Saturday, December 23, 2006

Botched Execution Shines Light On Barbaric Aspect Of Death Penalty

On Wednesday, Dec. 13, the state of Florida executed Angel Nieves Diaz. This in itself is unremarkable: his was the 64th execution in the United States in 2006 and the fourth in Florida. His death provoked an outcry, however, since Florida botched his execution. Lethal injection is nominally a humane way to die, but in his case it was anything but. Technicians inserted the needles incorrectly, injecting the caustic drugs into his arm muscles instead of into his veins. He should have been unconscious after five minutes and dead within 15. Instead, he struggled and grimaced for 34 minutes while a second dose of lethal drugs was administered, again incorrectly. The county medical examiner who performed an autopsy after the execution found 12-inch chemical burns on the interior of both his arms.

In the aftermath, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush ordered a moratorium on executions until a special commission can examine lethal injection procedures to ensure they do not violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. But he adamantly defends the death penalty itself and rejected calls for its abolition. Other proponents of the death penalty were quick to defend the system. The more ruthless suggested that Mr. Diaz didn't suffer enough for his crimes; the more sanguine said that his botched execution was unfortunate, but that any sympathy for him or his family was misplaced and should be reserved for his victims and their families.

Despite the heinous nature of Mr. Diaz's crimes, this cold-blooded response is unsettling: Lethal injection was adopted for executions precisely because it was supposed to be more civilized than the alternatives — hanging, the gas chamber, the electric chair, the firing squad. What does it say about us, as a society, that we want to respond to violent crime with the same degree of brutality? It indicates that the death penalty is more about revenge than justice.

Emotional appeal

This defense of the death penalty is a deliberate appeal to our emotions: It works because the crimes were evil and the suffering of the victims and their families real. But death penalty supporters are forced to appeal to anger and pathos since otherwise they have no argument. The death penalty does not provide justice, either for society or for the victims and their families.

Capital punishment is not justice for the "worst of the worst." The application of the death penalty is capricious and bears no connection to the nature of crime itself. In the case of Mr. Diaz, his accomplice is serving a life term for the same crime. Instead, the death penalty singles out the poor and racial minorities. A death sentence is more likely the consequence of racist police and prosecutors and an incompetent lawyer than any other factor. Even worse, capital punishment is often tragically misdirected. Since 1976, at least 123 innocent people have been sentenced to death. They spent years on death row, and some came within hours of being executed, before they were exonerated.

Where's the justice?

Capital punishment does not provide justice for victims' families. It only prolongs their suffering. They are forced to endure the trials and appeals, hoping that the execution will bring closure. But in the end they discover that the death of another does not heal their own wounds. Many victims' family members have turned against the death penalty. Robin Theurkauf, a Connecticut resident whose husband died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, chose to testify for the defense at the sentencing of Zacarias Moussaoui. She wanted Mr. Moussaoui punished, but knew that his death would bring no healing for her or her family.

The botched execution of Angel Diaz is a pale reflection of a grimmer reality: The death penalty is a failure as public policy. It is expensive, does not deter crime, fails to provide justice and punishes victims' families. No amount of tinkering with execution protocols or other details will fix it. The only solution is to abolish it, and it is long past the time for the state of Connecticut to follow Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, New York and Massachusetts and end the use of the death penalty.

Robert Nave is executive director of Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty; the state/regional death-penalty abolition coordinator for Amnesty International and the vice chairman of the national steering committee for the Program to Abolish the Death Penalty, National, for Amnesty International .


Anonymous said...

"the death penalty singles out the poor and racial minorities. "
How the hell do you get this? When Mostly WHITES are on death row?? Get your facts straight!

Anonymous said...

Did you consider that the WHITES as you put in "capital" letters may be poor!

Anonymous said...

difficult to believe someone actually feels this way. freedom of speech is alive and well in the usa, but i am glad that i don't have to listen to too much of this drivel. thankfully, most of the country supports the death penalty.