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Friday, January 24, 2014

State Sponsored Killings Have Come A Long Way

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the execution of Hans Landis, an Anabaptist martyr who happens to be one of my wife's direct ancestors. At age 70 he was publicly beheaded for the crime of holding illegal church meetings in the canton of Zurich, Switzerland, and for providing pastoral care to a growing group of so-called "re-baptizers" who refused to have their children baptized as members of the state-supported Reformed Church. His wife Margaretha Hochstrasser, age 60, witnessed the gruesome killing, and his son Felix later died in prison in 1642 as a result of inhumane treatment, as did his daughter Verena one year after that, in 1643.

In light of that history we have come a long way from a time when thousands of my spiritual ancestors were martyred for simply advocating that all adults should be able to freely choose whatever religion they wished, a freedom we now take for granted. And thankfully, we have come to rule out the more barbaric means of capital punishment used in cases of people indicted for crimes, such as burning them at the stake, drowning them to death, tearing them limb from limb on torture racks or condemning them to spend the rest of their lives as galley slaves.

That was, after all, four centuries ago, and most of us are glad to see a progression from these more horrific to less cruel forms of killing. But any execution of a relatively healthy adult requires some extreme violence. Human bodies are not designed to give up life easily.

The recent death by injection of killer Dennis McGuire carried out by the state of Ohio has added to the humanitarian concerns held by many opponents of the death penalty. Because of a shortage of the most commonly used drug pentobarbital in states like Ohio--due to major suppliers refusing to make it available for the purpose of killing people--authorities in the state used a combination of two other untried drugs, the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphon. The condemned man appeared to gasp several times and took an unusually long time to die, nearly 25 long minutes.

McGuire's lawyers have argued that he experienced the kind of "air hunger" that could cause him to suffer "agony and terror" while struggling to get his breath.

Of course many believe McGuire deserved all of this and more for his having cruelly stabbed to death an innocent pregnant newlywed. I fully understand that. His was a horrendous crime, and if reverting back to the practice of torture is our goal, our legislators need to empower our judges to sentence accordingly. But civilized societies have come to believe they are better than that, and our own U.S. constitution rules out “cruel” or “unusual” punishment, no matter how heinous the crime.

Today the U.S. is among the few industrialized nations that still executes criminals, and 18 states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty entirely. Among the 32 states that still practice capital punishment, its  application is uneven and there is no evidence that Texas, which holds the record of having executed over 500 offenders (Virginia is second), is any safer than New York or California, which no longer executes any.

In a very recent development, members of Virginia’s House of Delegates, by an overwhelming majority, have voted to take a step backwards to again approve the use of the electric chair as a means of execution should the state experience a shortage of pentobarbital.

Is this really the direction we want our Commonwealth to go? If so, if we were faced with a power shortage, would we revert to hanging, or if a hemp shortage, beheading? In what direction do we really want to go as a society?

For me, on both moral and religious grounds, being pro-life means seeing all life at all stages as precious.
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