A Small Step in the Right Direction

February 8, 2008

Today, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the electric chair satisfies the criteria for ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment, eliminating its use on a state-wide basis. Nebraska was the only state remaining that used the electric chair as its sole means of execution.

I have written about the topic of capital punishment before (https://goingbald.wordpress.com/2008/01/22/are-we-there-yet/) and I am adamantly against the use of capital punishment, so needless to say I feel that this is a small step towards a more civilized U.S. society.

Why outlaw the electric chair? How is it cruel and unusual punishment? Here are a few brief examples from the Death Penalty Information Center (WARNING: If you are sensitive to graphic writing, skip this section and then ask yourself how you can justify punishing people this way if you can’t even read about it!):

Frank Coppola, 1982, Virginia: Two 55 second jolts of electricity were required to kill Mr. Coppola. During the second, Coppola’s head and leg caught fire and the sizzling sound of burning flesh could be heard in the room.

Allen Lee Davis, 1999, Florida: Mr. Davis was the first man to be executed in Florida’s new electric chair. Before he was pronounced dead, blood seeped onto his shirt from his mouth (reports state that the spot it formed was the size of a dinner plate). Florida’s senator, Ginny Brown-Waite, admitted that she was shocked to see the blood until she noticed that it was forming what she thought was a cross on his chest, indicating that “God approved of the execution.” (I have to interject and say that Ms. Brown-Waite sounds like a real wacko)

These are just a couple examples of what amounts to state-sponsored torture. Run a search for ‘botched executions’ and you will find dozens more. Unfortunately, other forms of capital punishment are still legal in many states. The most common currently used is lethal injection. It too is a real gem.

Joseph Cannon, 1998, Texas: After beginning the procedure, the vein in his arm collapsed and the needle popped out. When he saw what happened, Cannon had to tell the executioners “It’s come undone.” The officials closed the curtain to the witness room, re-opening it 15 minutes later to reveal a sobbing Cannon, who made a second last statement before the procedure resumed.

I think that it is important to understand that I in no way sympathize with these people… they murdered others to receive this sentence. I simply question whether it is appropriate to punish the crimes that these people have committed by committing the same crime against them. I also, like the Nebraska Supreme Court, question whether the methods used are appropriate… no human deserves to be tortured at the hands of another.

These methods, and capital punishment in general, have been condemned by other countries, scholars, philosophers, and even the Pope. What will it take for the people of the U.S. to acknowledge this cruel and unusual practice for what it is?

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Are we there yet?

January 22, 2008

One of today’s news headlines reads “Death Penalty Out if Marine arrested in Mexico”.

For those of you who haven’t been reading the news, here is a brief summary of the happenings in this story: In December, Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach (pregnant) went missing. A couple of weeks ago the police identified the primary suspect in the case as Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean. To make a long story short, they have compelling evidence to convict this guy, but he is now believed to be in Mexico.

Why flee to Mexico, rather than many other countries? It turns out that Mexico refuses to extradite suspects who may face the death penalty in their country. As a matter of fact, we are one of the only ‘developed’ countries to still use the death penalty.

A brief list of countries that have abolished the death penalty:

Mexico, Canada, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Ecuador, Columbia, Venezuela, French Guyana, Paraguay, Uruguay, EVERY COUNTRY IN EUROPE except for Belarus, South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, and Australia. In addition, it is abolished except for in times of war in Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. Heck, it is even abolished in practice in Russia and most african countries!

Now a list of who we share this fine distinction of STILL USING THE DEATH PENALTY with:

Guatemala, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, India, Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Chad, UAE, Oman, and Mongolia.

Is it right to punish someone for killing another person by committing the same act ourselves? This is the classic question of ‘do two wrongs make a right?’ Many supporters of the death penalty site its effectiveness as a ‘deterrent’… do those who site this effectiveness know that research shows that most criminals who commit crimes punishable through capital punishment are actually SAFER and have a LONGER life expectancy on death row?

Ironically, many supporters of the death penalty identify themselves as members of the ‘religious right’ side of politics… are they aware of the Catholic Church’s official stance on the death penalty? For those Catholics (I am not one myself) who are unaware of the church’s official stance, in 1995 Pope John Paul II stated that execution is only appropriate “in cases of absolute necessity, in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” He went on to say that “This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is to redress the disorder caused by the offence. Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfills the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.”

To all who support the death penalty, I ask you to read that statement carefully, and carefully consider the FACTS regarding its effectiveness before deciding on the right way to deal with violent criminals. Anytime something as terrible as murder is being discussed, it is easy to place one’s emotions before critical thought.

Is a society that condemns the act of murder, yet uses it as a form of punishment truly civilized? In the case of the U.S., we have come quite a way, but it seems we may still have a long way to go.