Saturday, July 15, 2006

Dr. Guillotin, I presume?

I read somewhere recently that a severed human head retains consciousness for an estimated 90 seconds. (And apparently Dr. Guillotin not only did not invent the device to which his name is attached, but he proposed it simply as a means of making executions easier to carry out.) Which raises the question: can there ever be an execution which does not cause "unconstitutional pain and suffering"?

Because that is now the question in Missouri:

The State of Missouri, facing a deadline today for changing the way it executes condemned prisoners by lethal injection, told a federal judge last night that it was simply unable to meet his demand that the state hire a board-certified anesthesiologist to oversee executions.

The judge, Fernando J. Gaitan Jr. of the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri, had demanded an overhaul of the system after the doctor who now mixes the drugs for the state described an improvised process that Judge Gaitan found so chilling that he temporarily barred executions in Missouri.
What's the problem? In a nutshell: people.

In a sworn deposition, the Missouri doctor, whose name is being withheld by the state, acknowledged that he had sometimes given the condemned a smaller dose of anesthesia — used to reduce the pain of the lethal drugs to come — than the state had said was its policy.

The doctor said he was solely responsible for counting out dosage amounts of the three drugs administered in sequence, knew of no written protocol by the state for carrying out executions and was at times “improvising.”

He also said he is dyslexic, sometimes mixing up phone numbers or cable bill account numbers. “So it’s not unusual for me to make mistakes,” the doctor, identified in court records as John Doe I, said.

He indicated in his testimony, however, that he had made no mistakes in his death chamber work and that the mistakes elsewhere were “not medically crucial.”
Interestingly, this ties into the issue of torture in Gitmo. The American Psychiatric Association has told it's members that participating in torture in any way is unethical (although the American Psychological Association has sidestepped the issue). It seems the AMA and American Society of Anesthesiologists don't want their members participating in state sanctioned executions, either. Obviously, that position hasn't slowed the state killing machine much. And I suppose there are two sides to this:

“We don’t want to lose our son, period,” Ms. Taylor said. “But the fact that the drugs may not be mixed right or that he might be in a lot of pain is too much. I keep wondering about all the guys who have been executed who might have been laying there in pain and couldn’t tell anybody.”

Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School who supports the death penalty in certain instances, said the constitutional questions being raised about lethal injection were an effort by those opposed to capital punishment to “prevent it, delay it, diminish it.”

For those whose cases warrant the death penalty, he said, the notion that no pain should be involved in an execution makes no sense.

“We’re giving them a death that we could only wish for,” Professor Blecker said. “I don’t get it.”
But then I recall that Dr. Guillotin argued (persuasively) for death by beheading without torture prior to execution, and no doubt considered that an improvement. And I think about the consciousness of a severed head.

And wonder who we think we are, to be giving death to anyone.

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