Wednesday, October 7, 2009

O brave new world

Let's pretend, for the moment, that they're serious. Let's assume that they really are going to start from scratch and figure out a way to kill people that's
  1. Within the competence of the folks they can find to do it;
  2. Based on lethal injection and is quick and painless as the Ohio General Assembly demands;
  3. Sure and certain and constitutional.
Let's assume, they can thread that needle.

According to the Columbus Dispatch today, everything is up for grabs.
Injecting deadly drugs into muscle and bone, using a single, more powerful drug, or using an entirely different combination of drugs are options being reviewed.

Prison officials are consulting with Dr. Mark Dershwitz, a University of Massachusetts professor of anesthesiology who testified for the state last year as a paid expert witness in a lethal-injection lawsuit in federal court. He has consulted with several states on lethal-injection litigation.

Julie Walburn, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said, "We're considering all options at this time. It could be a backup or a complete change."

So there's no telling what they'll do. On the other hand, there's no need for them to do anything. After all, Walburn said, DRC Director Terry Collins, who is presumably overseeing this ghoulish rethinking of how to kill, is "fully supportive of the execution team and the current protocols."

So whose idea is it? And who's going to oversee it.

Walburn said there's no time limit and that Strickland can grant further reprieves. Strickland said, in granting the reprieves to Reynolds and Durr, that Biros will be killed in December and that they've "made progress," whatever that might mean. Perhaps it just means that they've spoken with Mark Dershwitz. He's the anesthesiologist from the University of Massachusetts who testifies for the states in lethal injection cases explaining that the administrative protocols and procedures are essentially foolproof.

It's perhaps worth a moment's thought to remember two others who've worked with the states on improving the technology of death.

There was Fred Leuchter. He claimed to be a trained engineer, and after studying execution technology, concluded that the various states all did it badly. He redesigned electric chairs and gas chambers and designed a lethal injection system, all to ensure that executions would be carried out surely and humanely. He obtained contracts with several states to install and maintain his equipment. Lots of publicity, lots of money. Until the bubble burst.

It all came out when, due to his expertise, he went to Auschwitz to examine the gas chambers as a paid expert on behalf of a Holocaust denier on trial for his views. Leuchter concluded that the Holocaust just didn't, you know, occur.

At which point people began looking more closely. Turns out Leuchter wasn't actually an engineer. And he didn't really know what he was doing. He would basically blackmail states into hiring him. When they refused, he'd testify that their technology would fail and cause horrific, grotesquely painful executions. He was discredited, convicted (on a plea) of practicing engineering without a license.

Unmasked as a sham and scoundrel. But a damned interesting one. Errol Morris made a documentary film about him, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (A transcript is available here.)

And then there's Jay Chapman. He was the Oklahoma Medical Examiner who, in 1977, in response to a question by a state legislator looking for a humane way to kill, spent three weeks working out the formula for the three-drug cocktail which has been the forumul used in lethal injection throughout the country. His position has been consistent: If it's done right, the cocktail he developed will result in a quick and essentially painless death. That's a view nobody seriously disputes.

The question, though, is whether it's done right. And Chapman's recognized the basic problems:

  • It often isn't done right.
  • The people who do it often aren't competent.
  • There are better drugs to use.
  • The second drug serves no useful purpose.

And so they'll make something new up. Or not. Because we know that the current system is both deeply flawed and beyond reproach.

"O brave new world," Shakespeare has Miranda say in The Tempest. She speaks in wonder at what to her is newfound beauty and love.

When Aldous Huxley took the phrase for the title of his distopian novel, Brave New World, the wonder was replaced with deep satire.

Ohio advertises itself as "The Heart of It All." It's a pretty cold cold heart.

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