Monday, 6 August 2007

The executioner's hood

The executioner's hood

Many people assume that execution by lethal injection is simple and gentle. It's neither. An inmate is given three drugs to do three things: (1) Knock him out. (2) Paralyze him so he doesn't flop around or gasp in a way that upsets witnesses. (3) Kill him. If a step goes awry, an inmate can be paralyzed, inadequately sedated or unable to move or cry out as the poisons do their agonizing work.

The job requires medical competence, but U.S. states have had a hard time finding skilled executioners. Most doctors refuse to do the ultimate harm; the American Medical Association forbids doctors to participate in executions.

A recent spate of botched executions has led some American courts and states in the encouraging direction of reviewing lethal-injection protocols. But other states have thrown a shroud over the procedure - a new executioner's hood - to hide the system's flaws.

One truly disturbing example, recounted by Adam Liptak in The New York Times, involves Missouri, where a doctor was revealed as an unqualified bumbler who admitted having confused the drug dosages in some of the more than 50 executions he had supervised. "It's not unusual for me to make mistakes," he said, blaming dyslexia.

We oppose capital punishment for a host of reasons. Even those who support it must see the need to ensure that the process is not cruel and is fully open to public scrutiny.

Last month, however, Missouri's governor signed a law that makes it a crime to reveal the identities of executioners - as The St. Louis Post-Dispatch did in the case of the doctor who claimed dyslexia. It allows executioners to sue those who expose them and forbids medical boards to punish doctors or nurses who participate in executions.

Missouri contends that executioners need protection from retaliation. That is a flimsy argument, since the state is not trying to extend that privacy shield to the many other government employees - judges, prosecutors, court officials, prison wardens - whose names are public and who are far likelier retribution targets. Under the new secrecy law, Missouri's capital punishment system may plunge deeper into incompetence and cruelty, and it will be harder for citizens to stop it.

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