SCOTUS recently decided to hear arguments over whether lethal injection violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.
Lethal injection was developed due to concerns about other methods of execution, including hanging, electrocution, and shooting. Currently, 18 states use only lethal injection; 20 other states offer it as an option, to electrocution, firing squad, or electrocution. The concerns stem from a number of areas. Several executions have been delayed due to extreme difficulty in finding suitable veins; the condemned persons quite often have abused IV drugs in their past, causing issues with their circulatory system.
There is also a concern over the drugs typically used in the execution. First, an anesthetic is administered, then a drug to paralyze the condemned, and finally a drug to stop the heart. Several inmates have filed suit alleging that the anesthetic may not function completely, leaving the condemned aware of what’s going on around them, and unable to communicate.
Medical professionals have also expressed concern over taking part in executions, feeling that those who do so are violation of the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm.
Throughout history, there have been issues with the manner of capital punishment. Hangings have accidentally decapitated the condemned or slowly strangled them, when the drop and body weight haven’t been figured properly. Firing squads have missed the target (the heart), causing the condemned to bleed out over several minutes, instead of dying a supposedly relatively painless death. Electrocutions have failed, sometimes spectacularly, causing fires, massive bleeding, or both. Even beheadings have had their share of problems, where the head of the condemned has seemed to remain aware even after the cutting, with the eyes looking around and blinking.
There is no perfect solution here. There are those who would order the condemned to die the same way they killed their victim, no matter what. In particularly heinous events, that may seem to extract some “extra” justice. But can there ever be “extra” justice? Such an idea confounds the definition of the word. A just punishment is exactly that: no more and no less than what the condemned deserves. I’d suggest that “making the punishment fit the crime” would itself be cruel and unusual, aside from impossible to implement. There are many people who claim to be willing to “pull the switch themselves,” but I suspect many of them would balk when push came to shove, or pull, as the case may be.
The punishment is supposed to be swift and relatively painless; the state is not supposed to be vengeful, but unemotional. Capital punishment is not about revenge; it’s actually admitting defeat in a way. The state is saying there’s nothing we can do to rehabilitate this person.
A firing squad is personnel-intensive. It currently typically requires four to eight people with particular training; not everyone who can shoot can shoot well. Not everyone who can shoot well can shoot dependably in such a situation. It would probably be possible, using current technology, to create a laser-equipped, semi-automated gun system that requires only one person to engage the system. The system could be designed such that the laser is the aiming point, and the gun barrels are servo-driven. The executioner would, once the condemned is in place in a chair, or against a post, use the laser to aim the system via remote control, then press a button to allow the system to fire in X seconds. To ensure rapid and complete execution, perhaps two barrels could be used, with one aimed to the head, and another aimed to the heart.
Given the personnel requirements for the other systems, and the potential of error that those personnel introduce, this system seems to be the easiest to implement. But what company wants to be known for the system?
Finally, in researching this article, I discovered another method being proposed: death by nitrogen asphyxiation, which seems technologically easier than my automated gun system, and probably more humane.