow the execution, even if the guy might hurt a little. I understand that there might be other ways that are less painful, and if the citizens of the state want to research into that, they should be able to, but I don't think that an accepted method of capital punishment should be disallowed simply because someone might get hurt while he's dying.


Michelle said...

You could do what we do to toads here in the tropics. We catch em,bag em and put them in the freezer. The cold sensation sends them automatically to sleep, the organs shut down slowly whilst asleep.

particleman said...

we're dealing with lawyers here. lawyers are overanalytical. the idea is to end their life but not subject them to pain, because the pain is supposedly cruel and unusual. of course the emotional pain is irrelevant. "hi, today is your last day on the planet. sorry if your emotions are hurt. but fear not, you won't feel any physical pain."

English Professor said...

Sheesh. Didn't "cruel and unusual" used to refer to such punishments as being put in stocks or being tarred and feathered?

Steve said...

Freezing doesn't seem too bad, Michelle. It's an option, at any rate.

P-man, is it the lawyers, or is it the state? The defense attorneys are going to say anything they can to keep the guy alive, but the cruel and unusual idea, shouldn't that be (if it isn't) taken from the perspective of the citizens?

EP, I think you're right about what cruel and unusual used to be. It's like the old German punishments of wearing a giant wooden flute on your neck for playing music badly, or putting two women who argue in a double collar facing each other until they can work it out, or the old lie detector tests, where you'd put a hot poker on a person's tongue after they told their side of the story, and if it burned their tongue, they were declared liars...

Bruce said...

In my opinion, if you're going to kill someone, anything that works relatively quickly (say, five minutes or less) seems fine. Who really cares if they are in pain for five minutes? We've all had five minutes of pain before, and its not like they are going to complain about it afterward.

Cruel and unusual, in my opinion, almost has to be long-lasting - say, for example, poking someone's eyes out (surgically under anesthetic, of course), and then just let them go.

B said...

At the risk of being macabre, wouldn't the guillotine be about as pain free as you can get? Not that I'm advocating it...just thinking out loud.

Steve said...

I don't know Bruce, I think I understand what you're saying, but I think it's more fluid than that. I would think that there are less permanent, say having to wear a mask with a huge mouth for defamation punishment is rather unusual.

B, I might agree with you. The guillotine is rather painful for at least 30 seconds, but I would think that after that, there'd be little to hurt. That seems like it would work. I don't agree necessarily with the idea of giving a pain-free death to someone who the state has decided deserves capital punishment.

Bruce said...

Just to clarify my point - I'm not actually saying we should poke people's eyes out. I was trying, in a fairly outrageous and possibly too-oblique way, to say that when you kill someone, the significant fact (to that person and to society) is that they are dead. In comparison to that, the exact method or painfulness of the death really doesn't seem very significant. I don't understand why people make such a big deal out of it.

I'm much more interested in arguments for or against the death penalty, than I am in arguments about exactly how we should off the people on death row.

Steve said...

I wasn't trying to suggest that you advocated the poking out of one's eyes, Bruce. I was saying that the definition of cruel and unusual might be more abstract than that.

Although I am pro capital punishment; I figure there are some crimes that are just too heinous and with too little regard for the life of others to let one continue to live after committing them, I have a hunch that I personally would have a great deal of trouble actually prescribing the death penalty on someone. Much like I understand the necessity of war, but don't know that I could shoot someone in battle, or the importance of being able to eat a good steak, yet I don't think that I could kill the cow myself.

Bruce said...

You know, I'm not really sure what the 'cruel and unusual punishment' proscription is all about. Is it supposed to protect someone from being unnecessarily disabled, or embarrassed, or what? What liberty does the rule protect?

Steve said...

"I'm not really sure what the 'cruel and unusual punishment' proscription is all about."

One of the problems with a strict constructionalist approach to interpreting the Constitution is that you are stuck with what is written on the paper. There is no room for any interpretation. The idea is that if they wanted something in the Constitution, then they'd have put it in there in the first place. This poses a problem in that there are so many things in the Constitution that are too vague or ambiguous, or just don't make sense. For example, since Articles I and II are written in the masculine, a strict constructionist would have to say a Woman cannot hold public office. As far as cruel and unusual goes, a textualist/strict constructionist would say that if it's allowed, it's not cruel and unusual, or there'd be a restriction against it. Other approaches will allow such things as looking to what the mores of society want.

Strict constructionists also rely on voters to affect change by petitioning the government for redress of grievances. This is painfully slow. That's what people miss when they charge the judiciary with legislating from the bench. It's not that they are making the law; the judges are interpreting the law based on what society today wants. People nowadays might find it laughable to spend a week in stocks for lying, but that was normal during the drafting. Yet, there has been no constitutional amendment stating that stocks for lying is cruel or unusual.

I'm not quite sure what liberty the powers that be wanted to protect there, either. I wonder if it was a slippery slope protection? Keep people from getting lynched for walking out of a convenience store with a stick of candy they didn't pay for?

The Constitution was basically a compromise between the individual states who wanted no federal power, having just broken from a strong central government in England, and the Federalists, who wanted a stronger Federal Government. The 8th Amendment may have been one of those items included to assure the states that the Federal Government wouldn't have carte blanche over the citizens?

Bruce said...

The prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment makes more sense to me in the context of non-lethal punishments. Since killing someone seems like one of the cruelest things you can do to them, it seems kinda silly to worry about the exact nature of the death.

For non-lethal consequences, though, considerations of cruelty do make a lot of sense to me, because you've got to live with the consequences of the punishment.