Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Court wants painless executions

Court wants painless executions

The truly ironic aspect of the current debate over the death penalty in North Carolina and other states is that it is all about whether the person being executed feels any pain.

Florida has temporarily halted its executions, and North Carolina executions are in limbo until questions about a physician's participation in executions can be resolved. Both states used a combination of intravenous drugs to execute convicted killers. Defense lawyers have claimed that the drug combination can cause the prisoners severe internal pain before the barbiturate used to stop the prisoner's heart ends his life.

Last year a federal judge allowed executions to proceed only if the state has a physician and registered nurse monitor the condemned inmate's pain threshold. The state Medical Board and the N.C. Nursing Association have stated that assisting in putting someone to death violates their associations' ethics codes.

North Carolina was required to establish a new execution protocol, based on a 1909 law. The N.C. Council of State passed a new protocol last week, but medical professionals' unwillingness to take part in the protocol, which includes determining whether the condemned inmate shows signs of "undue pain and suffering," has left that protocol in limbo.

What makes this turn of events so ironic is that lethal injections were a late-20th century reform designed to make executions more humane. Past execution methods had included hanging, firing squad, electrocution and gas. But now at least one federal court is accepting the absence of any pain as a constitutional right of condemned persons.

All of this, of course, goes back to the Eighth Amendment's proscription against "cruel and unusual punishments." But could the Founding Fathers have intended to prohibit a form of execution because it causes pain? The Constitution specifically condones the death penalty for certain crimes, evidenced in the Fifth Amendment's reference to "capital crimes" and of defendants "in jeopardy of life or limb."

Therefore, the authors of the Constitution must have condoned common means of execution of their day — hanging or firing squad — but wished to prohibit more bizarre methods such as drawing and quartering, crucifixion or boiling in oil.

If this impasse cannot be resolved, perhaps the state will be forced to consider a French innovation of our Founding Fathers' day — the guillotine, which apparently inflicts little or no pain and does not require a physician to certify the onset of death.

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