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Capital Punishment: Don't Improve It, Get Rid of It

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Death penalty fans and foes each witnessed their own versions of the immorality of capital punishment this week. The occasion was the near-execution of Michael Morales for the strangling-bludgeoning-rape-stabbing death of Terri Winchell in 1981.

Morales' last full day on earth was slated for Monday, February 21. But on that day a federal court allowed a challenge to California's execution protocol: under some conditions Morales might suffer agonizing pain before death. The court ordered that the state either (a) administer an overdose of the barbiturate sodium thiopental and allow Morales to die from that alone, or (b) provide two anesthesiologists in the death chamber to ensure Morales remained unconscious until he died. The state opted for the doctors.

The execution was scheduled for 12:01 AM on Tuesday. The witnesses were in their seats; everything was ready. Then the execution was delayed an hour to clarify the doctors' responsibilities. Shortly after 2:00 AM, the warden announced that the doctors refused to proceed on ethical grounds and the execution would be rescheduled for 7:30 PM. By that hour the state still was not ready and the execution was postponed. The death warrant expired at 11:59 PM PST.

For some, the obscenity of these events could be seen in the anguish and anger of Terri Winchell's family and friends when they learned the execution would not proceed at 12:01 AM or any other time on Tuesday. For 25 years they have waited for "the system" to deliver justice, to avenge Terri's killing on their behalf, and the system failed them. Had they known in 1983 that Morales would spend the rest of his natural life in prison, without possibility of parole, they might have found some way to move on and sought peace elsewhere.

For others, the obscenity lay in the prospect that still another execution might go forward at all. Those people argue that capital punishment nothing more than ritual killing. It is immoral, barbaric, out of step with the times, and wrong no matter what the reason. "Let's aspire to higher levels of morality and human decency than common killers do," they say.

This case forces all of us to take a hard look at the execution process itself. For eons, man has sought to enhance the effectiveness, efficiency, and timeliness of his killing technology. Those terms are important because they are the three classic measures of productivity. Here, "effectiveness" refers to whether or not the right person is being executed. "Efficiency" relates to the amount of effort we have to invest to achieve the end result. "Timeliness" represents the interval from the time the crime is committed to day when the sentence is carried out.

Over time we imposed three more requirements on our killing mechanism: it had to done be out of public view, so as not to offend people's sensibilities; it had to be sanitary - no possibility of blood and gore; and it had to be "humane."

We added these three requirements to make executions more palatable to ourselves. The just-executed convict certainly doesn't care anymore, he's dead. We the living must live with the aftermath of what we authorized, paid for, and carried out; and we do not wish to be shocked or disgusted.

For years, hanging and electrocution were seen as great advances in efficiency and overall agreeableness. But each had possible unintended consequences: If a hanged person drops too far, he will be decapitated. If he doesn't drop far enough, he will strangle under his own weight. If the inmate being electrocuted receives a sub-lethal jolt he may remain conscious and be cooked alive; too much juice and he may burst into flames.

In both cases, as the efficiency of the process increased the tolerance for procedural error decreased. That is a very common relationship in process design.

Then came lethal injection. Lethal injection seemed ideal: it was relatively quick, low cost, private, clean, "humane." Some Death Row inmates even volunteered for it, given the alternative of life without parole.

Now it develops that lethal injection may have its own similar process shortcomings: if too little sodium thiopental (the first drug) is administered, the condemned person may regain consciousness even as he is being killed.

The sensation, while short-lived, would be horrific. The second drug paralyzes the muscles so the doomed person would have no way to signal that he is conscious. And the third drug, before it stopped the heart, would probably create throughout the body a sensation similar to being burned alive (how will we ever know for sure?). On the other hand, an overdose of sodium thiopental may lead to throat spasm, airway collapse, and slow suffocation.

So we must once again wrestle with our need for "humane" executions and what we are willing to trade off to get them. Some people assert that it doesn't matter - who cares if the condemned killer feels pain? It won't be for long, and it's nothing close to the pain inflicted on his victims and their survivors. Let the process be painful, they say.

Others counter that that argument may feel good, but it has two drawbacks: (a) the point is to kill the inmate, not to torture him; and (b) the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution does prohibit "cruel and unusual" punishment.

So the courts must decide: How much pain is too much? And are the possibilities of one's last sensations being either burned alive or suffocated while helpless consistent with the idea of a "humane" death?

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Rick Wise is an industrial psychologist and retired management consultant. For 15 years, he was managing director of ValueNet International, Inc. Before starting ValueNet, Rick was director, corporate training and, later, director, corporate (more...)
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