Death knell for the death sentence

The LA Times has been covering the legal back and forth on the use of lethal injections as a way of to administering the death penalty in California. The outlook of this case seems increasingly bleak for those supporting the government’s right to kill.

Operational Procedure No. 770,” the state’s name for execution by lethal injection, is performed in a dark, cramped room by men and women who know little, if anything, about the deadly drugs they inject under extreme stress.

Thousands of pages of depositions and four days of testimony last week in a federal courtroom here provided the most intimate portrait yet of a state’s lethal injection methods.

Witnesses depicted executions by lethal injection — long considered a more humane alternative to the gas chamber or the electric chair — as almost haphazard events, and medical experts on both sides could not rule out the possibility that one or more inmates had been conscious and experienced an excruciating sensation of drowning or strangulation before death.

I’ll wait for another entry to talk about my complete feelings about the death penalty but the issue, as presented to the judge in this case, is becoming increasingly clear. By compartmentalizing the execution procedure in order to limit the responsibilities of each individual participant, the state of California (and probably most other states using a similar form of execution) has managed to produce an inhumane and bungled mess. It was this inhumanity that lethal injection was meant to rectify.

My tie-in to this case is on a slightly different level. The current Californian brouhaha was started when a judge ordered two anesthesiologists present during executions. The doctors refused at last minute due to ethical concerns. I’m currently reading The Nazi Doctors by Robert Jay Lifton. He traces the medicalization of euthanasia in the Third Reich from the beginnings on deformed and handicapped children to the horrors of Auschwitz. I didn’t start reading the book to understand the death penalty, but rather to understand how medics and doctors can continue to support the torture policies being railroaded by the Bush administration. Bending ethical issues is a long and slippery slope and I wonder if the American government and the American medical community haven’t started sliding. The case in California seems to be proving that hypothesis wrong.

Just as an aside, for those who claim executions are only practiced in ‘Twenty-First Century’ countries, please remember that the Japanese Supreme Court recently cleared the way for the execution of an Aum Shinrikyo cult member convicted for the 1994 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway. The US is not alone in executing people, but the US does stand alone in claiming to be on the highest moral ground in the world. Perhaps a new look at this standpoint would be in order.

Somehow I doubt that controversies surrounding the standpoint on the death penalty will die down anytime soon.

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