I read an editorial in the New York Times yesterday and an article today about the recent issue of the supposed cruelty of lethal injection as a means of carrying out the death sentence. If you haven’t been keeping up, what’s at issue is whether or not lethal injection, which was developed as a more humane way of executing people than hanging, electrocution, gassing, shooting, etc., is a ‘cruel’ form of punishment itself. The idea that lethal injection, at least as administered in the US, is far from the painless drifting off to sleep that most imagine stems from an article last year in The Lancet, a British medical journal.
The authors contend that although the usual mixture used to execute–a combination of an anesthetic, an agent that paralyzes the muscles, and an agent that stops the heart–includes a drug that puts the condemned person to sleep before the other drugs do their job, that, due to lack of training on the part of the people administering the injection, the anesthetic is often given incorrectly or in too low a dose to render the executee unconscious. If this is true the person receiving such an injection would be fully or partially conscious while being paralyzed, unable to breath or even blink his (or her) eyes and would basically smother to death without any observable evidence of doing so. To an observer it would appear that the condemned was resting comfortably or even snoozing while in reality he (or she) was in agony. If these claims are true, it would mean that the lethal injection method of execution would be comparable in terms of discomfort to the old way of executing supposed witches in this country, which was to tie them down and stack stones on them until they couldn’t breathe. It would be a real tragedy if, in an effort to be more humane, we took a step back to much less enlightened times.
The Supreme Court has taken up the issue while In California an execution has been delayed by the courts until the state can obtain the services of a physician to properly administer the deadly injection. So far, no physicians have stepped forward to offer their services.
And don’t count on me to volunteer; I wouldn’t do it for any amount of money. My own thoughts are jumbled and murky on the death penalty issue, but one thing I’m adamant about is that I would never be the one personally responsible for carrying it out.
Things evolve with time. It wasn’t so long ago that capital and corporal punishment were much different than they are today.
A few months ago I posted on an article on the latest diet from a 1760 news monthly The London Magazine. I seemed to remember when I read the thing that there was something in it about an execution. I went back an looked, and sure enough, there was an entire article about the execution by hanging of a true ‘gentleman’ versus your standard issue common criminal. The article described his demeanor, what he wore (he was dressed to the nines), what he said after mounting the scaffold, and how well he died. I would reprint the entire article here because it is quite interesting, but I about went blind typing the last one on diet, and the execution one is even longer.
In this same magazine there is a section called The Monthly Chronologer that is a day-by-day journal of events since the last issue giving blurbs of the news that the editors thought would be of interest. The entry from Friday, May 23, 1760 is:
Ended the sessions at the Old-Baily [London’s famous criminal court]; at which sessions Ann Hullock, for the murder of her bastard child, received sentence of death, and was accordingly executed on the 24th. Seventeen were sentenced to transportation for seven years, one for 14 years, two to be whipped, and one to be branded.
When I look up transportation in my copy of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (which was compiled in 1755) it gives as one definition:
Banishment for felony
We’ve evolved from an era called The Enlightenment when criminals were hanged, whipped, branded, and exiled without a second thought to an era where we worry about whether the condemned feel any discomfort. I would say we’ve made progress.