Is "Humane" Execution Possible?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Utah’s June 18 execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner captured attention from around the world.

Why is this newsworthy? The U.S. has taken the lives of over 1,000 individuals since 1976. Since that year, Gardner is only the third person in the U.S. executed by firing squad.

Having grown up in Utah in the wake of the firing squad execution of Gary Gilmore in 1977, I was not entirely surprised to see judicial homicide meted out in a manner ordained by an arcane theological doctrine. That said, even Utah citizens perhaps raised an eyebrow upon seeing that their Attorney General announced the execution on Twitter, provoking heated national debate.

The Utah execution elicited indignant cries that the firing squad was barbaric and inhumane. But is it really any worse than other methods our government uses to exterminate the lives of criminal convicts?

Every mode of execution in modern history has been flawed: The electric chair caused gruesome deaths, as did the gas chamber, and the hangman's noose. Examples are legion: a
Google search for "botched executions" yields a macabre bounty of results.

In response to these glitches, in the 1970s states began adopting lethal injection, touting it as a "more humane" mode of execution. Today almost all executions are performed that way.

How has this worked? There have been many, many ugly failures. The most recent of which, after a two hour attempt to locate a vein for injection, was described as torture, and aborted; the defendant has yet to be executed. 

In Washington, the absurdity of the term "humane execution" was further emphasized by the resignation of the medical director for the state Department of Corrections, who concluded that his job's mandate of overseeing executions by lethal injection was inconsistent with medical ethics.

While a majority of Americans have long supported the death penalty, recent studies indicate that this consensus is steadily eroding. In the last several years scores of defendants facing execution have been exonerated. As The New Yorker recently documented, however, one innocent defendant was not so fortunate.

Studies have amply demonstrated that the death penalty has no deterrent effect against violent crime. In addition to being inhumane, arbitrary, and subject to unacceptable error, the death penalty is also extremely expensive.

Washington deserves a criminal justice system that deters crime and administers justice consistently and fairly. For all of these reasons, the ACLU of Washington has worked through public education, in the courts, and in the legislature to replace the death penalty with the more just and predictable sentence of life without parole.