The Death Penalty, Lethal Injections, and Firing Squads

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Recently the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving a 75-year-old man on death row in Alabama (Arthur v. Dunn, 580 U.S. ___ (2017) (Sotomayor, J., dissenting from denial of cert)). At issue was whether one of the drugs used in Alabama’s lethal injection procedure would cause “intolerable and needless agony” (id. at 1). Without the drug, the inmate might suffer “what may well be the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake.” (id. at 2 (quoting Glossip, 576 U.S. ___ (2015), citations omitted)). The inmate did not dispute his death sentence, and even asked for a firing squad to serve as the manner of his execution (Arthur, 580 U.S. at 7). He also provided evidence that a firing squad would be a more humane way to die (id.).

Five Thirty Eight published this article which evaluated the claim that a firing squad might be more a more humane execution than lethal injection. I highly recommend people on both sides of the discussion read it, as it goes into many more issues surrounding executions in this country. Also, I recommend reading the dissent in Arthur and the Glossip case, as they provide a lot of insight into how lethal injections are carried out.

These cases raise some interesting issues regarding capital punishment.
I’ve seen two posts recently (here and here) which include discussions on the death penalty. Regardless of whether one is for or against it, manner of execution is another aspect of how people discuss this issue. Firing squads have been rejected publicly because of a number of different reasons. Indeed, the journey from hanging to electrocution to gas chambers to lethal injection has occurred because the public constantly looks for more humane ways of carrying out a death sentence.

However, as the Glossip case notes, a lack of a necessary drug to carry out a death sentence has forced states to find less suitable alternatives. This has pushed the issue of the messy business of ending an inmate’s life out into the public spotlight once again (and by all rights, it never should have left). While there might be people who are for the death penalty, are they supportive enough that they would administer a death penalty themselves? That’s one of many considerations to take into account.

This isn’t a light subject, especially in places that are considering enacting a death penalty.
On Mak’s blog, I raised the issue of innocent people being wrongfully convicted. Under any system, this can happen. Imagine serving as an executioner and finding out a decade later that the person one killed was actually innocent. What should happen after that? Should the people involved in the wrongful conviction be prosecuted for murder? Should they be liable to suit?

That’s just with killing the wrong person. Retribution isn’t a useful justification for capital punishment because the victim or victim’s family doesn’t get to serve as executioners. The death penalty doesn’t have a proven deterrence effect on murder, so that reason isn’t a good justification. Rehabilitation is impossible for obvious reasons.

Absent any classic justification for the death penalty, should it still be used? If so, when?
I ask these questions to point out the blanket futility in a categorical denunciation of the death penalty. If one can justify killing in self-defense, then there is at least one form of killing that a state can condone. Broadly, the issues of execution are functionally no different than self-defense. Both involve a decision to kill and a public evaluation of that decision. One just takes a lot longer and carries more expense.

I’ve looked long and hard at the death penalty all my life. It was the focus of my research in law school. There, I found out that very few states and countries provide good evidence to the public regarding the death penalty. Conceptually, it gets clouded with a whole lot of cliches, platitudes, slogans, and jargon. Tired arguments get hashed and rehashed to no one’s satisfaction.

Thinking of execution as self-defense for a society might very well provide some help in discussing the death penalty. The question changes from classic criminal factors to a bigger question: is there any act which a civilized society cannot abide? Note that the question asks “cannot” instead of “should not” or “ought not.” “Abide” means something by which a society cannot exist concurrently with whatever act is being discussed. In other words, are there acts which necessarily require a society to kill the person doing them?

As societies mature, the answer very well may be that any act can be resolved through some other means than killing. Such is not a terrible thing, because it means that society has found a new way of overcoming adversity. This view implies that humanity can grow quite potent and use new tools to protect itself. That said, humanity also might face new adversity that it must meet with violence.

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20 thoughts on “The Death Penalty, Lethal Injections, and Firing Squads

  1. This is quite good.
    I have read one of the links where the author argues in support of firing squad.
    I think killing someone in self defense is way different from capital punishment. One is only trying to save their lives against an adversary. Capital punishment involves planning and a decision by at least 3 judges ( in our courts I think) before it can be passed forget its execution.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mak, I may be wrong, but I got the impression that SB was comparing the “public-approved” self-defense killing with that of killing an individual via the “court-approved” death penalty. As he wrote: Both involve a decision to kill and a public evaluation of that decision.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Which I am not sure is usually the case. When I am attacked I don’t think there is premeditation on my part that I should kill my attacker. It happens as a consequence of me trying to defend myself.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Premeditation as I’m using it just means thinking about a matter beforehand. Regardless of how long it takes (usually when defending one’s life, it happens quickly), but it still happens. After the fact, if the person is charged with murder, self-defense gets evaluated by a jury.

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      • Actually, the analogy of premeditation is a little separate from the court approval. Court approval in the case of self-defense and capital punishment is that there are court proceedings which determine the validity of both. Self-defense is a defense at trial to a charge of murder; a jury has to find that a defendant acted in self-defense in order to find the defendant not guilty. Similarly, a jury must find guilt and sometimes that the death penalty ought to apply in order to utilize capital punishment.

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    • Colorado has a similar system. They require a verdict by a jury on guilt, and then a panel of 3 judges determines whether death is appropriate. Over the course of several decades, they’ve only put to death a few people.

      As far as self-defense and capital punishment is concerned, I think they need to be viewed in a similar light for best evaluation. Self-defense is a premeditated killing; a person sees danger, considers deadly force, and then acts upon deciding to use it. Although it happens quickly, it still happens.

      Capital punishment, if viewed in this light, would then take on an air of necessity after the fact. Humanity should ask, do we need to kill this person. What sort of danger do they pose? Will they do harm again? I think that the answer to those questions many times is “no.” Only in severe cases of perhaps war crimes, genocide, and some mass murderers would we find the answer is “yes.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • I would argue that self defence in not necessarily a premeditated killing. In this country, intending to kill someone in defence of yourself would almost certainly see you being charged with the killing. Deadly force is not permitted even in self defence. One may use no more force than the minimum required to protect oneself.

        If the action you took to defend yourself resulted in someone’s death, then whether your are charged with the killing (murder or manslaughter) will depend on how much force you used in comparison to the force being used against you.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. SB, a well-written post (as is your usual style 🙂 ). You bring other factors into the picture that weren’t touched on elsewhere. It will be interesting to see where this discussion goes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere on my blog. Right now I’ve got a troll generating traffic on a different post, so this one probably’s going to get ignored.

      Thanks for the high praise, Nan!

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  3. Death penalty is often used a means of showing that justice has been served? It has happened a couple of times in India that the public sentiment forces the Govt to take action and rule for death penalty because of the horrifying crime. Death penalty is something that can never be an absolute ruling, it is always relative. Unfortunately, the relative opens dark doors that the system is often not equipped to deal with.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a very good point, and it’s one of the reasons why I think Colorado’s death penalty scheme is better than many other places. Judges who determine whether the penalty applies are not elected, so they are shielded from any public demand for an execution. To execute someone simply because the mob wanted it is unfair to everyone, including the mob.

      It is my hope that places which implement a death penalty at the least move away from letting public outcry kill people.

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  4. In most western countries, including Russia, by the way, the death penalty has become history ages ago. The USA seems like a sort of developing country in this issue, like it does in issues of it not really having a functioning general healthcare, poor quality general educational system, the free gun carrying and high division between economic classes, high crime, high encarceration rate and low rehabilitation of criminals back to the society. These are all causes for each other and the death penalty, wich in itself is more of a symptom of a form of social problem, than the problem itself. But it is also a cause of certain kind of social processes and problems, like for example that the crimes get to be more violent, because the criminals feel they take higher risk in any sort of criminal activity, so they try to decrease the risk from the other end by being more violent.

    This is not much different from seeing Great Britain as a sort of developing country, because they have difficulties to adapt to simple devices, like single water tap.

    Here in Finland the really horrific crimes always have a psychological analysis of the purpetrator. In most of the most horrific cases, the person who did the crime, are considered criminally insane, and in effect they are put to institutions, from wich the chance of ever getting out is very slim. They are evaluated by professional psychologists, and any chance of getting out involves for them to fully acknowledge and come to terms with the horrible nature of their deeds. I think as far as retribution goes, that is far more effective and painfull process than any revenge killing might be and it is also a far more severe warning to any unstable person not to act out their urges to kill or maim other people. I am not saying our system is perfect. Far from it. But I do see it as better, than any legal system based on economic compensation and physical revenge.

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