Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Hangman's Tipping Point

Two significant dates in recent memory represent the tipping point in the fight to eliminate the death penalty from our nation’s jurisprudence. On December 13, 2006 Florida corrections officials took 34 minutes to execute Angel Nieves Diaz by lethal injection for the murder of a manager of a topless bar that he committed in 1979. (The process usually only takes a matter of minutes). The botched execution, which included evidence that Diaz suffered excruciating pain, led Governor Jeb Bush to impose a moratorium on executions in Florida, long known as one of the busiest death-penalty states in the country.

Only days after the public furor over the Diaz execution, Saddam Hussein’s almost farcical death by hanging on December 30, 2006 (and the later hanging of his half-brother) in Iraq decisively tipped the scale against imposing capital punishment in the U.S.

I can’t swear to always being able to read this country’s political pulse. However, this time I feel comfortable in saying that taken together, these two events have signified a sea change in this country’s perception of the death penalty. Their dramatic impact is due primarily to the fact that they have turned the two concrete pillars supporting capital punishment in this country into pillars of salt. (And nothing stands on a pillar of salt.) Diaz’s execution provided graphic evidence, in addition to the mounting paper trail , that lethal injection does not afford the painless and civilized death that would be expected of a government-sponsored execution. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be), states are now confronted with the dilemma that they have to change the execution protocol but they don’t really have many options available to them. Lethal injection already represents the fifth type of execution that has been tried in this country (on top of hanging, lethal gas, firing squad and the electric chair). Perhaps more importantly, licensed medical practitioners are prohibited from assisting in the execution process, thereby restricting the state from adopting a protocol that requires monitoring of the inmate during the execution process.

In addition to the technical problem of finding a suitable method for carrying out capital punishment, this country learned from Saddam Hussein’s death that witnessing the execution of a horrible criminal does not provide the “just desserts” that everyone anticipates. For a victim’s family, the death of the person convicted of killing their loved one may provide a sense of closure, and possibly even a measure of justice. However, for society writ large, which is the true beneficiary of our criminal justice system, Saddam Hussein’s execution woke people up to the reality that capital punishment does not achieve the retribution that everybody desires, and instead is at most intended as a mechanism for crime prevention. For the majority of individuals not involved in law enforcement who have voiced their support of the death penalty on the grounds that it achieves justice, the realization that it fails to do so will no doubt quiet them.

Only history will be able to judge whether the waning days of 2006 proved to be the turning point in the fight to eradicate the death penalty from our country’s sentencing options. I think though that the scales of justice have already tipped in that direction.