u_topn picture
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar

M A Y  3 1,  1 9 9 4

Let's Get Real About Executions in America: Three Easy Steps
A Boston Globe Op-Ed Piece

by James Carroll

I TURNED on CNN the other night and found the "CNN World News Quiz" on the screen. "Which states," I read, "still use hanging as a method of execution?"

After a commercial or two -- Which lawn feeder is best for you? Come to Jamaica!- the answer appeared. The states of Washington and Montana still execute prisoners by hanging. The newscast resumed, and the reporter announced that in three hours, a convicted killer would be hanged in Washington, one of the few to die in that fashion in many years. Two hours later, he said, another man was slated to be executed in Texas, where the method of execution is lethal injection.

Only a short while ago, the execution of criminals in America was rare enough to be big news. We knew their names and counted down to their deaths. Now we hardly notice. Promoted by liberals as well as conservatives and featured in the new federal crime bill, the death penalty is back -- with a vengeance.
Discuss this article in the Community & Society forum of Post & Riposte.

Return to Flashback: Who Deserves to Die?


The reason only two states still execute by hanging is that the gallows is widely regarded as inhumane. In Enlightenment France, a humanitarian physician and member of the Assembly made such an impassioned plea against the cruelty of hanging that his name -- Joseph Ignace Guillotin -- was given to the beheading machine that the French then adopted as more humane.

From the point of view of the prisoner, mechanized beheading -- efficient, instantaneous, fail-safe -- may indeed be less cruel than hanging, but its aftermath is so gruesomely offensive to a genteel public that it has not found favor in America. Electrocution or lethal gas have been the preferred methods of execution in this country, but the renewed enthusiasm for capital punishment has been accompanied by a preference for a new form of killing -- lethal injection.

Texas was one of the first states to adopt lethal injection -- in 1977. By 1991, 20 states had moved to it, all purportedly because of "humanistic considerations." But which humans are being considered? Those to be executed? Or the squeamish American public, which, while hardboiled enough to want the death penalty, is soft-hearted enough to want it carried out "humanely?" What does it mean that of the more than 100 countries retaining the death penalty, only in the United States is it carried out by lethal injection?

The electric chair, the gas chamber, the firing squad, the hangman's noose all have sinister associations. Lethal injection on the other hand, involves the benign symbol of the intravenous tube -- a medical device whose associations with sustenance, medication and anesthesia make it easy to believe that something good is happening, something humane. Advocates call it "the least offensive form of execution." In fact, it is least offensive not to those executed, but to the public and to the officials whose duty is to inflict the punishment. Lethal injection is the B-52 bomber of capital punishment -- a way to remove a killer from the blood and gore he causes, protecting his own sense of innocence and that of his sponsors.

Think of Rickey Ray Rector, the retarded murderer whose Arkansas execution Bill Clinton presided over on the eve of the New Hampshire primary in 1992. Rector's execution by lethal injection was a brutal example of how inhumane -- for the victim -- that form of killing can be. Rector weighed 300 pounds, and it took the executioners 45 minutes to find a vein in which to insert the IV tube. The Arkansas Correction Department medical administrator gave this account of Rector's execution: "We had eight people in there when this all started. The tie-down people were helping, and by the end we had three more medical people....He had the spindly veins that collapsed easily. We searched. We were lucky to find a vein at all....I'm not going to take anything away from Rickey Ray Rector and the help he gave us with our task....He helped."

If we are going to kill these people, we should not mask what's really happening behind a pretense of concern for the victim and a pseudo-medical procedure in which he is required to "help." Instead, I propose a three-part alternative method.

First, those to be executed should be allowed to be passive and should be put to death in the most straightforward way possible -- a close-range bullet to the brain, say, or the heart.

Second, instead of by an anonymous "execution team" or a hooded executioner, the punishment should be carried out by the elected officials who order it. The governors themselves should be the executioners, the close-range gun shooters. In the new Clinton-promoted capital cases at the federal level, the president should be the one putting people to death.

Third, Phil Donahue should be permitted to televise these executions, and the citizens in whose names they are carried out should be required to watch.



Copyright © 1994 by James Carroll. All rights reserved.
The Boston Globe; May 31, 1994; Let's Get Real About Executions
Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search