Monday, October 01, 2007

Why Not Have Veterinarians Give Lethal Injections?

Today's the first Monday in October, meaning the start of a new Supreme Court term, and much of the buzz concerns a recently granted Kentucky case presenting the question whether lethal injection is a "cruel and unusual" method of execution. My veterinarian (okay, my dog's veterinarian) said to me shortly after the case was granted that the issue arises because of the medical profession's decision to forbid physicians to participate in executions. He (my vet) said that he could execute prisoners in a humane way, although he wasn't exactly volunteering.

To be sure, the actual case presents the question whether the particular three-drug "cocktail" used in actual lethal injections poses too high a risk of severe pain for the expiring condemned criminal, even if administered properly. But part of that risk is surely due to the non-participation of doctors. So here's a tough question: Suppose that a method of execution is painless when carried out by one with skill in the procedure but that the people with the necessary training are forbidden by professional rules from participating in the procedure. Should the procedure be held facially invalid? Invalid as applied in all cases in which a physician does not participate, which is, in effect, almost all cases. "Almost all" rather than "all" because some physicians secretly participate (as discussed in a fascinating chapter in Atul Gawande's book Better.)

But now suppose that my veterinarian is right. Shouldn't the state either be able to find veterinarians willing to perform executions or to train people who are not MDs in the safe administration of lethal injection? If so, then it's hard to see what the big fuss about this case is. At most, a ruling invalidating lethal injections will delay some executions while the states figure out how to do it with less pain or move on to some other method. As I told Reuters (on the third page of the story that begins here): "Like the guillotine and the electric chair, lethal injection was heralded as a scientific advance, only to result in cruelty in practice," but that in turn suggests that the thirst for executions (or "justice," if you prefer) is great enough that some other method will be found.

13 comments:

No Exit said...

why not the guillotine?

GuilloTeam Solutions to 8th Amendment Problems

In today's increasingly anti-death-penalty environment, citizens take comfort in the steady leadership of the S.T.A.R. Chamber (Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Roberts), but like the unwanted guest who refuses to leave, Justice Kennedy persists in his stubborn refusal to retire and accept that elections have consequences.

The ability of States to impose capital puishment on the sorry wretches convicted of capital offenses is at risk. Left wing zealots, not satisfied with prohibitions on the execution of minors, retards and blacks, are threatening to shut down America's efficient prosecution of justice.

As you read this, left wing zealots are claiming that death by lethal injection is too uncertain, death by electrocution too painful and death by hanging too gruesome.

Where others see a problem in the long, lingering and, ultimately painful state of American executions, GuilloTeam Solutions sees opportunity.

GuilloTeam Solutions applies an old world solution to an age old problem; efficient executions. Yes, yes, some naysayers have argued that the very efficiency of the guillotine has led to the bizzare experience of the severed head continuing to register the living world. This is an opportunity.

If the purpose of the state is to render punishment, poetic justice rejoices at the prospect of the executed felon soaking in his death scene, confronted with his victims and, hopefully, not lamenting his innocence. Well and truly punished is the cornerstone of American Justice.

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Avoid the cruel and unsusual... Experience fast, efficient and presumptively painless executions today.

Carl said...

Too French. Call it the "Freedomtine" and you may be on to something, no exit.

Sobek said...

"...but that in turn suggests that the thirst for executions (or 'justice,' if you prefer) is great enough that some other method will be found."

Which is clear evidence that those who believe a "living, breathing" Constitution bars the death penalty based on evolved standards of what constitutes "cruelty." It is manifestly obvious that Americans do not view the death penalty as cruel per se.

As to whether a given method is cruel, what if prisoners were given a range of choices?

junk said...

I think this trend toward finding more and more methods of killing as cruel is leading to the inevitable: killing is cruel in and of itself, whether or not it also meets the standard of being unusual or unusually cruel. There is no "humane" way to kill someone, even though there might be times when killing is justified.

When I look at social issues, I like to look backward to draw analogies for how future generations will look at our society. For example, we think of the gladiator fights as barbaric. Similarly, we see the guillotine or putting someone's head on a pike as a warning to others as barbaric. (Ironically, we also argue that chopping a chicken's head off is humane - why humane for a chicken but not for a human?)

How will future generations look back on our "humane" lethal injections or any other creative method of killing? If we look at the overall social trend of culture around the world, we've become a softer, gentler species with each passing century. My guess is that in 200 or 500 or 1000 years, our future society will look back on any death penalty as cruel and unusual.

Sobek said...

Junk, that's in interesting argument. It appears to take the "living, breathing" argument to an extreme I've never seen before -- not that society has evolved to the point where the death penalty is now Constitutionally forbidden (obviously it has not), but that society might do so five hundred years from now.

Carl said...

"killing is cruel in and of itself"

I take it you're not a fan of euthanasia.

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