Opinion: Is the death penalty doomed?

POSTED: 07/27/14 11:21 PM

St. Maarten does not have the death penalty, but thirteen other countries in the Caribbean still do: Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, Guatemala, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago. The death penalty debate in the United States is an ongoing project and it is slowly tipping the balance towards abolition. Jesse Wegman describes on the op-ed page of the New York Times why the death penalty is doomed.

“Alex Kozinski, a federal judge on the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, has gone on the record saying he is “generally not opposed to the death penalty.” But his opinion in a recent case may nevertheless find itself in the history books one day — in the section explaining why the death penalty in America finally ended.

Joseph R. Wood III was sentenced to death in Arizona for the 1989 murders of his ex-girlfriend and her father. He challenged his execution under the claim that Arizona’s secrecy surrounding its lethal-injection protocol violated his First Amendment right to access to information. On July 19, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit agreed, and two days later, the full court declined to rehear the case.

Judge Kozinski joined ten of his colleagues in the minority who would have reheard it and, presumably, allowed the execution to proceed as planned. (It did proceed, though not as planned, after the Supreme Court reversed the stay.) But rather than engaging the merits of the First Amendment claim as other dissenters did, Judge Kozinski launched into a meditation on why we kill people the way we do.

The late 1970s shift to lethal injection was undertaken, as the judge suggested, in the belief that it was a “more humane” and “less brutal” method of execution than earlier ones — the firing squad, the electric chair, the gas chamber. But that belief was mistaken, he said. “Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful — like something any one of us might experience in our final moments.”

The judge then shifted into a register generally associated with those firmly planted in the abolitionist camp.

“But executions are, in fact, nothing like that. They are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should it. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.”

So how should we do it? Judge Kozinski made the point that the guillotine is the most foolproof method of ending a life, although he rejected it because it “seems inconsistent with our national ethos.” (Which ethos is that? The one against state-sponsored decapitation? Or against relying on the French in matters of punishment?)

Clearly, the two-hour ordeal that occurred in Arizona  is more evidence that lethal injection is far from humane. Instead, as Judge Kozinski said, the firing squad is the most quick and reliable of the existing methods. And then he added this coup de grace:

“Sure, firing squads can be messy,” the judge wrote, “but if we are willing to carry out executions, we should not shield ourselves from the reality that we are shedding human blood. If we, as a society, cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad, then we shouldn’t be carrying out executions at all.”

 

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