Silverstein writes: "Oklahoma is but the governor's signature away from becoming the first state to approve the use of nitrogen gas in executions - another step in the doomed search for a humane execution."
A gurney used for executions. (photo: AP)
Flaw in the Search for Humane Execution: There Is No Such Thing
By Jason Silverstein, Guardian UK
13 April 15
The real logic of modern executions is that if the prisoner is quiet enough, then we can forget that there is a person in there
Oklahoma is but the governor’s signature away from becoming the first state to approve the use of nitrogen gas in executions – another step in the doomed search for a humane execution. The state began to study alternatives after botching the execution of Clayton Lockett on 29 April 2014; it took 43 minutes for him to die from a lethal injection attempt.
But as we have seen with lethal injection, less gruesome doesn’t mean painless. The unfortunate logic of modern execution is that if the body is still enough, and quiet enough, then we can forget that there is a person in there.
Mike Christian, the state representative who co-wrote the nitrogen legislation, argues that nitrogen gas is scientifically proven to cause a quick and painless death. Though he once told Der Spiegel that he didn’t care if they used “lethal injection, the guillotine or if we feed them to lions”; he now claims that “we have come up with a fool-proof way for a humane execution.
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard that modern science has found a brand-new way to make the barbaric humane. Proponents of executions from the guillotine to the electric chair to lethal injection claimed that science had advanced enough to create the painless execution; they were all wrong. At their most efficient, these methods don’t eliminate pain. They simply hide the pain from observers.
The state wasn’t always ostensibly concerned with the pain of those it had decided to eliminate. The breaking wheel, for example, involved strapping a prisoner to a cartwheel, breaking his limbs and, if he were lucky, a coup de grâce – if not, executionees suffered slow deaths from dehydration. But on 3 August 1788, a furious Versailles crowd rescued Jean Louschart from the breaking wheel and threatened his would-be executioner that “you must kill your customers without making them suffer.” King Louis XVI pardoned Louschart – and knew he needed to abolish the wheel.
In 1789, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French physician who wanted to reform the practice of beheading (which often required two or more hacks with a sword or axe), told the National Assembly that a decapitation machine “will take off a head in a twinkling and the victim will feel nothing but a slight sense of refreshing coolness on the neck.” Three years later, the National Assembly asked Antoine Louis, the permanent secretary to the Academy of Surgeons, to build the machine that “should only involve the deprivation of life.” On 21 January 1793, Louis XVI was killed with the National Razor; it was last used in France in 1977.
New York Governor David Hill also turned to modern science for a humane form of execution in 1885: “The present mode of executing criminals by hanging has come down to us from the dark ages,” he complained. On 13 May 1886, a bill established “A Commission to Investigate and Report the Most Humane and Practical Method of Carrying into Effect the Sentence of Death in Capital Cases”; the commission recommended, promising that it would be “absolute in its working and will effect the instantaneous and painless death of the convicted criminal.”
On 6 August 1890, in the state’s very first electrocution, officials had to send two waves of electricity through William Kemmler’s body, causing his fingers to curl into themselves, his mouth to foam, and his flesh to smoke. And, just since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, there have been at least 10 more botched electrocutions; even when electrocutions worked as advertised, death penalty supporters described terrifying scenes of blood and burned flesh.
So by the late 1970s, states turned to lethal injection; Oklahoma called on Dr Jay Chapman, the state’s chief medical examiner, to design a protocol that would appear humane. Soon, Chapman’s three-drug regimen became the gold standard across the nation. Ronald Reagan, drawing on his experience as a farmer, compared the method to a veterinarian who gives an injured horse a shot and “the horse goes to sleep.”
But this experiment in humane execution hasn’t delivered on its promise either. According to Austin Sarat, seven per cent of lethal injections are botched, higher than any other method. One reason is that medical professionals cannot participate, or else they might lose their board certification. Even Jay Chapman had a change of heart about his creation in practice: “The simplest thing I know of is the guillotine,” he said in 2007, adding “And I’m not at all opposed to bringing it back. The person’s head is cut off and that’s the end of it.”
Gruesome? Perhaps. But the only real thing distinguishing nitrogen executions from firing squads from lethal injections from electrocutions from hangings from beheadings is our own comfort as witnesses; for those condemned to death by the state, there is no going gently into that good night. There is only pain.
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