Saturday, February 24 , 2018, 6:05 am | Fair 32º

 
 
 

Harris Sherline: Is the Death Penalty ‘Cruel and Unusual Punishment’?

Belief in capital punishment more a matter of personal values than the facts

Dating back to 1791, the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees protection against “cruel and unusual” punishment and further provides “that excessive bail ought not be required, nor excessive fines imposed ...” (Albany.edu, Chapter 9).

The death penalty in the United States has evolved from a form of punishment that initially wasn’t considered “cruel and unusual” to the point where it is now viewed as such by many people. In the United States, the manner of execution has moved from hanging and the firing squad to the electric chair, the gas chamber and, in many states, to lethal injection.

The American public still favors the death penalty 65 percent to 30 percent, according to an October 2009 Gallup poll, but that is down from 80 percent who supported capital punishment in 1994. Since capital punishment was reinstated some 30 years ago, nearly 900 of the 1,056 executions carried out through 2006 were by lethal injection. It is the primary form of execution or an option in 35 of the 36 states that still have capital punishment (Nebraska uses the electric chair).

A USA Today report noted, “A federal judge ruled ... that Tennessee’s new lethal injection procedures are cruel and unusual punishment, interrupting plans to execute a killer ...” who beat an elderly woman to death during a burglary in 1983. “The protocol ‘presents a substantial risk of unnecessary pain’ and violates death row ... inmate’s constitutional protections. ... The new protocol, released in April, does not ensure that inmates are properly anesthetized before the lethal injection is administered ... which could ‘result in a terrifying, excruciating death.’”

The oft-quoted adage, “Justice delayed is justice denied” (William Gladstone, British statesman and prime minister, 1868-1894), now pretty much applies to our entire system of capital punishment — with death row inmates languishing in prisons for years on end while the legal process takes its ponderous course — in spite of the fact that the public continues to favor the death penalty by a margin of better than 2-to-1.

Wikipedia notes that, “Many countries have abolished the death penalty, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, almost all of Europe and much of Latin America. ... 111 countries either do not have or do not use the death penalty. Many other states retain it, especially in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Caribbean and the United States. ... In most countries that have capital punishment, it is used to punish only murder and/or for war-related crimes. In some countries, like the People’s Republic of China, even nonviolent crimes, like drug- and business-related crimes, are punished with capital punishment.”

However, the arguments for and against capital punishment notwithstanding, splitting hairs about whether the condemned suffer any pain whatsoever are irrational in my view. It’s a position that I believe is taken for purely tactical reasons — that is, merely to make the death penalty unenforceable by defining it as “cruel and unusual.”

Dead is dead, whether by a bullet to the back of the head, the guillotine or lethal injection. No one can say for certain just how much pain or suffering may be experienced at the moment of death, and I suspect that most if not all of the 65 percent of Americans who favor capital punishment do not particularly care how it is carried out. Arguing about which method is least painful seems nonsensical to me — especially when the individual involved is someone like Ted Bundy, the BTK killer, Jeffrey Dahmer or any of the many other serial killers who murder innocent people without giving any thought to the pain and suffering they caused in the process.

In the final analysis, belief in capital punishment seems to be more an article of faith than it is a matter of facts. Both sides give credence to the specific arguments that support their respective views and discount opinions to the contrary. A leading news analyst often says that he is against capital punishment but that those who are convicted of “capital crimes” should be sentenced life in prison at hard labor, as in breaking rocks.

That works for me.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.

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