Thursday, 1 November 2007

Portrait of lethal injection reveals a barbaric scene

WHEN our pollies were engaged recently in their point-scoring contest about the ethics of capital punishment, I chanced upon a chilling witness account of an execution — American style.

Over there, they favour the lethal injections these days, it being considered an efficient, more humane way of despatching an offender.

As the appointed hour nears, in the execution chamber, death’s grim medical equipment is ready.

A door opens and the condemned man, manacled, with head bowed, shuffles awkwardly towards a waiting trolley, above which are three suspended bottles containing the lethal cocktail he is shortly to receive.

He reaches the trolley and pauses, to look into the eyes of the doctor who is about to kill him.

A warder hands him a microphone, he whispers a few farewells to his family, then submits to being strapped down on to the trolley.

Meanwhile, on the other side of a plate-glass window, is the “viewing gallery”, where hand-picked ghouls have gathered to witness the macabre death ritual.

They quickly settle down, engaging in small talk as they help themselves to the coffee and doughnuts provided by the prison authorities.

The doctor efficiently probes his “patient’s” arm and soon locates a vein suitable for the cannula.

He injects firstly a drug to supposedly calm the victim, follows this with a second drug that paralyses the muscles and lungs to stop the breathing, then delivers the coup de grace in the form of a massive dose of poison.

Within a few minutes, the heart monitor flat lines, then a further period elapses before the doctor pronounces the inert figure “brain dead”, and the state has exacted its revenge.

But now a ludicrous thought troubles me.

Here we have one highly trained doctor deftly killing a healthy 24-year-old man whilst, elsewhere in the city, an equally competent medico fights to save the life of an 80-year-old stroke victim. How can anyone countenance such a preposterous absurdity?

Uncle Sam’s love affair with capital punishment is as legendary as it is irrational. The politicians know, if they care to look, that the death penalty is no deterrent to homicide.

They can easily discover for themselves that those who are executed are overwhelmingly drawn from society’s underclass — the poor and uneducated.

However, if you are an affluent enough killer to afford a crack team of defence lawyers, if you’re white and middle class, you’re statistically unlikely to end up on death row.

Worrying, too, is the fact that innocent people can still find themselves facing the executioner — truly a horrifying thought. Thankfully, since the advent of DNA, some convictions have been overturned and disbelieving death row inmates reprieved, although probably scarred for life by their harrowing experience of the flawed system of justice.

Civilised nations have long rejected capital punishment as a relic of the Dark Ages.

America, however, ignoring the ample evidence, persists with this barbarous practice and, in so doing, aligns herself with regimes such as China, Burma, North Korea and most of the Muslim nations.

Some folk still want to retain capital punishment, but reserved only for those whose deed is particularly nasty. But who decides who gets the noose and who doesn’t? Who sets the criteria? One murder, or multiple? Murder involving torture? Who decides how much torture warrants death? Child murder? Who determines the exact age legally defining the age of a child? When will “extenuating circumstances” be admissible (mental incompetence, etc).

Either you reject capital punishment outright, without exception or you opt to retain the death penalty with all its proven flaws. What is the only civilised, ethical decision?

If you can advance one sound argument to support the retention of the death penalty, my riposte will be “show me your evidence please”.

- David Milan is a member of the Humanist Society of Victoria.

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