No humane way to kill

May 13, 2008

The debate about lethal injection won't be over as long as we have a government that is in the business of killing.

I KNOW there has been much talk about the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that proclaimed lethal injections are not unconstitutional, but I wanted to weigh in on this very important ruling.

The 7-2 ruling clears the path for states to resume their killing machines that were on hold nationally for seven months, while the Court considered a challenge from a Kentucky case.

Lethal injection is the so-called "humane" way of executing prisoners. It's performed by nearly all of the three dozen death penalty states, and consists of administering a three-drug cocktail intravenously that is suppose to sedate, paralyze and then stop the heart.

I've heard many horror stories over the years about prisoners being mentally and physically tortured during the process--stories that don't conform to the sought-after objective of killing "in a professional, humane, sensitive and dignified manner," as one state's law puts it.

There are reported cases, like for Stanley Tookie Williams, of problems inserting the intravenous line, and prisoners getting so tired of being poked with the IV needle that they have to literally help their killers find a vein. Not only are there stories of the process taking much longer than usual, but also of prisoners not being properly sedated.

Columnist: Stanley Howard

Stanley Howard is a former Illinois death row prisoner who was exonerated and pardoned by former Gov. George Ryan in 2003. He was a victim of police torture carried out by Chicago police, and from behind bars, he formed the Death Row 10 with other victims of torture. Though still imprisoned unjustly, Stanley works with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and writes regularly for its newsletter, the New Abolitionist. You can write to him at: Stanley Howard N-71620, 2600 N. Brinton Ave., Dixon, IL 61021.

If the anesthetic does not render the prisoner totally unconscious, the next two drugs can cause agonizing pain. The prisoner would be shaking and convulsing while having a massive heart attack, but is unable to express his suffering because of the paralytic drug.

"The way lethal injections are being done does not comport with what is being done for euthanizing dogs and cats," said Dr. Mark Heath, assistant professor of anesthesiology at Columbia University, testifying in an Ohio case on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It falls way below that standard."


THE COURT’S ruling has nothing to do with the constitutionality of lethal injections. But, recognizing the escalating criticism surrounding lethal injections, the majority of the court, staunch death penalty supporters, decided to use their totalitarian dictatorship in an effort to suppress this latest firestorm.

The inhumane nature of lethal injection is a legitimate argument against both lethal injection and the death penalty, but no challenge or argument could ever convince this racist and unjust court of completely dismantling their precious system of death.

"We begin with the principle...that capital punishment is constitutional," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. "It necessarily follows that there must be a means of carrying it out. Some risk of pain is inherent in any method of execution, no matter how humane, if only from the prospect of error in following the required procedure."

Learning that the justices have now erected a barricade in front of the courthouse door, so to speak, by forcing condemned prisoners to prove that there is a "substantial risk" of suffering severe pain is shocking, but it doesn't surprise me.

This ruling confirms that it's never about the Constitution. To hell with what is right, fair and just, and forget about human rights and civil rights if they don't coincide with the judges' own views and interpretations of the Constitution. It's about the ideologies of these particular justices, at this particular time in history.

Deciding that lethal injections are unconstitutional would have abolished executions in most states--except those, like Illinois, that prepared for such a court ruling. This was talked about when I was on Illinois' death row. The state law says that "if [lethal injection] is held illegal or unconstitutional by a reviewing court of competent jurisdiction, the sentence of death shall be carried out by electrocution."

In other words, if the courts deemed lethal injections unconstitutional, Illinois would simply bring "Old Sparky" back out--which is why most Illinois death row inmates did not want to challenge the constitutionality of lethal injections.

The death penalty is such a heated debate that Justice Antonin Scalia had the audacity to write a special concurring opinion just to belittle Justice John Paul Stevens for having had a change of heart against the death penalty. Stevens wrote that state-sanctioned killing is becoming more and more anachronistic, and that he had had "enough" because the death penalty is no longer meeting any of the societal aims the Court laid out when it reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

Scalia, one of the most conservative members of the Court, became angry at Stevens, the most senior justice, because Stevens finally recognized that the death penalty should be abolished. Scalia called Stevens' reversal on the issue "astounding." But the only thing I find astounding is that if we change the ideology of four other justices on the issue, we can change the ruling to lethal injection being unconstitutional.

The debate about lethal injection and the death penalty is not over, and it never will be over as long as we have a government that cannot deliver the mail properly and on time, but is in the business of killing.

We must continue to change hearts and minds on this issue, because there's no humane way to kill a healthy human being. Justice is not "just us"--it's a right!

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