From the United States Supreme Court came good news on September 25, 2007. The Court will consider whether Kentucky’s lethal injection protocol creates intractable pain during execution.
Good news may travel fast but it did not travel fast enough to reach the Texas Court of Appeals by quitting time on September 25. Richard Michael’s appeal did not arrive in time either; thanks to a computer glitch it got there eight minutes late. Mr. Michael was executed by lethal injection, painful or not, three hours later.
There have been no executions in the United States since then. There is now a de facto moratorium on lethal injections until the Court rules in Baze vs. Rees. A decision is expected in June 2008.
A ruling in Mr. Baze’s favor will not end capital punishment in the US. At most, it will probably call for revised execution protocols. A decision for the state will allow executions to resume. Some states may even pick up the pace of executions to make up for lost time.
The fact that the Supreme Court is willing even to consider the question in Baze vs. Rees is important, however. It should invite us all to reflect on a broader question: Is death a punishment at all?
Death penalty supporters would reply, “Of course it is. What could possibly be worse? You’re dead. At last, a killer’s victims have been avenged. Survivors now have closure. Justice has been served. The rule of law has prevailed. And we have sent a message to future criminals: ‘an eye for an eye’. Good riddance.”
Fair enough, although constructs like vengeance, closure, the rule of law, and even justice are our own theoretical societal inventions. They do not exist in nature; we created them for ourselves to describe our feelings and to bring order to our societies.
Death is not theoretical; death is real and final. So for capital punishment to have any justification at all, we must accept the notion that death – that state of non-existence in which all of us spend just about all of eternity – is actually a punishment. If it’s not, then why else would we put people to death?
If we execute criminals only to make ourselves feel better, then we should find another outlet for our passions. That reason is not good enough.
When a criminal is condemned to death, three events will overtake him: incarceration, execution, and death. First he will be imprisoned, usually in solitary confinement for many years, while his appeals creep through the courts. The average time between sentencing and execution in the US is now more than 12 years – an all-time high. For many, the wait and uncertainty of this bleak and solitary existence drag on for decades.
At length, if the inmate is unsuccessful in his appeals, he is executed. We in 21st century America have opted for executions that are fast, private, unheralded, sanitary, and painless. We prefer our barbarism to be dignified and, as Baze suggests, non-punishing.
And then the criminal is dead. At the moment his life ceases his punishment ceases too. He is beyond punishment; he is no more. So he shall remain for all of eternity. There cannot be anything punishing about that, unless you believe that your late ancestors and loved ones are undergoing some sort of eternal torment at this very moment.
This is not to say there is no punishment after death, if that is your belief. But that refers to punishment of the soul. If one’s soul is to be punished, I believe it will happen in its own time. Give the Almighty some credit: if anything, He has a mighty long memory for who deserves what rewards in the hereafter.
In the here and now, being dead is not a punishment – that is why dozens of condemned prisoners have volunteered for it. The execution process must not be a punishment – the whole point of Baze is to make certain that executions are not punishing. So where else could the punishment lie? It must lie in the incarceration; there is no other choice.
The real punishment of life in solitary confinement, without parole, is the absence of all hope that any of a man’s tomorrows will be any better or different than his miserable today. True punishment will deny death to that man for as long as nature allows; it will not do him the favor of releasing him early from the fate of a long, hopeless existence.
Death penalty opponents have argued for an end to capital punishment. They point out that it costs too much, takes too long, and does not deter crime. Many also say it is not our place as moral beings to kill our fellow humans. I agree with those viewpoints and offer just one more reason: there is no punishment in capital punishment.