Gawande refers to the cases of Timothy McVeigh and Saddam Hussein to support the view that capital punishment can be justified. However, the first concern should be not the number of people allegedly murdered by the suspect but the probability that the suspect actually committed the crime. Between 1995 and 2005, 741 people were executed in the United States, and there are at least six well-documented cases of wrongful executions.1
Physicians demand great stringency from a diagnostic process. An obvious reason is that treatment (such as chemotherapy) may cause harm and may even be lethal. In these circumstances, specific tests are applied. A murder trial may be viewed as a diagnostic process. If the consequence of the verdict is the death penalty, which has an associated mortality of 100 percent, we do not understand why a physician should abandon the strong ethical standards in matters of life and death that humanity expects from medicine. In view of the moderate specificity of the justice system, we do not believe it is justifiable for a physician to support capital punishment.
Cornelis Kramers, M.D., Ph.D.
Jaap Deinum, M.D., Ph.D.
Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Center
6525GA Nijmegen, the Netherlands
Death Penalty Information Center. Additional innocence information: executed but possibly innocent. (Accessed June 15, 2006, at http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?scid=6&did=111#executed.)