Monday, February 3, 2014

Humane Capital Punishment

A recent execution in Ohio has reignited the debate on capital punishment.
A condemned man appeared to gasp several times and took an unusually long time to die -- more than 20 minutes -- in an execution carried out Thursday with a combination of drugs never before tried in the U.S.

Dennis McGuire's attorney Allen Bohnert called the convicted killer's execution "a failed, agonizing experiment" and added: "The people of the state of Ohio should be appalled at what was done here today in their names."

McGuire's lawyers had attempted last week to halt his execution, arguing that the untried method could lead to a medical phenomenon known as "air hunger" and cause him to suffer "agony and terror" while struggling to catch his breath.

McGuire, 53, made loud snorting noises during one of the longest executions since Ohio resumed capital punishment in 1999. Nearly 25 minutes passed between the time the lethal drugs began flowing and McGuire was pronounced dead at 10:53 a.m.
Now, gasps and snorts don't necessarily mean anything--McGuire was likely unconscious.  Even if they did, courts have (rightly in my opinion) ruled that a condemned prisoner is not entitled to a pain free execution.  It's pretty hard to feel much sympathy for Dennis McGuire, a scumbag who anally raped a pregnant woman, stabbed her above her left collarbone, then cut her throat and left her and her baby to die.

Still, we shouldn't let disgusting, subhuman crimes turn the rest of us into animals.  Capital punishment isn't about revenge, it's about permanently safeguarding society against a criminal so horrifically bad we can't risk parole or escape.

Some would argue that life in prison without possibility of parole is sufficient to safeguard society.  Barring a natural disaster that cracks open a prison, that may be true.  Nevertheless, capital punishment polls well.  That is, the majority of people are strongly in favor of it at least for the worst crimes, so it's going to continue to be a political reality in the United States.

If we're going to keep executing people, we should switch to a painless, mess free method.  It's called inert gas asphyxiation.  I've linked wikipedia, but the information can be searched and corroborated in other sources as well.  Here are the details:
Inert gas asphyxiation is a form of asphyxiation which results from respiration of inert gas in the absence of oxygen rather than atmospheric air (a mixture of oxygen and the inert nitrogen). The painful experience of suffocation is not caused by lack of oxygen, but because carbon dioxide builds up in the bloodstream, instead of being exhaled as under normal circumstances. With inert gas asphyxiation, carbon dioxide is exhaled normally, and no such pain experience occurs.

Hypoxic atmospheres have been used as a method of animal slaughter in animals such as chickens, where it is known as controlled atmosphere killing.

An occasional cause of accidental death in humans, inert gas asphyxiation has been used as a suicide method, and has been advocated by proponents of euthanasia (using helium or nitrogen in a device called a suicide bag). Nitrogen asphyxiation has been suggested as a more humane way to carry out capital punishment, but so far this use of inert gas has not been attempted by any country, state or territory.
It's painless.  It's messless.  It's free of all the unpleasantness nobody wants in an execution.  It's not even technologically hard to implement.  Unlike a cyanide chamber, a nitrogen chamber need not be perfectly sealed, since a bit of extra nitrogen won't hurt anyone in surrounding rooms.  States with an old cyanide chamber could easily repurpose it.

There's still a question if we should use a punishment as final as the death penalty.  It's always worth discussing, but so far I'm still in favor of it.  As mentioned earlier, I think its purpose is to prevent the most heinous of criminals from harming others again.  As it turns out, there seems to be another benefit for society.  Studies made headlines in 2007 because they found that the death penalty does seem to deter some crime.

From the New York Times article, "Does Death Penalty Save Lives? A New Debate":
According to roughly a dozen recent studies, executions save lives. For each inmate put to death, the studies say, 3 to 18 murders are prevented.

The effect is most pronounced, according to some studies, in Texas and other states that execute condemned inmates relatively often and relatively quickly.

The studies, performed by economists in the past decade, compare the number of executions in different jurisdictions with homicide rates over time — while trying to eliminate the effects of crime rates, conviction rates and other factors — and say that murder rates tend to fall as executions rise. One influential study looked at 3,054 counties over two decades.

“I personally am opposed to the death penalty,” said H. Naci Mocan, an economist at Louisiana State University and an author of a study finding that each execution saves five lives. “But my research shows that there is a deterrent effect.”
Some studies have indicated a much stronger deterrent effect. From "Capital Punishment Works":
Most commentators who oppose capital punishment assert that an execution has no deterrent effect on future crimes. Recent evidence, however, suggests that the death penalty, when carried out, has an enormous deterrent effect on the number of murders. More precisely, our recent research shows that each execution carried out is correlated with about 74 fewer murders the following year.

For any society concerned about human life, that type of evidence is something that should be taken very seriously...

In the early 1980s, the return of the death penalty was associated with a drop in the number of murders. In the mid-to-late 1980s, when the number of executions stabilized at about 20 per year, the number of murders increased. Throughout the 1990s, our society increased the number of executions, and the number of murders plummeted. Since 2001, there has been a decline in executions and an increase in murders.

It is possible that this correlated relationship could be mere coincidence, so we did a regression analysis on the 26-year relationship. The association was significant at the .00005 level, which meant the odds against the pattern being simply a random happening are about 18,000 to one. Further analysis revealed that each execution seems to be associated with 71 fewer murders in the year the execution took place.
In short, in addition to making sure the most brutal of our criminals can never harm anyone again, capital punishment seems to remind other would-be lawbreakers that some crimes carry too high a price to commit. That seems worth doing, and using inert gas asphyxiation we can do it in an easy, painless way.

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