Tag Archive for 'death penalty'

Is Lethal Injection a Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

The death penalty is a divisive issue and most people feel strongly about it. Capital punishment is reserved for the most serious crimes, such as the Boston Marathon bombings.

death penaltyCurrently, the death penalty is an acceptable punishment in 32 states. States, such as, Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, Arizona, Florida, Virginia, and Missouri regularly execute convicted murders. There are many arguments for and against the death penalty. The most prevalent being:

Pros:

  • The death penalty provides victim’s families with closure.
  • Justice is served (i.e. “an eye for an eye”).
  • The death penalty is a deterrent for future criminals.

Cons:

  • The death penalty is barbaric and violates the Bill of Rights (the cruel and unusual punishment clause).
  • It is hypocritical to say that killing is wrong and to have the punishment for the crime be death.
  • The death penalty costs taxpayers more than a life sentence.

Although the verdict is still out on whether the death penalty should continue, many have agreed that the process should be quick and painless. Since 1976, the most common method used to carry out death penalty sentences is lethal injection. Recently, the Supreme Court heard a case about Oklahoma’s inmates and lethal injection.

In this case, the prisoners argued that the use of a certain drug combinations was unconstitutional because it caused pain and suffering that violated the cruel and unusual clause of the Bill of Rights. The specific drug in question is midazolam.

Traditionally, the following three drugs are used for lethal injections:

  • Sodium thiopental or pentobarbital- this would cause death by lack of breathing
  • Pancuronium bromide- this would cause death by asphyxiation
  • Potassium chloride- this would cause death by cardiac arrest

Before administering any of these drugs, the condemned inmate is given a sedative to induce unconsciousness. The traditional barbiturate drug that was used for the process is manufactured in Europe and the United States. The European and United States manufacturers have refused to sell the drug for executions. Due to the lack of supply, many states have resorted to using midazolam to induce unconsciousness.

The main arguments heard last week by the Supreme Court were concerning the effectiveness of the drug. The prisoners argued that previous death row inmates were not unconscious after they were given midazolam. The amount of time it took to execute these inmates ranged from 26 minutes to two hours—all were conscious and responsive during this period. Once again, the opponents of the death penalty are arguing that the process violates the cruel and unusual punishment clause.

Many are hoping that the Supreme Court’s decision will also address the need for standards and guidelines. Currently, there are no protocols in place for executions because the American Medical Association discourages doctors from partaking in human executions. To put this in perspective, the euthanasia of pets has stricter guidelines than the execution of inmates.

Here are a few key differences between the treatment of pets and death row inmates:

Pets:

  • A doctor is always involved when a pet is euthanized
  • Paralytics are not used because the veterinarian wants to know if the animal is feeling pain
  • There is a national medical association that provides guidelines about the procedure
  • Doctors and staff in every state receive the same training
  • The veterinarian is in the room when the pet is being euthanized

Inmates:

  • Most often it is the prison staff that carries out the execution
  • Paralytics are used during executions
  • There is no national association that creates guideline procedures
  • Doctors or staff members receive varying degrees of training because each state has its own procedure
  • Executioners are not always present when the drugs are being administered, sometimes the procedure is carried out by a machine

How the Supreme Court will rule on this case is still anyone’s guess. As a precaution though, many states are now reviving other execution methods, such as the electric chair, firing squad, and nitrogen gas as alternatives to lethal injections.

Boston Marathon Bomber Guilty of all 30 Counts

The jury for the Boston Marathon bombing case has found Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty of the 30 counts, 17 of which carry the death penalty as a sentence. The charges included conspiring and using a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death, conspiracy to bomb a place of public use, and use or carry of a firearm during crime of violence among others, This will result in the same jury to decide whether or not to sentence Tsarnaev to either life in prison or the death penalty. The sentencing trial date has yet to be announced.

boston bombing trial guilty verdictThe state of Massachusetts has abolished capital punishment in the early 1980’s and has not performed an execution since 1947. However, because Tsarnaev has been convicted of federal crimes, he is eligible for the death penalty. His defense team has the arduous task of presenting to the jury mitigating circumstances to try and prevent Tsarnaev from receiving the death penalty.

His lawyers will argue that his young age, 19, no prior criminal record and that his elder brother Tamerlan was actually the mastermind behind the bombing, should result in him receiving life in prison over the death penalty.

The Boston bombing occurred nearly two years ago and resulted in three deaths, 240 wounded, and 17 people losing their limbs.

The jury deliberated for nearly 12 hours before finding Tsarnaev guilty on all counts. Federal prosecutors have called 92 witnesses while the defense lead by Judy Clarke called four witnesses.

During the sentencing portion of the trial Clarke will try to argue that bombing was “a path born of his brother, created by his brother and paved by his brother,” in an attempt to try and spare her client from execution. Meanwhile the prosecution will argue the same narrative that it has been painting since the beginning of the trial: that the Tsarnaev brothers acted as a team in roles of equal responsibility.

Boston Marathon Bombing Trial: The Challenge of Selecting a Jury

The process has begun for the selection of a jury for the Boston bombing trial. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty to 30 felony charges, 17 of which include the death penalty. He is the 21-year-old accused of the Boston bombing on April 15, 2013, along with his brother who died in a police shoot-out days later. The bombing killed three people and injured 260 others. Finding a non-biased jury is going to be extremely difficult for this case.

boston marathon bombingTsarnaev’s legal team has requested from U.S. District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. that the trial be moved to another city. Their reasoning is that Tsarnaev cannot receive a fair trial in a city that is still suffering and mourning the loss of its citizens. O’Toole has rejected the request every time.

Selecting the Jury

There will be 1,200 potential jurors interviewed and asked to fill out questionnaires. Forty will be questioned each day. Such a large amount is necessary to eliminate people who are influenced by heavy news coverage and those affected by the bombings. Few of them will resemble Tsarnaev and almost all are older.

O’Toole made it clear the jury needs to set aside any judgment and let Tsarnaev have a fair trial. Also, since 17 of the charges include the death penalty, jurors will be disqualified if they are against the death penalty.

Boston discontinued the death penalty in 1984 and attempts to reinstate it have been dismissed. This presumably means that most Boston citizens are against the death penalty and so the jury will consist of a political minority of citizens.

The governments witnesses will consist most likely of F.B.I. agents and police officers. The defense witnesses will consist of friends, neighbors, family and experts. The defense is planning to argue that Tsarnaev’s difficult childhood and loyalty to his brother affected his mental ability. Trial testimony is set to begin January 26th, and will last about three to four months. If convicted, Tsarnaev will either face the death penalty, or will serve life in prison without possibility of parole.

The Boston Bombing is the worst terrorist attack on the U.S. since 9/11. It will be a closely watched trial over the next several months. The final jury will be faced with one question: does this man deserve to live, or die?

Death Penalty Cruelty: Why Lethal Injections Are Inhumane

On January 16, 2014, shortly after 10:00 a.m., a man takes his last walk down the narrow corridor toward the execution chamber. As he is strapped to a gurney and the curtains part, he stares into the eyes of both his children and the victim’s family. It is obvious that he is in a state of fear and anxiety. In fact, his lawyers had fought for a stay of execution, arguing that the new lethal injection protocol would result in a painful and excruciating death.

Lethal Injection Death PenaltyPrison personnel struggle for a couple minutes to find his veins and finally insert the needles. At least, he thinks, it didn’t take two hours to find his veins, which happened to a different inmate, in the same chamber several years prior. His mind also turns to the countless other botched executions in recent years. The warden asks if he has any last words. In a short, tearful statement he says “I’d like to say I’m sorry to Joy’s family and thanks for the letter. The kind words mean a lot. To my children, I love you. I’m going to heaven. I’ll see you when you get there.” The warden nods his head and the drugs begin to flow through the tubes and into his veins.

Thoughts run through his mind about the horror he put the victim through many years ago. He knows in his heart that his actions caused her and her unborn child to suffer a terrifying and brutal death. However, he would not go quietly either. Witnesses watch as the drugs are injected; later, they say he experienced “repeated cycles of snorting, gurgling, and arching his back, appearing to writhe in pain…It looked and sounded as though he was suffocating.” McGuire gasped for air for some 25 minutes while the drugs used in the execution slowly took effect and he was finally pronounced dead.

The execution of Dennis McGuire dominated the headlines as it swept across the country in January of 2014. Ohio used a new 2-drug protocol of hydromorphone and midazolam. It has sparked debates among both academics and the general public about the constitutionality of the death penalty. Is this a violation of the 8th Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment? On this issue, the US Supreme Court has ruled that a violation will be found if the execution method causes unnecessary and impermissible suffering.

How States Use the Black Market to Acquire Banned Drugs for Executions

Until 2010, most states used a 3-drug combination for lethal injection. The first drug administered to the inmate was sodium thiopental, which acts as an anesthetic. The second drug was a paralyzing agent called pancuronium bromide, often referred to as Pavulon. The third, and final drug, was potassium chloride which stops the heart and untimely causes death.

The first drug in executions, sodium thiopental, was only produced by one U.S. manufacturer, Hospira, Inc. They made the radical decision that their goal was to save lives, not to end them! They banned their drugs from U.S. prisons for use in executions, but since the prisons failed to comply, they ceased all production including medicinal use. The prisons expanded their search for a new distributor abroad. However, German, Swiss, and British companies also refused to sell their drugs for use in executions. What next? Well the obvious – states resorted to obtaining the drugs on the black market (in addition to writing fictitious prescriptions!) The problem is, the drugs do not meet the minimum purity standards and their ingredients are questionable and, often times, unknown.

For example, in 2011, Tennessee obtained enough sodium thiopental to execute 6 prisoners. Tennessee refused to reveal their source, which was later found to be an unauthorized foreign producer. In the spirit of southern hospitality, they shared their booty with Alabama. However, before Alabama could execute prisoners, the sodium thiopental was seized by the DEA. The DEA went on to seize several other state’s supplies including Tennessee, Georgia, and Kentucky. They then initiated a formal investigation into where the states were getting their drugs.

Next, inmates contended in the lawsuit that “unapproved foreign thiopental will fail to anesthetize plaintiffs properly during execution, causing conscious suffocation, pain, and cardiac arrest. On March 27, 2012, a federal District Court held that foreign-manufactured sodium thiopental was improperly approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in executions. The FDA was ordered to recall drugs from Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Tennessee.” According to Judge Leon’s opinion, the foreign sodium thiopental “is a misbranded drug and an unapproved new drug” and “the FDA neither approved nor reviewed thiopental for safety and effectiveness.” The Judge continued saying “the FDA appears to be simply wrapping itself in the flag of law enforcement discretion to justify its authority and masquerade an otherwise seemingly callous indifference to the health consequences of those imminently facing the executioner’s needle.”

Pavulon, the second drug used in the 3-drug protocol, has been the most controversial. In fact, it has been banned from use in animal euthanasia in 42 states. Nonetheless, many of those same states use the drug as a paralyzing agent in their executions. The main criticism is that, if prison personnel misuse the first drug as discussed above, the inmate would be unable to express the excruciating pain they are experiencing because they are paralyzed but alert. Death row inmates in Kentucky filed a suit urging the state to switch to a more humane 1-drug protocol. Federal judges in California, Missouri, and Tennessee had already ruled that using Pavulon and the 3-drug protocol in executions is unconstitutional.

Since the shortage, states have been scrambling to revise their lethal injection protocols and discover new drugs to use in executions. Several states have either started using or plan to start using a 1-drug protocol which include propofol (the same drug that killed Michael Jackson) and pentobarbital. Again, the problem is these drugs have never been used in executions, and will have unforeseen consequences (including many more botched executions).

Is It Time to Abandon the Death Penalty?

Although I am an unwavering opponent of the death penalty, I will not go into a discussion about the 140 people who narrowly escaped the death penalty through absolute exoneration or the numerous moratoriums passed by states. Nor will I discuss the study commissions on the fact that the death penalty is more expensive than life imprisonment and that it has never been a deterrent to crime. These arguments do little to sway proponents of the death penalty. I would like to, instead, quickly mention the experience of Bob Welsh. Bob’s daughter Julie was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. He was a strong opponent of the death penalty until the day she died, at which point, his views changed. He was not hesitant to express his opinion that “I didn’t even want a trial. I wanted him fried.” However, after years of reflecting, he realized that executing Timothy McVeigh was not going to bring his daughter back. In fact, unlike McVeigh, he is not a murderer and witnessing an execution often leaves the victim’s family feeling depressed and burdened with an unexplainable guilt. Bob is now an avid anti-death penalty activist and travels around the country sharing his experience.

Finally, take McGuire’s victim Joy Stewart, who was 22 years old and pregnant at the time of her murder. She was kidnapped, raped repeatedly, tortured and stabbed to death. Did McGuire deserve to die for this crime? Probably. However, is it wise to give the government the power to stoop to his level and use illegal tactics and torture to do so? According to the constitution that this country holds so dear, this method is a clear violation of the 8th amendment. More importantly, in my opinion, an answer in the affirmative will undoubtedly take us down a very dangerous road of unfettered government discretion on the value of one’s life.

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Should Death Row Inmates Be Allowed to Donate Their Organs?

You’re probably familiar with the long-running debate about the death penalty- including arguments over its morality, effectiveness, cost, and fairness. The argument over whether or not the death penalty should exist is well-trod ground.

However, there are many ancillary debates relating to the death penalty, which do not directly relate to whether or not we should have capital punishment. Most of these debates start from the premise that the death penalty should exist, or that, for better or worse, it won’t be going away anytime soon.

These include questions from the exact method should be used to execute convicts, what crimes should be eligible for the death penalty, who should be subject to the death penalty (the debate focuses primarily on minors and the mentally disabled).

However, there’s another debate that has long been simmering below the surface, and has recently grown in prominence: the question over whether or not inmates on death row should be able to donate their organs after they are executed. In March of 2011, an inmate on Oregon’s death row wrote an opinion piece in the NewYorkTimes, in which he explained his desire to donate his organs after he is executed. He has even offered to drop all of his appeals, if he is allowed to donate his organs.

On its surface, it seems perfectly logical that the organs of death row inmates should be harvested and donated to those who need them, presuming that the organs are suitable for donation. In fact, some might argue that organ harvesting should be standard procedure, with the inmate having no say in the matter. After all, if the state has already stripped a person of his legal right to live, taking away their legal right to determine what’s done with their organs after they die seems like a triviality.

Most people who favor letting inmates donate organs, however, seem to believe that the choice should be up to the inmate.

In either case, the argument is simple: whether you favor the death penalty or not, it probably isn’t going away anytime soon. So in the meantime, why not let the death of a person (which is never a pleasant thing, even if they were convicted of a horrible crime) save or improve the lives of several other people?

After all, there are over 100,000 people in the United States awaiting donor organs, and almost 20 of them die every day. Across the U.S., about 3,000 people are on federal (both civilian and military) and state death row. A single healthy person, by donating their heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, and other vital organs, can save the lives of up to 8 people. And by donating their corneas, skin, and even (thanks to advances in medical technology over the last decade or so) their faces and entire limbs, they can vastly improve the quality of life of many additional people. And currently, no jurisdiction in the United States allows prisoners condemned to death to donate their organs. They are buried or cremated right along with the rest of an executed prisoner’s body. To many, this seems like a huge waste.

However, there are some reasons why we should think long and hard before changing the rules to allow these organ donations. First of all, there’s the issue of consent. When a person is on death row, it’s arguable that they are totally incapable of making a truly free and rational choice about anything, let alone something as profound as organ donation.

Furthermore, there are laws in the United States that make it illegal to sell human organs, or exchange them for any other type of “valuable consideration,” which would presumably include leniency in sentencing. However, if the inmate is going to be executed either way, that doesn’t seem to be an issue.

There are also concerns that the need for donor organs, and the ability of inmates to donate them after they’re executed, might lead to prison officials and court systems trying to hasten the execution process. For example, suppose an inmate has agreed to donate his organs in the event that he’s executed, but still maintains his innocence, or at least believes that he has legal grounds to have his sentence reduced to life in prison without parole. One could imagine a scenario where the courts try to rush his appeals through the system, in order to have him executed as quickly as possible, so that other people can benefit from his organs.

And finally, there’s the issue of medical ethics: a team of doctors would have to be on hand at the site of the execution to harvest the prisoner’s organs. The vast majority of doctors, however, believe that the Hippocratic Oath requiring that they “do no harm” prohibits them from using their medical expertise to participate in executions, in any way. It may be hard to find a doctor who’s willing to harvest the organs from a just-executed inmate, because they might believe that they are, in effect, participating in the execution process. But I think it should be up to individual doctors to make the decision of whether or not to participate in the process.

All in all, I think that some type of system which would allow inmates to make the choice to donate their organs is a good idea, on balance. Like every decision related to both the death penalty, and organ donation, that we have to make as a society, this is not a perfect solution. It certainly wouldn’t make the controversy over the death penalty go away, and would probably heighten the debate. Furthermore, it seems that this country is on a (very slow) path toward eventual abolition of the death penalty – with a few states recently eliminating it, and the Supreme Court regularly placing new restrictions on when it can be used. I don’t think making this one change should change our course in that direction.

In my view, allowing condemned criminals to donate their organs would be a good policy which might save hundreds of lives. However, I think it’s a decision that should be completely independent from the debate over the death penalty’s existence.