With the death of Ronnie Lee Gardner in Utah last week, much ink has been spilled on the subject of capital punishment. I am profoundly ambivalent about capital punishment. One the one hand, as a firearms owner, I have no problem with violence recoiling upon the violent. On the other hand, I trust no institution of men to be able to administer justice perfectly. Frankly, with some governments I have lived under I don’t trust them to investigate building violations properly, let alone take someone’s life.
As a forensic pathologist, I have long been interested in the pathology of capital punishment. I keep meaning to write an article about it. I’ve been meaning to write the damn article for the past twelve years. I don’t think it’s gonna happen any time soon. But Robb Allen’s post caught my eye recently, and that stimulated my thinking.
To the best of my knowledge, 36 governments in the United States (34 states, the military, and the federal government) have the death penalty on the books. In Victorian Britain, there are 222 capital offenses, which was reduced to three (murder, treason, arson in the Royal Dockyards–i.e. sabotage of the Navy) by the 1960’s. The United States has held that only murder and treason are worth taking another person’s life in the late XX century. There are five different methods of execution on the books in the United States, shooting, hanging, gassing, electrocution, and lethal injection.
The history of execution methods is interesting. Many doctors have been involved, and many methods have been employed to make the deaths 1. swift, 2. painless, and 3. clean. Unfortunately, the human body is quite tough. And, like the old joke, you can pick any two. The ones that are swift and painless tend to be, well, oogie. Shooting in the head with a shotgun is swift and painless. It splatters, though. Decapitation, swift, painless, and bloody. Hanging, now, that is hit or miss. Too long a drop, and there is a decapitation. To short a drop, and the person lives on the rope for minutes.
All the other, “modern”, “scientific” methods of killing, well are clean, but are neither swift nor painless. Just ask Caryl Chessman or Jesse Joseph Tafero. The more modern methods also give deniability to the people who carry out the execution. No one knows exactly who flips the switch or has the blank charge. This is a separate issue. If you don’t want perform an execution, don’t be the headsman. If one is unwilling to own one’s actions, they probably shouldn’t be done. Certainly if one desires a clean kill, make a clean kill, and mop up the mess.
And if the mess is enough to keep you from performing an execution, then don’t do them. LWOP is a perfectly good deterrent. But then, again, mean what you say. In Europe, Life in Prison means parole eligibility in fifteen years. . For reasons of squeamishness, for concerns about justice, for mercy in general, I can understand the desire to avoid capital punishment. Don’t forget about the victim years later, though.