“A really great talent finds its happiness in execution.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Von Goethe, of course, was not talking about capital punishment, but the way some talk, he might have been.
Before discussing the current fascination with lethal injections, we need to find our justification for killing criminals. Does society have the right to take the life of one of its members who violates the most sacred rules of society? History has settled that issue. That’s not the point.
In this rational age, we must ask what purpose is served by executions. Primarily is the psychological need for retribution following a heinous act. However, after years of appeals, the outrage surrounding the crime wears off. And, killing a man does not teach him anything. There is no regret or anguish after death.
The economic argument doesn't work. Studies have shown the appeals process is more expensive than life imprisonment.
Wrongful convictions do occur, and executions cannot be overturned.
The murder rate typically spikes in the weeks following a highly publicized execution which disproves a deterrent effect. In fact, criminals have expressed more fear of a shopkeeper with a gun or their own criminal colleagues than of the legal system which seems abstract and remote.
There is only one good reason for capital punishment. It absolutely prevents recidivism. Contrary to what we see in the movies, the dead do not kill again. Instead of focusing on the heinousness of the crime, lethal punishment should be based on the likelihood of the convict to kill again, even within the confines of a prison.
That brings us to the method of execution. The ancient and barbaric practices of drawing and quartering, crucifixion, burning at the stake, and so forth are no longer acceptable. Hanging, shooting, and electrocution have been unreliable and occasionally caused an unconstitutional amount of suffering. The gas chamber always had a Rube Goldberg aspect, what with remotely dropping cyanide pellets into a pan of water under a chair, etc. But is a system of three drugs injected one after the other any better?
Have you ever wondered why there is a shortage of drugs for capital punishment, but an ample supply for assisted suicide? Why does the fatal drug in the execution soup require an anesthetic, but the drugs used in assisted suicide do not?
When I had a job seeking to prevent death and injury due to hazardous materials, I studied “enclosed spaces.” The term does not refer to closets and elevators. It is used to identify places without suffficient breathable air. Grain silos, for instance, in which fungus or bacteria on the grain have consumed the available oxygen. Or, the room where a ship’s anchor chain is stored and rust has consumed the oxygen. In places like these, a person might enter without smelling anything dangerous or feeling ill, and then fall down dead. Someone going into the same space to rescue the first person would also die. Such scenarios have actually occurred several times and often involved not two, but a number of deaths as one after another would-be rescuer succumbed.
I submit that an enclosed space execution would not only be humane without requiring obscure chemicals, but would serve as a cautionary public service warning.
Another possibility. This morning, I saw a report of the hundreds of communities in the U.S. with unsafe drinking water—water contaminated with high levels of lead and other substances. We could take advantage of the years spent on death penalty appeals by requiring the condemned to drink tap water. Then, by the time the last appeal is denied, a formal execution might not be necessary at all.