My (Partial) Change of Heart on the Death Penalty

Read this. I’ll wait.

Done? Good. Let me put out the fact that I do believe that there are some crimes so heinous, so horrible, that the state is justified in taking the life of the guilty party. Let me also put out the fact that I believe capital punishment is fully constitutional, so long as Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishments are not violated.

That last part, as you might imagine, is somewhat important. If the method of execution is cruel, heinous, painful, and/or amounts to torture, I have no problem whatsoever in saying that it is unconstitutional as a consequence. So when I read about Joseph Wood’s case–and for that matter, when I read about Clayton Lockett’s case–I have what I believe are entirely justifiable concerns that in our method of punishing the worst offenders, we may be violating the clear, plain text meaning of the Eighth Amendment.

I recognize that there are people who say that Wood did not suffer, that he was “snoring” or “comatose,” and that as a consequence, there are no Eighth Amendment violations to be found in this case. I would certainly hope that is the case, but there are other witnesses who say otherwise. What if that latter group is right? I imagine that there are those whose response to that last question might be “we don’t care. Wood committed a horrible crime. If he suffered while dying, so much the better.” While I can understand the sentiments that lead to that answer, I can’t accept them as valid. We do not execute in order to exact revenge, and there is that whole pesky Eighth Amendment thing to worry about.

As the New York Times article alludes to, the major reason we are having problems with lethal injection all of the sudden is that traditionally used barbiturates are no longer available, and the substitute barbiturates we are using may not be doing the job when it comes to alleviating the suffering of the condemned and making sure that an execution takes place quickly and humanely. Perhaps in the future, we might be able to solve the problems posed by the lack of these barbiturates, and in doing so, make lethal injection a humane form of execution once again. If we do so, I will likely support the use of lethal injection in executing the worst kind of criminal offenders.

But until that happens, I cannot and will not sign on to a method of punishment that may very well be cruel and unusual in its application, according to entirely plausible and credible reports. And no, that doesn’t mean that I don’t care about the victims of a crime, or that I have some kind of undue pity for genuinely bad people. What it does mean is that however bad a crime and however nasty a criminal, society’s response should not be a prolonged, agonizing method of execution that essentially involves torture in its application. And furthermore, what it means is that while I want us as a society to respond swiftly, effectively, and with certainty to the commission of crimes–especially horrible ones–I don’t want us to forsake our own Constitution and become savage and inhumane in the process.