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Executions will always be undignified

Old Sparky, the Electric Chair
Old Sparky, the Electric ChairWikimedia Commons

Controversy over the death penalty continues in courts, with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Monday that it will not hear a complaint that a state does not disclose the source of a lethal drug to a defendant. The execution in Texas of Robert James Campbell may not be allowed for other reasons, courts may decide, but not because he doesn’t know where the drug is coming from.

Most Americans have supported the death penalty throughout the nation’s history. What complicates the debate? A percentage of those who support the death penalty are fussy about how it should be carried out. If you combine that minority with the minority who actively oppose capital punishment, a powerful coalition exists.

For more than 200 years, the U.S. has been in search of a perfect way to execute people. Every method introduced so far, however, demonstrates that it is difficult to kill someone while keeping the condemned convict’s dignity intact or making sure he does not become too uncomfortable while being killed.

Death by hanging was an early favorite, but the practice became complicated after there were gruesome outcomes to it. If a hanging is done as intended, the neck breaks and death arrives quickly. If the noose is not tied correctly, the condemned may dangle in the air and strangle to death; or the rope may rip his head off.

The firing squad was also popular. In most cases, this consisted of a condemned man being placed before a row of marksmen, one of which would have live ammo and remainder would have blanks. In theory, the bullet is fired into the heart and the condemned man dies quickly. In practice, even a marksman can have an off day, miss the heart and hand the condemned man an agonizing death.

The electric chair was introduced as a sure means of killing someone quickly, but the Death Penalty Information Center provides a long list of condemned criminals who had to receive more than one jolt, caught fire or suffered some other agonizing death.

Lethal injection sounds compassionate enough, but veins collapse or even explode; and it isn’t like watching Fido peacefully passing on in a veterinarian assistant’s arms.

Whatever the method of execution, the condemned wears diapers because of a combination of muscle spasms and losing control of bodily functions at death.

Supporters of capital punishment can’t have it both ways. They can’t reasonably expect to see just punishment for capital offenses while hoping it is humane and dignified.