Diagnosis: State-Sanctioned Murder

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The
latest in a long history of capital punishment: a California judge
recently sentenced convicted murderer Scott Peterson to die at the
hand of the state.

Peterson's
sentencing brings up a debate that has all but evaporated from public
discourse in the recent past. Is the death penalty a moral impropriety,
or is it justified for violent criminals?

There
are five methods of execution currently used in the United States:
hanging, firing squad, electrocution, gas chamber, and lethal injection.
Lethal injection is by far the most common; it is used in 37 of
the 38 states which administer the death penalty (Nebraska uses
electrocution as its sole method of execution). Most people also
consider lethal injection the most humane method of execution.

A
prisoner killed by lethal injection is strapped to a gurney by executioners
and fitted with two needles in usable veins (one of the needles
serves as a backup). The prisoner is also fitted with heart monitors
to allow doctors to assess his condition. However, since ethical
concerns prevent doctors from participating directly in the prisoner's
killing, other members of the execution team insert the needles.
A prisoner's history of intravenous drug use may also cause difficulty
in finding a usable vein. Failure to find usable veins can result
in delays while executioners try inserting the needles in different
locations. Sometimes, inexperienced members of an execution team
may position the needles in such a way that they become clogged
or empty into muscles, causing the prisoner pain.

The
needles connect to an intravenous drip behind a wall, from which
initially flows a benign saline solution. Eventually, the warden
signals a curtain to be raised, exposing the prisoner to witnesses
in a separate room. Then the inmate is anesthetized with sodium
thiopental to induce loss of consciousness. Shortly thereafter,
pancuronium bromide begins to drip and stops the prisoner's breathing
through muscle paralysis. To complete the execution, potassium chloride
is added to stop the prisoner's heart. A doctor must then pronounce
the prisoner dead.

In
an electrocution, executioners strap the prisoner into a chair and
fit him with a metal electrode across his head. The executioners
also blindfold the prisoner, and attach another electrode to a shaved
portion of his leg. On the warden's signal, one of the executioners
throws a switch to deliver an electric shock which can reach up
to 2000 volts and lasts approximately half a minute.

At
this point, witnesses may observe the prisoner experiencing violent
convulsions, which sometimes result in broken and dislocated limbs.
Smoke is emitted; witnesses may smell burnt flesh as the electrical
current brings the prisoner's skin and internal organs to high temperatures.
The prisoner may catch fire. Witnesses may also observe the prisoner
defecating, vomiting, drooling, and urinating during the shock.
In his dissenting opinion in the case of Glass vs. Louisiana (1985),
U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan observes
that during an execution, "the prisoner's eyeballs sometimes
pop out and rest on [his] cheeks… witnesses hear a loud and sustained
sound like bacon frying."

After
the initial electric shock, doctors must then wait for the body
to cool and determine if the prisoner's heart is still beating.
If they can detect a heartbeat, the execution team delivers additional
shocks until doctors can pronounce the prisoner dead.

Executions
by hanging,
firing
squad
, and gas
chamber
are now far less common, but still employed in some
states — as recently as 1996, a hanging took place in Delaware and
an execution by firing squad occurred in Utah. A German national
was executed by gas chamber in Arizona in 1999.

Some
anti-death penalty advocates complain that the US is the only country
in the developed world that employs capital punishment. Interestingly,
the attitude of many Americans toward the death penalty seems to
reflect a curious contradiction in terms.

Consider
the following hypothetical scenarios:

  1. Felix
    randomly, unremorsefully murders Joe's family, and there is
    ample, undeniable evidence to show that Felix did so. Joe murders
    Felix in revenge. Joe gets arrested, tried, convicted of murder,
    and sent to prison.
  2. Felix
    randomly, unremorsefully murders Joe's family, and there is
    ample, undeniable evidence to show that Felix did so. Joe takes
    no retaliatory action against Felix, except to alert the police
    to what has happened. Felix gets arrested, tried, and convicted
    of murder. A judge sentences Felix to death, and he is later
    executed.

In
both of these situations, Felix murders Joe's family. In the first
scenario, however, Joe retaliates against Felix by killing him.
Joe faces legal consequences. In the second situation, Joe does
not retaliate against Felix, and Felix dies at the hand of the State.
The State faces no consequences.

We
condemn murders committed by individuals, but when the State takes
a life, we view it as an appropriate vindication.

Can
we absolve ourselves of the moral responsibility for annihilating
another human life by transferring that responsibility onto the
hands of an entity or an institution? Perhaps some may argue that
the act of execution is mollified by virtue of the fact that it
is carried out by the State and not by an individual.

Still,
somebody must do the killing. Concrete actions must be carried out
by individuals. The State, while it may sometimes seem omnipotent,
cannot physically undertake the action of ending a life. That action
requires an agent, or several agents, in order to be performed.

A
prosecutor argues that a criminal defendant has committed a horrible
crime. A jury convicts the defendant. A judge applies the death
sentence. Police take the convicted person to a facility where he
awaits death. Finally, an execution team ends the prisoner's life.
All of these people are the agents of killing — enabled and encouraged
by the State.

Most
specifically, executioners physically carry out the act of slaying
the prisoner. The other agents implicated in the process of State
execution can begin the process, but the execution team fills an
essential role. Execution cannot take place unless someone physically
carries it out. This leads us to ask: what kind of person seeks
employment as an executioner? Is it appropriate for the State to
endow these people — or to endow any person — with the power to
kill?

Some
liken the death penalty to killing in self-defense, since, they
argue, violent criminals have both the capacity to repeat their
crimes and the potential to escape from or be released from prison.
Therefore, they pose a threat to society, and must be eliminated.
It may be morally legitimate for Bob to kill Ed in the event that
Ed directly and immediately threatens Bob's life. However, violent
criminals who are executed are not directly threatening anyone when
they are put to death. Execution and self-defense are different
situations. Moreover, the very fact that the execution is carried
out on behalf of the State makes it illegitimate — because the State
is not a person, no one can threaten its life, and therefore it
does not have a reason to kill in self-defense.

Many
states which employ the death penalty also have laws which prohibit
physician-assisted suicide. The morality of suicide, physician assisted
or self-inflicted, raises an entirely new debate. Regardless, the
existence of these contradictory laws essentially declares it permissible
for the State to slay an individual while maintaining that an individual
may not choose to end his own life. This transfers an individual's
very life into the State's exclusive jurisdiction, eroding self-ownership
and free will.

The
death penalty deifies the State. Many religions explicitly denounce
killing as one of the worst possible human behaviors, a pronouncement
which is said to originate directly from God. However, the State
may engage in murder without consequence; furthermore, many people
tolerate State sanctioned killing as moral, necessary, and even
humane — thus, the State is implicated as the supreme moral authority
and power. Killing a criminal implies that his life has less value
than the lives of non-criminals, or of criminals who are "not
as bad." But many religions also place an equal value on every
human life, and caution that the only true judge is God.

Death
penalty proponents cite several benefits of capital punishment.
They argue that it acts
as a deterrent
to violent criminals. They consider it the only
just punishment
for murderers; they also maintain that it delivers
retribution and closure to the families of victims. They deny that
sentencing is discriminatory
or that the execution
may be painful
to offenders.

While
they may concede that innocents have received death sentences in
the past, death penalty proponents increasingly cite DNA
evidence
as an absolute method of linking violent criminals
with their crimes — ensuring that innocent people no longer receive
death sentences. Many believe that violent criminals cannot be rehabilitated,
and that they have a chance to escape and hurt others as long as
they are left alive. Some death penalty proponents also argue that
the high monetary cost of the long appeals process necessary before
a prisoner can be executed is well justified because of this potential
for criminals to escape and cause harm.

Opponents
counter that the death penalty doesn't
really deter
violent criminals. Furthermore, one cannot assume
that every family of a violent crime victim would feel closure or
relief if a perpetrator were executed. Some consider the death penalty
unacceptable retribution. For instance, Coretta Scott King said
in a 1981 address to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death
Penalty, “An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation.
Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality
is never upheld by a legalized murder.” Some families of victims
may even wish to forgive criminals as part of the healing process.

It
is a matter of debate
whether violent criminals can ever be rehabilitated or reintegrated
with society. The argument about the potential for criminals to
escape, however, only addresses prisons' degree of success at keeping
criminals under lockdown. It contributes little to a moral justification
for State endorsed killing.

Additionally,
death penalty opponents say that the possibility of sentencing innocent
people to death precludes it from ever being morally acceptable.
Unfortunately, the application of the death penalty is irreversible
and cannot be rectified if applied in error. Additionally, opponents
make the egalitarian argument
that certain groups of people — especially those with inferior (i.e.,
state-assigned) legal council — disproportionately receive death
sentences.

None
of these arguments, however, truly address the contradiction which
lies at the heart of capital punishment: why do we consider it unacceptable
for an individual to kill, while simultaneously viewing State killing
as both appropriate and necessary?

Central
to the issue of State-sanctioned killing is power and autonomy.
Granting the State a literal license to kill places every individual's
life within the grip of the State executioner's icy hand. Though
it may be improbable, it is certainly possible for anyone who lives
in a place which practices capital punishment to be wrongly accused,
sentenced to death, and executed. That possibility grants the State
enormous power — the power to end any individual's life, potentially
including innocents. When one stops to consider it fully, this is
an egregious concept.

The
term "death penalty" is simply a euphemism for the act
of State sanctioned murder, ironically carried out under the pretense
of justice.

This
is not to imply that violent criminals should go unpunished;
however, their punishment need not involve the cession of a very
dangerous power — the power to inconsequentially end a human life
— to the bungling, bloodthirsty, Leviathan State.

March
21, 2005

Stephanie
R. Murphy [send her
mail
] studies Biochemistry at the University of Massachusetts
at Amherst. She is a member of LifeSharers
Organ Donation Network
.

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