There is a lot in the media lately about the death sentence in the United States. Most people don’t realize that the death penalty is permitted in the United States on a state-by state basis. Many states have decided that the punishment is inappropriate. Others have decided that for the most heinous offenses it is appropriate to take the life of the offender. What most people don’t realize is that although a state can agree to take a life, the punishment cannot be cruel and unusual. Our constitution protects us among other things from cruel and unusual punishment. This doesn’t only apply to the death penalty. It can apply to the concept of flogging or some particularly individualized punishments that creative judges have thought up over the years.
Defining Cruel and Unusual Punishment
As it relates to the death penalty though, several examples recently have raised the debate again over what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. First, a bit of history. In the United States, persons were executed originally by hanging. Later, the practice of firing squad was used as well. Once electricity was invented, folks figured out how to run a current through the human body in a controlled fashion so that it would stop the heart. At one point or another, all of these were debated and judged not to be cruel or unusual forms of punishment and as such, lasted for years. Most recently, dating back only decades, the practice of lethal injection has become prevalent, and in fact for decades executions through this method have been routine and uneventful. Because, however, the worldwide trend is leaning away from execution, European companies that provide the United States with the pharmaceutical drug cocktail which has been used for execution have decided across the board to no longer supply their drugs to the United States because they realize those drugs will be used to end a life. As the result, states that practice lethal injection have been using private doctors, who against their Hippocratic Oath, are recommending different drug cocktails to accomplish the same result as the previous drugs. The result has been atrocious. Most recently, a man was given a lethal injection and took over two and one-half hours before being declared dead. Last month, a man was executed using a different cocktail and also took over an hour to die. Eyewitnesses to the executions describe convulsions, gasping and guttural noises coming from the offender for the duration of the chemical process. A recent exposé even revealed that a warden of one prison sent an email to another warden offering football tickets to his state’s college team if the latter would send him his recipe for the execution cocktail.
Ingredients for Execution Cocktail
Every person is free to decide for himself whether it is civilized for a society to engage in execution. What is not up for debate is whether a state can take the life of a citizen without first disclosing the chemicals they propose to use, second, allowing the scientific community to analyze those chemicals and give recommendations on their efficacy, and third, work hard to prevent such spectacles as occurred in these most recent executions.
Other Methods of Execution
We as a country are better than this. There is now some discussion about imposing a moratorium on executions until the issue can be sorted out. The more aggressive states are considering simply reinstituting the firing squad and hanging as less controversial methods of execution. Regardless of what these states choose to do, I hope we can all agree that the way we treat our convicted criminals is a direct reflection on us as a society, and as such, we should endeavor never to be cruel.