The United States Supreme Court will hear the appeal of a death row inmate from Florida who contends the state’s method of lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment according to an Associated Press story posted on Yahoo News.
Lawyers for convicted killer Clarence Hill say the three chemicals used in executions in Florida cause pain to the condemned and are therefore excessively cruel. Hill’s attorneys cite medical studies about the combination of drugs used by Florida and other states.
Lawyers for Hill say he had already been strapped to a gurney when Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy granted a temporary stay of execution. The full court agreed to make the stay permanent and will hear additional arguments.
Hill was convicted of killing a Pensacola policeman and wounding another when the officers responded to an alarm during an attempted bank robbery.
The fight over the constitutionality and morality of the death penalty has been waged on several fronts, methodology being one of them. There are likely a lot of death penalty supporters who believed the methodology fight was put to rest when lethal injection became the most common method of carrying out executions.
The possibility that lethal injection is a painful process reopens that debate. First, it will have to be determined if there is truth to the claim. Having never been lethally injected myself, I can provide no real evidence to support the claims of Hill’s lawyers or to dispute them. I have a difficult time believing in the existence of a death involving no degree of pain but I have yet to find this out for myself.
What if the attorneys for Hill are correct? Should lethal injection be outlawed as a means of execution if it can be proven a painful process? If lethal injection causes pain, are there any pain-free alternatives? If pain is inherent in death, why should we go out of our way to spare condemned criminals? They will experience this pain at the time of their death whether they are executed or allowed to die of a natural cause.
I do not ask these questions as a means of opening the door to torture or bringing back some of the hideous and barbaric means of execution from the days of old. I ask because if lethal injection is out, and the U.S. is going to continue with capital punishment, something new will have to be found or something old will again need to be used.
This all reminds me of the episode of All in the Family when Archie and Gloria are arguing about gun control. Gloria points out to Archie the majority of murders are committed with handguns. Undeterred, Archie asks Gloria if she would feel any better if they were pushed out of windows. I am also reminded of the scene in My Cousin Vinny in which Marisa Tomei explains to Joe Pesci that a dead deer does not care what color pants the hunter that shot him was wearing at the time.
The debate about the means of execution misses the point. Finding a painless and bloodless means of execution has more to do with appeasing the guilt of the living than it does with concern for the condemned. Rejecting torture does not recapture the moral high ground. Seeking a humane way to be barbaric is not virtue. There is no redemption in being unethical in as ethical a manner as possible.
So what will happen now that the Supreme Court has agreed to review this case? I suppose that will in part depend on the quality of the medical data presented by Hill’s attorneys. It would be ironic if capital punishment’s undoing came about because a humane way of administering it could not be found.