Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Supreme Measure

Last week, the State of Oklahoma horribly botched an execution leaving a condemned man to die of a heart attack.  A convicted murderer, Clayton Lockett, fought authorities in his cell.  He earlier attempted suicide by cutting his arm.  Authorities had to taser him to bring him to the death chamber.  Once strapped in, technicians could not find a suitable vein for the IV.  They found a vein in his groin area.  Far from sedated, Lockett writhed in apparent pain.  The vein collapsed and officials called off the execution.  Lockett died 10 minutes later of a heart attack.

Lockett was convicted of a horrendous crime; shooting a girl in the head and then burying her alive. He was hardly good or innocent.  It was necessary to permanently remove him from society.  But other than gratifying raw passions for revenge, did killing him really serve any purpose?  Would spending the rest of his life in prison really be any more merciful?  Timothy McVeigh, responsible for the deaths of 160 people in the Oklahoma City bombing dropped all appeals to his death sentence saying he preferred to die rather than to live for the rest of his life in prison.  In the end, he got the public martyrdom he wished for.

As far as I'm concerned, lethal injection is a grotesque parody of a medical procedure.  The Hippocratic Oath and the AMA forbid doctors and medical staff from participating in executions.  These executions are handled by prison "technicians" with only the most minimal medical training at best.  What is more, the drugs normally used by the states for executions are becoming unavailable.  The European Union forbids the sale of these drugs for executions (most of them are made by European companies).  Some pharmaceutical companies don't want their product or their brand associated with executions, and so have stopped selling them to state prison authorities.  Now states like Oklahoma are experimenting with alternatives which are tightly kept secrets, possibly because some of these drugs were obtained illegally.

I sometimes wonder just whose feelings this "humane" method of execution were meant to spare.  It certainly isn't those of the condemned.  The USA has a history of experiments with "humane" execution methods that always turn out to be even more horrible than traditional methods of hanging or shooting.  Electrocution was once promoted as a "humane" alternative to hanging.  It was abandoned in most states after many instances of condemned prisoners being tortured to death with repeated shocks, or catching fire and being incinerated before horrified witnesses.

I think the old Stalinist method of shooting condemned prisoners in the back of the head at point blank range is a much more truly humane method of execution.  It is instant and certain, if very messy with blood and brains going everywhere.  The Chinese still use this method quite successfully with the added flourish of making the families of the condemned buy the bullets used to kill them.

A public execution in China

If people are not willing to live with the horror, blood, and mess of executions, then they shouldn't have a death penalty at all.  The guillotine was more humane with about as instant a death as you can get (Dr. Guillotine who invented the device also promoted it as a "humane" alternative to traditional beheading techniques; usually with an axe that would frequently involve as many as five chops to get a head off).  The French last used the guillotine in 1977.  When France finally got rid of the guillotine in 1981, they got rid of capital punishment.

The other thing people have to live with is the finality of the death penalty.  What's done cannot be undone.  It is only a matter of time before cases of innocent people put to death eventually surface and are proven.  With new DNA technology over the past 20 years, there has been a host of exonerations of people wrongly convicted, some of them on death row.  The other aspect of a wrongful conviction is that the truly guilty remain free to commit other and sometimes worse crimes.  Among many, there is the case of Michael Morton in Texas who served 25 years for killing his wife while the real killer murdered another woman.
How could things be put to right if Morton had been executed?

Opponents and proponents of the death penalty have one thing in common; a conviction that the legal system is a failure.  And who can blame them?  As Matt Taibibi demonstrates in his new book The Divide, justice is effectively for sale.  We have one law for the rich, and other laws that criminalize the poor.  It's hard to believe in justice or even the rule of law when a teenager in Texas from a wealthy family can get off with only rehab from the judge after killing 4 people in a drunk driving accident.  If I had done the same thing when I was a teenager in Texas, I would still be in jail for negligent homicide today.  Where is justice when law is just a game of priest-craft with winners and losers?  And it's a game that's rigged to favor those with the most advantages, just like so much else these days.  The very idea of "Equal Justice Under Law" becomes a cynical and cruel joke.

And then we have the recent case of Byron Smith of Little Falls, Minnesota, who laid a trap for some neighboring teenagers in his garage and killed them both in an act of vigilante justice gone way too far.  He blamed the police and the justice system for ignoring his complaints that neighbor kids were frequently breaking into his garage.  So, he took the law into his own hands and became a murderer.
Some people prefer vendetta to justice and end up as criminals themselves.  The whole point of the rule of law is to spare people having to resort to (or suffer) vendetta.  Law is supposed to protect us not only from the monsters outside our doors, but our neighbors from our own worst instincts.

Our Lord had some first hand experience with the death penalty.
We forget that He once decided a capital case.  He decided that mortal human beings have neither the authority nor the competence to judge in matters of life and death.  The woman brought before Him accused of adultery and facing death by stoning walked away pardoned and very much alive.  His views on the death penalty, and on violence in general, are very clear and unequivocal.  His followers tried to evade those teachings through all kinds of theological sophistry ever since.

Jesus died in a very routine and unremarkable execution by the standards of the ancient world. Religious authorities convicted Him of sacrilege and blasphemy for claiming to be God's Son.  But that's not what got Him executed.  The Romans crucified Him for sedition after He claimed to be a king.  There were probably hundreds of such messianic "kings" executed by the Romans in Judea before Jesus.  There certainly were thousands of others executed after Jesus.

None of this stopped or even slowed down the blood soaked parade of history over the last 2000 years.  Not only were Christians in that parade, they frequently took the lead with executions for heresy, sodomy, witchcraft, etc.  Christians blessed plenty of bombs and imperial massacres despite the very clear teachings of their Savior on these matters.

The Crucified Christ painted by Rembrandt


JCF said...

You're preaching to the choir w/ me.

...but w/ your average death penalty supporter (including a certain Mexican Anglican blog commenter), you'd probably be more convincing to bring back the guillotine. Oy vey.

Clayton Lockett, forgive us. RIP.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Excellent post, Doug. If we're going to be barbaric and allow the state to kill in cold blood, we need to show our true colors and go back to the firing squad or hanging as the method of execution. As with jury duty, a group of citizens should be summoned to observe the execution. If we allow the death penalty, then we ought to see how it's done.