|Image via Sentencing Law and Policy|
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?