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A More Humane Capital Punishment? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Norton Gappy   

On October 30, 2007, the United States Supreme Court granted a stay of execution to Earl W. Berry, a convicted murderer in Mississippi. Berry is on death row for killing a woman 20 years ago. On November 15, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution of Mark Dean Schwab, a convicted child killer, just hours before his execution.

In January 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear appeals from two Kentucky inmates who are challenging Florida’s method of carrying out capital punishment. Florida carries out its executions by lethal injection, commonly referred to as the “triple cocktail.” This triple cocktail is a toxic three-drug combination which includes sodium thiopental, an anesthetic that puts a person to sleep, followed by pavulon, a muscle relaxant that paralyzes the body, and finally potassium chloride, which is supposed to stop a person’s heart within ten seconds.

Death by lethal injection was intended to be a clean and relatively painless form of capital punishment. The problem with this procedure is that doctors are ethically prohibited from participating in executions. Therefore, incompetent or inexperienced persons are usually assigned to carry out the executions. As a result, needles are often inserted incorrectly causing the inmate to be inadequately sedated. In such situations, the inmate suffocates in agony. In addition, if the executioner injects the drug into the muscle instead of the vein, or if the needle becomes clogged, extreme pain can result to the individual. Death row inmates in Kentucky are arguing that the use of lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of Eighth Amendment.

At the forefront of the capital punishment debate is concern over the execution of innocent people. Since 1973, advances in DNA analysis have lead to the release of 124 death-row inmates. Statistics like this are causing some states to declare a moratorium on the use of capital punishment altogether.

Currently, 37 states employ some sort of capital punishment. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have no death penalty. However, even if a state bans the use of capital punishment, a state must respect federal laws which subject individuals to capital punishment for certain federal crimes which occur in that state.

The Supreme Court has not suspended capital punishment, only the most common method of applying it. In past years, other forms of capital punishment have been implemented: death by burning, stoning, crucifixion, drowning, live burials, guillotine, hanging, electric chair, lethal gas, firing squad, and lethal injection. If the Supreme Court bans the current triple cocktail method of capital punishment, presumably states may create a more humane method of executing death row inmates. One procedure being considered is the administration of an overdose of barbiturates, which is the same method veterinarians use to put animals to sleep.

The reality is that legislators concentrate too much on the punishment of a convicted felon, and not enough on rehabilitation and repayment to society. Overcrowding in our prisons is a nationwide problem resulting in the early release of violent offenders. And to make matters worse, prison is nothing more than a warehouse for more crime with inmates joining ruthless gangs in order to survive prison life.

Instead, the focus should be on rehabilitation-oriented correctional institutions. We should be educating inmates, teaching them true job skills and providing intensive training programs. Convicts should be required to perform community service acts that will help pay for their incarceration, their court costs, and damages to the victims and their families. This is a start in reducing the rate of recidivism. In the long run, re-education and rehabilitation programs will be more cost effective than the alternative of doing nothing at all.

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