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Editorial: Execution is inhumane, no matter what method states use

The gurney in the the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla. on Oct. 9, 2014.
(Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

In the fall of 1607, a blacksmith named James Read was sentenced to hang for striking a representative of King James I in the Jamestown colony in Virginia. But at the top of the ladder that led to the gallows, he offered up details about a supposed mutiny in the making. Shortly thereafter, he was back at work and George Kendall, the putative leader of the plot, was tried, convicted, placed before a firing squad and shot. He was shot rather than hanged because of his higher social standing.

With that, Kendall became the first person executed after a legal proceeding in what would become the United States of America, and we’ve been wrestling with the practice ever since — including the fundamental questions of whether there is ever any justification for taking another life, and if so, how to do the deed.

There remains an unacceptably high risk that the condemned person might not be guilty.

Oklahoma took the latest stand in the absurd, never-ending debate over the latter question when it announced that, three years after the idea was approved by the state Legislature, it would create a protocol for a new execution method that it could use if it became impossible to procure the necessary drugs for its preferred lethal injection regimen. (Procuring such drugs has become increasingly difficult; some manufacturers have refused to do business with states.) The fallback: “nitrogen hypoxia,” in which the condemned would be locked in a sealed chamber and the air would be replaced with nitrogen, sending the person to sleep and then death. At least that’s the theory. No one has ever used the method, and there is no ethical way of studying whether it would work or not. In short, Oklahoma will be conducting human death experiments.

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This is the level of madness the nation has reached in its efforts to kill people. The Supreme Court has injudiciously determined, for now, that capital punishment does not violate the Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” It also has said that “because some risk of pain is inherent in any method of execution, we have held that the Constitution does not require the avoidance of all risk of pain.” What is the threshold for too much pain? A pin prick? Repeated jabs into a man’s legs and groin in a vain and bloody effort to place a catheter to carry the killing drugs, as occurred earlier this month in Alabama?

The history of executions is gruesome. The electric chair had a nasty tendency of setting people on fire, so that was abandoned. The sight of a body swinging at the end of a rope made hanging distasteful, though three states still technically allow it. Cyanide gas, the favored method in California for decades, caused intense pain as prisoners struggled for breath and seemed to suffer heart attacks; it was finally dismissed by a federal judge as having “no place in civil society.” Firing squads, while efficient, also fell out of favor primarily because of the vulgar spectacle, though some states have recently added them to the list of alternatives should lethal injections become impossible.

Yet isn’t there something ludicrous (and macabre) about trying to dress death up so prettily? Even if we could find a way to execute people with a minimum of mess and spectacle and coughing and groaning, it wouldn’t make the process civilized or humane or, for that matter, fair.

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There remains an unacceptably high risk that the condemned person might not be guilty. There remain the reams of studies that make it clear that the death penalty falls disproportionately on people of color and the poor. There remains the fact that capital punishment is meted out arbitrarily, depending more on the county in which the crime occurred than on the severity of the crime itself.

There are no persuasive arguments in favor of the death penalty, and a menu of solid arguments against it. But it is debates such as this — how best to kill someone — that point up the inherent absurdity and inhumanity of an act that, if committed by any of us individually, would be a crime. No government should have that power of life and death over its citizens.

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