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Sunday, February 2, 2014

DNR Op-Ed: 'Let's Not Go Back To The Chair'

My most recent op-ed piece (below) appeared in yesterday's Daily News-Record, on the same page as a lead editorial presenting a pro-capital punishment point of view.

In 1890, William Kemmler became the first person executed by means of a unique U.S. invention, the electric chair. After 17 seconds of 2000-volt current, Kemmler convulsed violently, turned bright red, and appeared to have died. When he instead began to revive and struggle for breath, officials rushed to restart their generator and repeat the charge for an entire minute, resulting in a death accompanied by the smell of burning flesh and smoke coming from Kemmler’s head.

Despite this gruesome start, some variation of this killing experiment became the norm for most executions in the United States through most of the 20th century, largely replacing hanging and the gas chamber. In 1979, a series of more botched electrocutions led to states switching to lethal injections, Virginia being among them.

On Jan. 20, our Virginia House of Delegates, in one of its first actions, voted overwhelmingly to return to using the chair if pentobarbital is unavailable due to manufacturers refusing to sell the drug for use in executions. A Senate version of the same bill remains in committee.

Because of the shortage of this preferred drug, authorities in Ohio recently used an experimental combination of the sedative midazolam and a painkiller, hydromorphon, in the execution of 58-year-old Dennis McGuire, who gasped repeatedly and took nearly an agonizing half hour to die. McGuire’s lawyers argued that he experienced the kind of “air hunger” that caused him extreme suffering while struggling to get his breath.

Of course, many will argue that McGuire deserved all of this and more for the cruel stabbing death of a pregnant newlywed. I fully understand that, but if reverting to the practice of torture is our goal, legislators need to empower judges to sentence accordingly. Civilized societies have come to believe they are better than that, and our own U.S. Constitution rules out “cruel and unusual” punishment, no matter how heinous the crime.

Today the United States lags behind most industrialized nations that have abolished executions entirely — though 18 states and the District of Columbia have done so. Among the 32 states that still apply the death penalty, there is no evidence that Texas, which has executed more than  500 offenders since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, is any safer than, say, New York, which has executed none. Virginia, by the way, is second in its number of executions.

Countries without capital punishment actually have lower crime rates than the United States and their prison sentences are seldom as long as ours. So in what direction do we really want our commonwealth to go? Toward using ever more violence as a means of deterring violence? Or to move toward life sentences as an alternative in extreme cases, with the possibility of parole if offenders show signs of significant change and rehabilitation?

Only 400 years ago, 70-year-old Hans Landis, one of my wife’s direct ancestors, was publicly beheaded for the crime of holding illegal church meetings in the canton of Zurich, Switzerland, something forbidden by the official reformed state church. One of his sons later died in prison in 1642 as a result of inhumane treatment, as did his daughter, Verena, a year later. Such forms of cruelty were commonplace.

From that perspective, we have come a long way from the kind of torturing, beheading, burning at the stake, hanging, drowning, or condemning people to becoming galley slaves that were the norm at that time. Surely we applaud any progression from such horrific sentences to more humane ones. But any execution of a reasonably healthy adult requires an extremely violent intervention. Human bodies are not designed to give up life easily, whether from poisonous gas, toxic drugs or extreme electric shock.

On both moral and religious grounds, being pro-life means treating all human beings as we would want ourselves or our loved ones treated.
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