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Cruel, unusual and unethical

Andrea Laidman | Monday, October 9, 2006

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, in his famous dissenting opinion of February 1994, expressed dismay over capital punishment in America’s judicial system. “From this day forward,” Blackmun wrote, “I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” Almost 20 years after the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty in the U.S., Blackmun believed he was “morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed.”

Yet 12 years later, as “the death penalty experiment” continues to prove a procedural and legal nightmare, Justice Blackmun’s reference to capital punishment as the “machinery of death” has become literal.

In April of this year, the execution of North Carolina inmate Willie Brown was monitored by machinery alone, with no supervision of assigned medical personnel – a method of killing illegal to administer to dogs in all but two states.

While 48 states maintain a veterinarian must be present at the euthanizing of an animal, a federal judge ruled that in North Carolina a man could be killed by lethal injection under the watch of a brain wave monitor. Both the manufacturer of the monitoring device and the American Society of Anesthesiologists protested the use of the device as a stand-alone means, insisting that its purpose was to assist anesthesia professionals rather than replace them.

The debate is complicated by the reason for the absence of medical officials at executions. Medical codes of ethics, under the American Medical Association, prohibit doctors and other health professionals from participating in executions – a position that makes a statement about morality and the death penalty.

The ethics of medical participation in executions reveals one of the many complexities of capital punishment in the U.S. In an effort to maintain ethics within the legal system, judges are increasingly calling for medical personnel to supervise executions. However, with medical ethics in mind, doctors and anesthesiologists assert that physicians are healers, not executioners, and therefore cannot participate in the administration of lethal drugs.

If states, like North Carolina, feel they must purchase devices to carry out the death sentences of their inmates, can this punishment be considered ethical and humane? Medical codes of ethics aside, I believe that the reluctance of a state or a judge to employ any human being in taking the life of another person reveals the inherent aversion to killing that has been present as long as capital punishment itself.

In recent months, states are stalling and abandoning executions due to a flood of lawsuits framing lethal injection, especially without a medical practitioner present, as a violation of the rights of a U.S. citizen. The execution of Joseph Clark in Ohio in May demonstrates some of the issues surrounding lethal injection that are currently being examined. Prison technicians had trouble finding a suitable vein through which to administer lethal chemicals to Clark. After multiple attempts, the lethal dose began, but minutes later Clark raised his head and said, “It’s not working.” Another vein was painstakingly located, and drugs administered, in an execution that lasted almost 90 minutes in all.

As residents of the United States, we currently live in a nation that provides more humane treatment to dogs than to citizens imprisoned on death row, despite our position as a leader of international progress and justice. In August, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a report recommending that the United States impose a moratorium on executions. While this UN statement bears no penalty or enforcement beyond international scrutiny, it does raise the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as a document long endorsed by the United States. The United States’ 1992 ratification of the treaty (a hard-law update of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights) included a number of reservations – notably, provisions on the death penalty.

Similar to the ever-increasing presence of domestic campaigns against the death penalty, the U.N.’s recommendation can do little more than appeal to lawmakers and judges and request a closer examination of the procedural flaws and injustices of capital punishment – an evaluation that can only fully be achieved through a moratorium.

The current ironic reality is that it requires outrageous mistakes and questionable rulings (such as the prolonged execution of Clark or the debate over Brown’s machine-monitored death) to bring the institutional injustices and problems of capital punishment in America under scrutiny.

In working towards a moratorium in the state of Indiana, we can prevent additional, unnecessary injustices from occurring, and utilize already existing and sufficient evidence and research to confirm Judge Blackmun’s 12-year-old stance that the death penalty has failed in the United States.

Andrea Laidman is a junior political science and Peace Studies major. She is co-president of NDASK, a new campaign against the death penalty. She can be reached at [email protected] This is the first in a three-part series of columns examining capital punishment.