Monday, October 12, 2009

Ritual Dance

The question came up again today, as it does with some regularity.

How can you advocate for more humane killing and still call yourself an abolitionist? Isn't advocating for the mythical "humane murder" a tacit admission that humane killing is acceptable?

It's a difficult question, one I think is important to struggle with.

As an abolitionist, I've always had mixed feelings about devoting energy to the oxymoronic effort to make killing humane. But as someone who represents real clients who feel real pain and real fear, I have to say the effort is important.

Of course, governmental efforts in that direction have, despite the public posturing, been for the sake of the execution teams and the witnesses. It's easier on them to have a cosmetically peaceful, medicalized killing than to experience the visual horror show of the gas chamber or the electric chair. As we make killing seem nicer, we make it easier on the killers and their enablers. And that just encourages them.

But the condemned too benefit from quick, comparatively painless death. And there is much to be said for not inflicting horrific pain on them. Certainly, as a lawyer, representing individual clients, it's my duty to advocate for them, to act in their interests. When I litigate the constitutionality of lethal injection, my concern is what's best for this client. I don't get to say,
Gee, you could benefit from lethal injection litigation, but if we let your death be really horrible, then it just might hasten the day we end the death penalty. So I won't do what will help you because I'm on a mission to help bunches of other people. Your execution will just be collateral damage. Sorry.
Besides, reducing pain and suffering is a good thing. First do no harm, even on the way to a greater good.

I've been reading Ivan Solotaroff's The Last Face You'll Ever See: The Private Life of the American Death Penalty. It's an examination of the death penalty through the eyes of the executioners. Much of the book is focused on Don Hocutt, the Mississippi executioner who killed Jimmy Lee Gray, the first post-Gregg execution in Mississippi, conducted at midnight, in the gas chamber.

Driving along the next day, Hocutt muses:
Still, the actual punishment seemed strange. Ten miles up 49W, the question came to him: Why was it hidden? If it was supposed to help stop rapes and murders like that three-year-old girl’s, why wasn’t what he did last night getting shown to people? If it was meant for the vengeance of that little girl’s family, and for that family in Arizona, why weren’t they there? And the chamber itself was awesome in action, but he had to wonder: what was the point? He and some guards could have taken Gray a few hundred yards into the woods, strung him up, then stayed out in the pecan orchard with some beer iced down and enjoyed the beauty of the day.
One more question that perhaps didn't apply to this killing which was, in description at least and in the view of the witnesses, horrific. But if there's supposed to be equivalence, why try to make it nice and peaceful?

There's the thought that if we just show people how horrific it is, they'll come to oppose the death penalty. History has demonstrated quite the opposite. The throngs turned out for the bloody guillotine. Hangings drew thousands. Put it on pay-per-view and you could make a dent in the national debt. (OK, maybe that's an exaggeration. Maybe.)

We moved executions indoors because the crowd scenes were unseemly. We cosmeticized them to make them more palatable to the very few who get to see them. We moved them from high noon to midnight to make them less accessible and then to daytime to make them less special.

We believe it's vital to kill but essential to hide the killing. What we do is premeditated, calculated, cold-blooded murder, but it's highly bureaucratized murder, which is why Hocutt couldn't just go off into the woods, hang Jimmy Lee Gray, and then have a few beers.

We take all feeling and sense out of the penalty, or try to.

Maybe once there was a purpose to the death penalty. Maybe once it did express communal outrage, identify behavior beyond the pale. Maybe once it provided some sort of individual or communal catharsis. Maybe once it was swift and sure and matched to the crime. Maybe once it's ritual components - last meals, last words, reading the death warrant, strapping down, May God Have Mercy on Your Soul - maybe all that once had meaning. Now it's empty ritual. Formula really. "Bless you." "Fine, thank you." "Pleased to meet you, too."

You'd think it might be easier to abandon a practice which no longer serves any purpose. But it's tenacious.

So we work to make the killing more humane because until it stops, there are those real, flesh and blood men and women. And besides, the less it means, the easier it should be to shut it all down. Or so we can tell ourselves.


  1. The killing of the condemned will never become more humane as it will always be devastating to their families.

  2. The families and friends of the convicted are the hidden victims of crime.

    You're right of course, that killing the condemned just generates more suffering and there's nothing humane about causing suffering.

    Besides, the killing will always be murder. There really is no such thing as humane murder.