Columns » John Brummett

Overkill on Death Row



They were among my saddest days when we had our Labrador retrievers put to death, first Bubba, at 15, then Sissy, nearly 14.

But I remember wishing that, when my time came, I could go as they went.

In Bubba’s case, a veterinarian with a special attachment to him came on a bright and mild spring April day to his backyard domain. She gave him a shot as he lay in the grass near the rock waterfall amid flowers. Before long he simply didn’t breathe anymore. He had passed out of his misery and into our memory.

This was a far dearer soul than your garden-variety Death Row inmate. But there is a worthy argument emerging that says we should endeavor to treat Death Row inmates like dogs, which is to say as humanely, at least when we end their lives.

I recall when an Arkansas legislator argued for his bill to implement lethal injection in place of electrocution as the means for imposing the death penalty. He concluded by pleading, “Gentlemen, what I’m saying is that when you vote on this bill, try to act like human beings and not legislators.”

Now, two decades later, judges across the country have begun looking favorably on Death Row appeals based on the charge that the way 35 states do lethal injection is, like the electric chair before it, needlessly cruel, even torturous. What once was considered a stalling tactic has come to be taken seriously.

The argument is that vets treat household pets much better, and that Oregon’s assisted suicide law is based on the veterinary model, not the death chamber.

Our courts say the Constitution permits a death penalty. But our courts say the Constitution does not allow unusually cruel treatment. That is to say we seem to be under license to kill, but under mandate to do it painlessly.

In North Carolina, a judge said that a scheduled lethal injection could not proceed unless a doctor was present to make sure the three injections that actually compose the fatal process were handled properly. When the three shots aren’t handled properly, it apparently is pure hell.

But the American Medical Association’s code of ethics prohibits member participation in executions. Widespread imposition of such a physican-attended requirement would seem either to effectively end lethal injections or require the AMA to change its code.

This developing issue could force states to give Death Row inmates a single lethal dose of a long-lasting barbiturate, which is the standard veterinary practice.

But, to be frank, doctors can’t really be sure that the single shot appearing so painless and peaceful in pets would be as painless and peaceful in the human brain. What we don’t know about the central nervous system could fill libraries.

The three-step process used in prisons actually seems best in terms of being humane, I’m told, but only if done expertly. And postmortem evidence has shown that nonphysician technicians administering lethal injections in prison death chambers often make errors, and that if the first shot, a barbiturate, is not properly given, the paralyzing effect of the second shot and the heart-stopping effect of the third can be torture.

At its core, the issue seems to be what we might call overkill, literally.

Actually, that’s not the core issue at all. The core issue is whether it’s right for the state to take human life, period.

Our constant struggle with the fairness, equity and humanity of the death penalty suggests that we may not have the stomach for it that we think we do. It may be that we’re re-evolving to the notion that killing as punishment without exercising unusual cruelty is a hopeless contradiction in terms.

I’ll take my chances on what Bubba got, but, like Oregonians, only by my choice and only when the time comes.

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