Diagnosis: State-Sanctioned Murder

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