May 8, 1992

Killing Killers

You haven't lived until you die in California.

Mort Sahl

Considerable ingenuity has gone into methods of killing people who have been sentenced to death. More ingenuity has gone into ways of torturing people, but torture has gone out of style in modern societies --except when it can be done secretly.

An old favorite is hanging. The old way was to allow the victim to die slowly by strangulation. British and American hangmen made it more merciful by using the drop, which, if done properly, breaks the neck causing instant unconsciousness.

The Old Testament standby of stoning and the Roman custom of crucifixion have never been much in favor in Christian societies; but death by burning, probably the most painful way to die, was a favorite punishment for heresy and witchcraft in the middle ages.

The invention of the gun made shooting a proficient method of killing people. Later the firing squad came into being, including the coup de grace, which was a pistol shot to the head after the rest of the body has been riddled. The firing squad is still favored by the military.

Beheading was a favorite in France. The headsman was improved on by Dr. Joseph Guillotin's(1792) clever and merciful invention. The guillotine combined the swiftness and painlessness of beheading with the high drama of the firing squad or a hanging. Unlike the headsman, the guillotine never failed to do the job in one quick stroke.

All of these clever methods were planned as public events designed to frighten potential criminals or dissenters and to amuse the spectators.

In our eclectic country, executions are now performed with the electric chair, gas chamber, hanging, firing squad, and lethal injection. In California, Maryland and Nevada, the gas chamber is used. This method of killing wouldn't pass a modern environmental impact study since some people might object to cyanide fumes being vented into the atmosphere. I suspect that the main reason that the gas chamber is still in use is that no one wants to throw away such an expensive and well-built piece of hardware. In Utah, the victim has a choice between hanging and shooting, which makes Utah the only "choice" state in the union. Most states use lethal injection, which consists of injecting an overdose of a drug that is normally used as an anaesthetic.

I have been told by people in the know that electrocution or cyanide poisoning are not very pleasant ways to die. Of all of these methods, lethal injection is probably the most merciful. Having experienced an anesthetic dose of a drug that can be used for lethal injection, I can testify that it works instantaneously and painlessly.

We have come a long way since 399 B.C. when Socrates was sentenced to death for impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens, and was ordered to take his own life; which he did with hemlock. Plato described his death in exquisite detail.

During the mid 1800's the death penalty for murder was abolished in Michigan. Venezuela and Portugal abolished the death penalty altogether. It is now virtually non-existent in Western Europe and most of Latin America. Most countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East still execute people. In China, not only are murderers and traitors killed, but public officials convicted of accepting bribes are executed.

In 1972 our Supreme Court declared the death penalty for murder and rape unconstitutional. In 1976, The Court ruled that state laws allowing capital punishment were not unconstitutional. In 1977, the court ruled that rape was not a valid ground for execution. Since then, the court has pretty much left it to the states.

There are two arguments in favor of capital punishment. One is vengeance or retaliation; the talion principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Some relatives of the victim may be gratified by the execution. The second argument is that it is a deterrent. I have seen no real evidence that this is true. The only real deterrent that I know of is the certainty of capture and punishment. Even that is a deterrent only to those who might be deterred by it. There are people who will kill regardless of the consequences. It seems to me that the fame that goes with being a murderer might even encourage someone to commit particularly ghastly murders. Multiple murders are a killer's way of spitting in the eye of society and the attendant notoriety may justify it in the eye of the murderer. It is an exaggeration of the behavior of the delinquent kid; if I can't get attention for being good, I'll get it by being very, very bad. For these people it is their only day in the sun. This kind of behavior is also glorified in films and on television.

One thing that has changed over the years is the length of time between conviction and execution, which reflects the length and complexity of the appeal process. In the thirties, Bruno Richard Hauptman, who might not have committed the murder, was executed 14 months after his conviction. In the fifties, the appeal process for the Rosenbergs, convicted of espionage, took 26 months. Robert Alton Harris was executed 14 years after he was convicted.

There was no question of Harris's guilt nor of the horror of his crime. Why 14 years? Why spend a king's ransom just to snuff a killer?

Whether or not one favors execution is a matter of a person's religious convictions. Some favor it strongly and others oppose it just as strongly. It's hard to make an unemotional case for either side. One thing can be said for sure: to argue for 14 years about whether to execute an unquestionably guilty man is just plain ridiculous.

I suspect that the people who are morally opposed to capital punishment will have their way because many of the rest of us are simply tired of the the whole ghastly business. I would approve of almost any alternative to the long legal battles and the almost endless news bulletins. I don't think a murderer deserves the notoriety that he gets. The best thing for society would be to lock a killer away for the rest of his life and forget him.

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