Death penalty’s time has run out

By Brenda Kay Zylstra

Of all the countries in the world, in any comparison of human rights or compassion toward one’s fellow man, the grouping of China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and Sudan is likely one that any American would not want his country to be a part of.

But there is one. According to Amnesty International, 91 percent of all state-approved executions come from these five nations and the United States.

Long before Abu Ghraib and waterboarding, the United States gave the rest of the world reason to believe in our brutality and barbarism. One week ago today, activists around the world demonstrated for World Day Against the Death Penalty and the death row of the U.S. prison system held more than 3,300 men and women. Since 1976, more than 1,000 men and women have been legally executed.

Execution methods only in the past dozen years have included lethal injection, hanging, shooting (death by firing squad) and perhaps the most famous method of all, electrocution. You heard right – as recently as 1996 men were put to death in the United States by hanging, firing squad and the gas chamber. Methods vary from state to state; some even allow the convict to choose how he will die. Lethal injection has become the default method in every state except Nebraska, which offers only the electric chair.

And even as thousands sat behind bars last week, knowing the time and date of their deaths, one Texas man was granted a stay of execution. With 400-plus executions in the past 30 years, Texas lives up to its reputation as the state in the union with the most executions. When Texas hesitates, it sends a loud message. Along with 10 other states, Texas is waiting for clarification from the Supreme Court on a case filed by two death row inmates from Kentucky, asserting that lethal injection presents “unnecessary risk” of pain and is therefore cruel and unusual.

The method of lethal injection has become prevalent in the past few decades because it is considered more humane than the other, more obviously gruesome methods. The three-drug “cocktail” as it is often referred to by the media, is one part to lose consciousness, one part to paralyze and one part to stop the heart. If performed correctly, the inmate feels no (physical) pain. But horror stories of botched administration abound, tales of inmates writhing in pain for a half-hour hardly able to move because the paralyzing drug has taken effect but awake and alive because the other two drugs for some reason have taken longer to kick in. The likelihood of such mistakes is so high that the American Medical Association prohibits its doctors from any involvement in lethal injections.

Thus, the initial veneer of decency that cloaked lethal injection has finally started to tear, and the Supreme Court must decide if a country that prides itself on civility and justice can continue to purposefully murder its citizens in the name of fairness, by any method. Though this particular case only deals with whether lethal injection is cruel or unusual, it seems unlikely the American public could swallow returning to days of hangings and firing squads as just punishment.

There are so many arguments against capital punishment – questions of deterrence, recidivism, DNA testing, eugenics and racial inequality. These deserve to be addressed, but they are not the central question.

Does the state have the right to use death as a punishment? Does the state have the right to take away not only a man’s freedom but also his life, to dole out final and absolute earthly judgment?

It is this finality that causes me to recoil. That any act could be so inhumane as to demand the very humanity of he who performed it. That any act could be enough to institutionalize murder and send the message that death is at times fitting and legal revenge.

The state should send the first example that in the United States, that which is cruel cannot be the usual.