Do we need the death penalty?

The recent news stories about the difficult Arkansas prison executions have been graphic and dismaying.

We discussed these events with a visiting physician friend, asking why the Arkansas prison officials had so much trouble with the process of injecting the drugs.  And why didn’t they have a real doctor do it painlessly instead of the way it was done, which seemed like truly cruel and unusual punishment?

If the purpose of the death penalty is punishment, that is being accomplished.

If it’s revenge, that’s certainly happening.

If it’s deterrence, there is plenty of proof that it isn’t working at all. As more states ban executions, the murder rate is going down.

The doctor said most state medical associations discourage their members from assisting with executions. The Hippocratic Oath of “Do no harm” is contrary to performing any assistance, “even if it avoids prolonged pain or botched procedures. The various medicinal cocktails don’t seem to work very well, and one wonders why a simple drug overdose isn’t used,” the doctor suggested.

“The barbarism is breathtaking, and holding public executions seems like a page from a past that should be turned, and removed from our society entirely.” 

If murder is a social crime, then states have the power to punish that crime in a variety of ways. Thirty-two states still have the death penalty and 18 states plus the District of Columbia have banned the practice. Our nation has a mixed history of such punishment and frequently changes laws concerning it, sometimes for no comprehensive reason.  

New York has ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, then reinstated it, then changed the law so that no death sentence could be imposed until part of the law is corrected. Former Gov. David Paterson removed all death sentence equipment from New York facilities in 2008, but the penalty has not been abolished by law and may still be used with certain legislative revisions.

There is no longer anyone on death row, and New York is considered to be in the “no death penalty” category. It’s complicated.

Voters, legislatures and governors can overturn death penalty policy decisions in all states. The status seems to be fluid all over the nation, even though in 1972, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional. Period. 

A recent archive of executions in the United States from 1608 to the present has been donated to the University of Albany for research and historical study.  Called the Espy File, this huge collection of documents is being digitized and will be available to researchers, presumably online.

The collection of this data deeply affected the researcher, M. Watt Espy, and he suggested that there were so many potential mistakes and wrongful executions that it was not a certain just punishment or deterrent, but more an act of revenge.

His conclusion?: “Murder is a crime against society, but executions are crimes against humanity.”  

“Excellent point,” said our doctor friend. “We’re better than that.”

Karen Cookson lives in Sharon Springs and is a regular contributor to The Sunday Gazette Opinion pages.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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