Monday, August 26, 2013

As death drugs dwindle, why not use firing squads for Texas executions?

Image via Sentencing Law and Policy
Prosecutors have been complaining that a requirement for DNA testing before executing someone will slow down executions, but a much more practical concern is likely to reduce their number in the near future: Texas is running out of one of the drugs it uses in executions, with the remaining supply expiring in September. Any change they make is likely to be litigated all the way to the US Supreme Court, delaying executions far longer than a requirement that they make sure they're executing the guilty party.

Grits tends to favor a solution to this dilemma posed recently by Robert Blecker on CNN.com: Reverting to the firing squad. This would remove the medicalized facade that lethal injection promotes, stripping away phony appeals to execute inmates "humanely" and simply portray capital punishment as it really is: A raw expression of state power.

Indeed, make me philosopher king and I'd require that the sitting Governor - the only person empowered to commute the sentence - perform the execution with a single, large-caliber shot to the forehead of a kneeling prisoner. Let the people's representative carry out the people's will. Forget any nonsense about putting blanks in the gun of one of the firing squad members. If we're going to have the death penalty, it should be performed in a way that lays bare the power dynamics behind it. At least then debates on the subject would be more honest and we wouldn't drag the medical community into the matter in violation of their Hippocratic Oath. Put the onus on the pols, not the doctors. Barring that approach, to me the firing squad would be the next best thing.

Regular readers know Grits remains more or less agnostic about the death penalty, for a variety of reasons. For starters, I don't consider it the "worst" punishment the state can dole out and therefore reject the idea that death is reserved for the "worst of the worst." Everybody dies; not everyone is locked up in a cage for the rest of their life. To me, the latter punishment is "worse." I understand that's not a widely held view, but it's mine.

Part of me rejects total abolitionism simply because of respect for the democratic impulse. The public overwhelmingly supports the death penalty and in certain high-profile cases, the public's demand for blood from a real-world political perspective must be honored. An eye for an eye may leave everyone blind, as the saying goes, but there are too many folks who hold that view for a political realist in a democracy to sweep them aside. Though more rare than death-penalty proponents tend to portray, there are true monsters in the world whom I don't care to waste time nor energy defending. And though I personally believe Texas has executed at least two and likely more innocent people, polling shows that the public doesn't change their views on the subject even if they believe such mistakes have been made. C'est la vie. Lamenting the facts doesn't change them.

Finally, I find many death-penalty abolitionists (like many in the pro-life movement) disingenuous. Very few people believe "all life is sacred" when it comes down to it, or else the same folks would be equally upset about America's various volitional wars, drone strikes, etc.. For that matter, far more people die in prison because of inadequate healthcare than Texas has ever executed, but almost no one seems to care about them. Timothy Cole, one recalls, died from an untreated asthma attack. In 2012, just 3% of deaths in custody at TDCJ were executions; more than twice as many people committed suicide.

Culture-war driven debates about capital punishment tend to revolve around phony, trumped up axes that I consider a waste of time and a diversion from other important matters. Too much attention is paid by the media and politicians to the 10-20 death sentences carried out each year in Texas and far too little to the 3.7% of the adult population whose liberty is constrained in more workaday cases.

Like it or not, Texas will soon change how it executes capital murderers and no amount of litigation over how we do it will prevent executions in the future. So why not take the opportunity to be more honest and straightforward about what we're doing in Texans' name?

18 comments:

Michael said...

Why not leave executions up to the counties? Texas counties executed their death penalties up until 1923. And they could bring hangings back.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Michael. In fact, in my part of the state I think you'd find overwhelming support for a return to public hangings. If you want to foster a real deterrent effect with the death penalty, allow parents to pack a picnic basket and bring their kids down to the courthouse square to watch some outlaws swing from the gallows. If you saw the more recent version of True Grit, then you'll get the picture.

As far as firing squads go, I don't think you hear many people complaining about how Bin Laden met Allah. Quick trivia question: Who was the last American executed by firing squad?

sunray's wench said...

Killing inmates is not a solution to why Texas has so many inmates in the first place. If you're going to discuss how to kill inmates, some of whome will be little older than 18, perhaps you should also discuss what Texas is going to do to try and not have to kill people in the 21st century.

You already have the death penalty and it's obviously not a deterrant. Many more socially enlightened societies do not have the death penalty and their murder and other crime rates are considerably lower than Texas'. I'm actually not against it as a tool in the judicial kit, but it really should be reserved for the very worst, the absolutely unrehabilitable, and not those who spend more time on death row than many other similar inmates do to complete their sentences for the same crime, only committed in a different county with a less vengeful DA.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@11:36, I think it was Ronnie Lee Gardner in Utah three years ago.

Also, like the electric chair, hanging (especially when it doesn't work) gets you back to the 8th Amendment questions that face lethal injection alternatives. Death by firing squad is instant and certain.

Finally, homicide rates rates in the 1920s when counties hung folks in the square were higher than now. You might argue for it because people in your part of the state would enjoy the spectacle, much as religious Aztecs enjoyed the spectacle of human sacrifice, but there's not really a deterrence argument for public executions.

Anonymous said...

And it's exactly the lack of a general deterrence argument that forms the foundation of my leanings toward opposition to capital punishment. Those engaged in criminal activity aren't likely to stop and consider the deterrent effect of any consequences that flow from the crime. Quite simply put, most do not believe they will get caught.

Anonymous said...

Congrats! It was Gardner in 2010, even though Utah banned execution by firing squad in 2004. The change was not retroactive and evidently there are still a couple of capital offenders on Utah's death row that could opt for a firing squad. If I'm not mistaken, Oklahoma still allows for a firing squad execution as a second option. Why don't you draft a bill and let's find a couple of sponsors next session, Grits? Maybe we can get the boys over at IPOT to get on board with this. Wouldn't that be a kick in the pants!

DEWEY said...

"Indeed, make me philosopher king and I'd require that the sitting Governor - the only person empowered to commute the sentence - perform the execution with a single, large-caliber shot to the forehead of a kneeling prisoner..."
My bet is that Rick Perry would be more than happy to do it. Every day. Before breakfast.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

2:49, you seem enthusiastic, why don't you do it? I'll have my hands full with IPOT duties (this is far outside their purview) and trying to require warrants for cell-phone location data.

Phillip Baker said...

I am an abolitionist. Most of these criminal deserve death. But we, as a society, should be better than that. We remain the only developed nation still using this penalty. Then there is the fact of our judicial murder of at least 2 men. What a source of Texan pride.

So the death penalty is popular? I read that more than 90% of Americans favor universal background check, but the NRA certainly blocked that. So much for the power of the people. Those same voters supported slavery, disenfranchisement for women, barring interracial marriage, jail time for gays, and lot else now considered unthinkable. Sometimes leadership is required. We're in very short supply, I know.

That same public has been shielded from reality for too long. W changed tradition and stopped coverage of the caskets coming back from war to "protect and honor the families' privacy"- and keep all those too real pics from letting people see the real results of war. Same with executions. If the people are so insistent of killing, then they should see it in action. And by all means let the governor start the poisons or pull the trigger. It's too easy to be pro death penalty these days. Make it real.

SEMPERFINE said...

Welcome back Scott; this was a very good article.Your objectivity is to be congragulated.
Couple of points:
1. A pistol shot to the forehead is not as effective as a large caliber pistol shot to the juncture of the spine and the base of the skull. The Soviet's used this method for years, as well as the Nazi's in the Ardentine Cave massacre.

2. A firing squad is not instantaneous; creating the necessity of the "Coup De Grace".

3. The Guillotine is the most effective,painless,and instantaneous form of individual execution yet devised.It is easily constructed and maintained.

Anyway, it was a good article, and I especially agree with your opinion regarding abolitionists.

Mara Leveritt said...

I get stymied way back, at the notion that any manner of killing an unwilling person somehow is not cruel.

Charlie O said...

I am very much opposed to the death penalty. Not because "all life is sacred" at all. Hell, the planet would be better of if a few certain people were dead. I oppose it because the system so flawed. And I don't believe the state has the right to murder in my name. I'll do my killing thank you.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Semperfine, I suggested the forehead instead of the base of the skull because I want the elected official to face the person they're killing. Doubt you'd need the coup de grace that way, either. Shooting a man from the back - even if it worked well for Communist Russia or the Nazis - has always struck me as a cowardly act.

Also, while you may share my view of abolitionists, let me make clear I feel similarly about people who actively promote the death penalty's broader application. To choose THAT as your great cause to champion given all else that's going on in the world IMO speaks as poorly of avid death penalty proponents as anything negative I could say about abolitionists. That's why I eschew these culture-war debates: I say "A pox on both your houses."

Mara, the US Constitution explicitly authorizes the death penalty so until several of the self-styled originalists leave SCOTUS, it's a hard argument to win that the 8th Amendment prohibits it. You're entitled to your opinion but that's all it is and the overwhelming majority of Texans disagree, along with everybody in the judiciary who matters.

Charlie, the state does have the right to murder in your name. (See drone strike victims, also Iraq and Afghanistan.) Your argument about the system's flaws are more compelling - long delays, the likely execution of innocents, etc. - but I can point to tremendous flaws throughout the justice system because we've scaled it up to such a behemoth. Practical concerns won't win you the ideological argument on this one.

Anonymous said...

In mother Russia when your day comes they escort you out of your cell and while you are walking the guard with the pistol already out puts one in the back of your head. Never know it's coming. But I can see the value to the state of looking into the condems eyes befor you shoot.

Ham2mtr

Anonymous said...

"3. The Guillotine is the most effective,painless,and instantaneous form of individual execution yet devised.It is easily constructed and maintained."

Google french Gieana(sic) guillotine survivor.

Anonymous said...

Criminey, the lure of appearing fair and balanced. Only one of your arguments make any sense, and it's half wrong: so it's not the worst punishment, well that means there are other cruel and unusual sentences. As for your democratic impulses, let's see, apartheid was once wildly popular in your neck of the woods. Right you are, though, the move to injections was an attempt to sanitize, if not humanize, killing prisoners, but that took the bloody fun out of it; instead of fire and brimstone, we have a search for veins on a helpless victim, followed by macabre comingling of fluids, all supervised by sallow, gruesome doctors. That makes for bad T.V., which is good for abolition.

Stella said...

But see, the thing is, giving the Governor a gun to carry out the executions isn't taking responsibility at all. People are convicted and sentenced to death because of juries made up from members of the public, therefore taking responsibility would mean that executioners are also selected from members of the public. Let them also be responsible for handing the dead body over to the family as well. Then let's see how much longer the death penalty continues in places such as Texas.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"As for your democratic impulses, let's see, apartheid was once wildly popular in your neck of the woods."

Just saw this: This comment was flat-out moronic. Do you know what apartheid is? Do you not grok that apartheid by definition is an abrogation of democracy because large classes of people are excluded from the vote? That's not true here. Even ex-felons can vote in Texas after they've completed their sentences. This sort of ignorant nutballery is partly why I cannot embrace abolitionism. I don't like demagoguery when the tuff-on-crime crowd does it and I'm no more impressed when abolitionists engage in it. Your passion has overcome reason and once that happens, it's impossible to have a meaningful debate.