The recent execution fiasco in Oklahoma has the death penalty in the news again. And not in a good way.
Inmate Clayton D. Lockett was being injected with an untested, supposedly lethal drug. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the drug didn't do its job. As the sedating drugs were supposed to be taking effect, rendering him unconscious, Lockett gasped and moaned and strained at his restraints. As the drug was injected that was supposed to stop his heart, a vein exploded and the execution was suspended. Forty-five minutes after the start of the process, Lockett had a heart attack and (mercifully) died.
I guess this is where this good liberal is supposed to express horror at the fact that America still executes convicts. Not to mention that my own Church supports a total ban on the death penalty. But I have to confess that, as with many total bans the Church teaches (abortion, contraception, death penalty) I am not completely on board. It seems that, in theory at least, there are some criminals whose crimes are so heinous that keeping them alive serves no useful purpose.
Charles Manson comes to mind, with his stabbing murders of 9 people. The surviving Boston bomber, with 3 deaths, multiple traumatic amputations and to 200 injured to his credit. The Green River Killer, convicted of 49 murders and corpse defilements and confessing to twice that number.
Why let people like this live? Why should they enjoy the gift of long life (Manson is close to 80) when they cut short the lives of so many?
Yet, there are problems with the death penalty.
It shouldn't be a surprise that our justice system is not impartial in the way it deals out death. If you are poor or a person of color, you are disproportionately likely to get death than if you are well-off and white. Science is bearing witness to the unreliability of witness evidence; even witnesses who are absolutely sure of their identifications can be wrong. Prosecutors and judges are often unwilling to reexamine cases when new evidence surfaces -- whether out of ideology or the dislike of being proven wrong. And is it right to kill crazy people?
For all these reasons, the likelihood of executing an innocent person should give death penalty proponents pause.
Then there's the means of inflicting death itself. The human body is a fairly resilient thing. It takes a lot of trauma to kill someone quickly. Take the Boston bombings. The blasts immediately killed 2 people who were standing near the bombs as they went off; they took the life of another in a few minutes. But due to quick bystander intervention, even the most seriously injured were able to survive the 20 minutes of so it took to get them to a hospital. Even President Kennedy, who suffered a massive head wound, "lived" about 30 minutes before succumbing at Parkland Hospital.
So how about killing convicts? Hanging can be gruesome and slow if done badly. Beheading is quick -- if you're OK with being conscious for 30 seconds after the blow. A bullet to the brain, as done in China, might be quick, but who knows? Lethal injection is relatively painless and quick, but still involves the psychic pain and terror of knowing your life is about to end. Not to mention possible feelings of panic as you can't take a breath.
So where does this leave us? Do we avoid imposing death sentences because killing people strikes us as immoral? Is the alternative -- forcing someone to slowly go mad while living in a tiny cage for years or decades, and drastically limiting their interactions with loved ones -- seem any more moral? Any less cruel? There are times when a quick death seems preferable to a lingering and unproductive one.
It's a no-win situation. Oppose the death penalty, and you run the risk of hypocrisy -- of doing it because it makes you feel morally superior. Support the death penalty and you feed your sense of vengeance while putting innocents at risk of death based on their skin color and the size of their bank account.
Some people do not deserve the gift of seeing another sunset or enjoying another meal. And I don;t buy the idea that we should let people live so they show remorse for their crimes, maybe saving their souls in the process. I don't accept the premise that only one's actions in this lifetime count toward heaven. "Saving" someone before they die is not only something that is in human hands. God can surely deal with the murderer who dies in a traffic accident while fleeing the scene of the crime, as well as he can handle one who has forty years of life to repent.
The infliction of death can be made painless. But the imposition of justice will ever be marred by human racial and economic bias, human limitations about visual identification and human susceptibility to ideological and professional hubris. If we hold back from dealing out death, it should not be because some people do not deserve to live, but because of our own inability to act with infallible justice.