Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Death Penalty - A Modest Proposal

The state of California is the scene of a brouhaha surrounding the death penalty. Like many other states which execute people, California uses lethal injection. This was challenged by Michael Morales' lawyer, on the grounds that lethal injection is cruel and unusual. (Mr. Morales was due to exit this world last night, but the execution was delayed until tonight; full details at the S. F. Chronicle for the interested) The lawyer claims that the sequence of drug injections may not cause the executee to be completely unconscious before the actual death process begins, and therefore he may feel excruciating pain. The state has actually accepted this argument, and assigned an anesthesiologist to attend the execution, to make sure Mr. Morales is completely out before beginning the actual lethal injection.

Full disclosure: I have serious reservations on the use of the death penalty. The argument that it is a deterrent doesn't seem to be supported by the facts, except in case of the executed person; it does deter him from future criminal acts. The morality of the state offing people in my name bothers me; if it's wrong for me to kill, why is it right for the state to kill in my name, and when does state execution become simple revenge, as opposed to justice?
Mr. Morales, like many of the people we execute, has committed a heinous crime, a rape and murder; but I'm not sure that gives us a moral justification for executing him. There's no question that legally we can do so. And at least in California, it's much more expensive to execute someone than it is to jail him for life without possibility of parole, and the state of California is broke. It seems to me that we could assume a more moral stance and save some cash by discontinuing executions.

Leaving aside the issue of whether we should execute, let's get back to how. Many states went to lethal injection because everybody agreed that the previous methods (hanging, the gas chamber, the electric chair - remember "Ol' Sparky" in Florida? Which, BTW, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in 1997 was not cruel and unusual...) were "cruel and unusual". They probably weren't so by the standards of the framers of the Constitution - in fact, hanging was the 18th century norm. The 18th century probably would have found gas chambers and electric chairs "unusual". We'll have to wonder whether they would have thought them "cruel".

If lethal injection is now also too "cruel" to use (you can't really call it "unusual" when most of the states that execute use it), let's resurrect an execution method which was specifically designed to be quick, efficient, and probably as pain-free as dying violently ever is:

Let's bring back the guillotine. The guillotine (see WikiPedia) was designed to be a humane method of execution (at least compared to the methods that had been used; the WikiPedia article has some background on those for the curious), and to execute people quickly and with a minimum of pain. It's certainly efficient; the French Revolutionaries used it to execute somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000 people suspected of "crimes against liberty", over about 13 months. We won't need to use it nearly that often.

In fact, let's go all the way back: to public executions. Set up the guillotine in a public place with lots of room for spectators. If we're going to do this, let's all watch it, and see what the state is doing in our name. In fact, let's put it on television. Public executions used to be considered great entertainment for the whole family, although by the end of the French Reign of Terror, the crowds had thinned, as people grew bored. I wonder how a televised execution would stack up against "Survivor"?


  1. Anonymous1:30 PM

    Are you sure it costs more to execute someone than jail them for life? That doesn't seem right.
    I should also say up front that I have some weird ideas on the punishment end of the Justice System. Read somewhere that punishment by definition is cruel and unusual, otherwise it is not punishment. Personally I think it is crueler to lock up someone for the rest of their life without parole.
    However, if we are bringing back Madame Guillotine, (Great Idea, hope you weren't being sarcastic) lets make the jails more like the 18th century also. You know; rats, cold stone floors, usually wet, and really bad food. I also think if you really want to make an impression, pubic flogging would really make people think twice before swiping that pair of jeans. The current system, to me, isn't much of a deterrent. Isn't that what it is meant to be?

  2. Stephen, on the comparative costs of death penalty versus life in prison, you'll find some interesting numbers at this site.

    The jails in California aren't quite as bad as 18th century jails - they do have central heat - but trust me, they're not a vacation spa. I agree that life in prison is a pretty awful punishment; therefore if awful punishment is the object, shouldn't we use it?

    I assume you meant PUBLIC flogging?

    As for deterrents, in the 18th century, when you could be hanged for stealing a loaf of bread, the biggest problem for those attending executions was the number of pickpockets working the crowd. Or, for that matter, in any other crowded place. Deterrents just don't work very well, because of the persistent human conviction that it can't happen to me. That leaves us with 3 possible things to do with criminals:

    1. Punish them.
    2. Exact revenge on them.
    3. Lock them up so they won't do it again.

    At one point in the 60's we thought about rehabilitating them, maybe teaching them to read, and a trade, and helping them get off drugs; but that was way too bleeding-heart liberal for everybody...

  3. Anonymous10:43 AM

    Public yes, thank you. So Sorry, typing fast and well, you know.

    Personally, I think the time to rehabilitate might be past when they are ready to be sent to prison. The time to really make a difference is when they are young. You know improving there public education system, providing clean, reasonably priced housing, stuff like that. Also, perhaps if we start punishing at the first offence, then we won't progress to worse offences. Probably to fiscally irresponsible. Isn’t there some old saying about an ounce of prevention…

  4. Stephen, I couldn't agree with you more, but somehow that comes across to the people in power as "coddling those worthless louts"...

    There's still a feeling in this country that if you're really poor, it must be because there's something wrong with you, and therefore you don't deserve any kind of a break because you're inferior. This goes double if you happen to be black.

    The numbers on prevention versus punishment have been published numerous times; but nobody every believes them.

  5. Anonymous10:20 PM

    Biggest problem for me is that we as a society have proven ourselves grossly incapable of equitable application, and in too many cases accurate application, of the death penalty.

    Second is that it is a mistake ever to grant to a government the right to kill people. Europeans have a much keener awareness of where that can lead than do we.

    Third, the use of violence by the state inevitably has a debasing effect on the society.

    Justice must be swift, equitable, certain, and actually just for it to work. Criminals know damned well that crime does pay on about a 70% basis. They also know that authority figures wallow in corruption rather often (although I would argue that there are more non-corrupt than corrupt public officials, except in the case of the crowd surrounding the president and at the top of the Republican machine, along with corruption central, aka K Street).

    In the main, I've concluded, we really don't know what the fuck we're doing, and I agree that the people who thought we ought to figure out what we were doing got parodied and pilloried as a bunch of bleeding heart eggheads who wanted to coddle criminals, a natural consequence, I suppose, of their acceptance of such things as a round earth, the sun as the center of our solar system, antiseptic practices in delivering children, evolution, and any number of other intellect-driven, fact-based, logic-modulated "theories."

    hedera, I do like your retro proposals. Hell, if we're gonna kill 'em, let's get our money's worth, especially since, as you correctly pointed out, it costs a shit pile to kill 'em (at least we still have the good sense to make it difficult, as opposed to Oh, what the hell, off with their heads - oops, that is what we're going for here, isn't it? Damned. I'll stop now.)

  6. Anonymous, I think we all agree; the trouble with blogs, although it is pleasant, is that one ends up preaching to the choir.

  7. Anonymous6:42 PM

    "Anonymous, I think we all agree; the trouble with blogs, although it is pleasant, is that one ends up preaching to the choir." That is unless RRRRyan finds you...

  8. So far, cooper, this space is beneath RRRRyan's notice, or something. I'm hoping it isn't public enough for him - it must be more fun to rant at a LOT of liberal weirdos...