the Search for Kinder Executions
New York Times Op-Ed
October 21, 2003
LOS ANGELES —
In Tennessee, it is a crime to euthanize a cat with pancuronium
bromide, but this doesn't stop the state from using it to execute
condemned criminals. Because the drug paralyzes muscles but does
not affect nerves, it may leave its victims wide awake but immobilized
as they painfully suffocate. So prisoners' advocates and medical
experts are now trying to persuade Tennessee — and the nearly
30 other states that use the drug — to choose different
poisons for lethal injection, thereby bringing euthanasia protocols
for humans in line with those for domestic animals.
And so continues
the uniquely American habit of tinkering with the machinery of
death. For the past century and a half, America's capital punishment
debate has resembled a strange game of leapfrog: opponents of
the death penalty claim that the current method, whatever it may
be, is barbaric, which prompts capital-punishment supporters to
refine that method or develop a new one.
Americans tended to believe that justice and order demanded the
ultimate sanction, they were often shaken by graphic accounts
of the pain suffered by hanged men. In 1876, after an especially
gruesome hanging, Maine abolished capital punishment. Inspired
by this victory, opponents of the death penalty began to emphasize
the cruelty of the gallows. But their effort was self-defeating:
by claiming that the problem with hanging was the suffering of
the condemned, they simply challenged death penalty advocates
to find a better way to kill.
First came adjustments
to the gallows. Hangmen created a formula in which rope length
was a function of the prisoner's weight — the heavier the
victim, the shorter the drop. But such delicate calculations of
anatomy and gravity often failed to add up, and many prisoners
slowly strangled to death. To dull the pain, Brooklyn officials
in 1847 knocked a murderer cold with ether before hanging him,
but this simply highlighted the deficiencies of the gallows.
Then, in 1889, New
York State built the first electric chair, a device championed
by Thomas Edison. Edison's advocacy was inspired in part by a
wicked plan to hurt his business rival, George Westinghouse —
the chair was powered by Westinghouse's alternating current, and
Edison hoped consumers would begin to associate AC with danger
and death. But Edison had less cynical reasons as well: he was
an opponent of the death penalty — "an act of foolish
barbarity," he called it — and he believed that electrocution
would be less barbaric than the noose. Many others agreed, and
eventually 25 states and the District of Columbia installed electric
the state of the art for three decades, until the public grew
dismayed by bungled executions that required several shocks or
set the prisoner on fire. Before long there was another scientific
option: an airtight chamber filled with poison gas, adopted by
Nevada in 1924 and then by 10 more states in the coming decades.
Like all complex machines, however, these execution devices were
prone to malfunction, and prisoners suffered the consequences.
So in 1977 Oklahoma
began to poison condemned prisoners with a three-drug cocktail:
sodium thiopental (to produce unconsciousness), pancuronium bromide
(to paralyze the muscles) and potassium chloride (to stop the
heart). Promising a clean, painless death, this protocol quickly
gained widespread acceptance.
Until now, that is.
The next step seems obvious: states will adopt a different drug
regimen, which, no doubt, will soon gain critics of its own.
However, it seems
that many death-penalty opponents are realizing that technological
leapfrog is a game they can't win, and are opting out of the latest
debate. Amnesty International has issued this statement: "The
search for a `humane' way of killing people should be seen for
what it is — a search to make executions more palatable."
In Nebraska, the only state with the electric chair as its sole
method of execution, State Senator Ernie Chambers has vowed to
fight any attempt to "make executions easier." He hopes
that the United States Supreme Court will one day declare electrocution
unconstitutional, leaving Nebraska without a valid execution law.
Some of the condemned
themselves have even sought a more painful death in order to highlight
the hypocrisy of "painless execution." In 2001, John
Byrd, a convicted murderer in Ohio, requested electrocution rather
than the needle; when prison workers balked at using the chair,
which had been idle for nearly 40 years, the Legislature abolished
electrocution and forced Mr. Byrd to die by lethal injection.
Earl Bramblett, a Virginia prisoner, had more success in his protest.
"I'm not going to lay down on a gurney and have them stick
a needle in my arm and make it look like an antiseptic execution,"
he said, and he died in the electric chair on April 9.
For too long, defenders
of capital punishment, fearing that brutal killing methods might
provoke public opposition, have found unwitting allies among their
adversaries, anxious to relieve the suffering of the condemned.
Now death penalty opponents are realizing that scientific execution
methods, ceaselessly refined, simply mask the barbarity of killing.
Mark Essig is author
of "Edison and the Electric Chair: The Story of Light and