The Search for Kinder, Gentler Executions


The bizarre debate about whether lethal injection is a sufficiently "humane" method of execution–a kind and gentle enough way to kill someone–adds to my growing doubts about the death penalty. I used to be confident enough in supporting capital punishment to defend it in print, but over the years I've been increasingly troubled by the slowness of its application and the possibility of executing an innocent man, which is the sort of mistake you can't correct. These two concerns, of course, are at odds with each other, because the more careful you are to avoid executing the wrong guy, the longer the process takes. Meanwhile, making a condemned man sit on death row for years is a kind of torture, which the criminal justice system is not supposed to inflict.

Or is it? Referring to rapist-murderer Michael Morales, whose California execution has been delayed while a federal judge decides whether the state is killing people as painlessly as possible, New York Law School professor Robert Blecker tells The New York Times: "There are some people who deserve a quick but painful death. Not everyone who deserves to die deserves to die painfully. But if you are a sadist who rapes, consciously inflicts pain, and takes pleasure in it as you torture your helpless innocent victim to death, then you deserve to die quickly but painfully."

Presumably, some crimes are so heinous that their perpetrators deserve to die slow and painful deaths. If so, should the government deliberately torture them? That seems to be the logic of retribution, the gussied-up version of revenge that is one of the criminal justice system's main goals. Maybe we're moving in the wrong direction, seeking increasingly sanitized, mechanized, and hidden methods of execution when we should be moving toward more brutal, hands-on, and visible methods, such as public hangings or communal stoning. Those would not only have more of an eye-for-an-eye feel; they probably also would be more effective at deterrence.

Plus they would pose the moral question more starkly: Granted that some people deserve to die, should the government be in the business of killing them in cold blood? You can argue that in a state of nature a murder victim's relatives have a right to deadly retribution, a right exercised on their behalf by the state once a government is established. There is an undeniable intuitive appeal to the biblical injunction, "Whosoever sheds man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed." At a time when there were no prisons to incapacitate murderers, this approach was certainly better than the alternative. But now that murderers can be locked away for life, I'm not sure it is anymore, especially when the choices that courts make between these two options seem, taken as a whole, utterly arbitrary.

If I were a committed opponent of the death penalty (I'm not quite there yet), I would not be complaining about the cruelty of lethal injection. I'd be pushing for crueler and more conspicuous forms of execution, a campaign supporters of the death penalty also should be able to get behind. If they're right, execution should not be done behind closed doors by medical technicians and machinery. It should be done in broad daylight, preferably with blood and pain.