Revenge -- as humanely as possible

March 04, 1996|By Mary Ellen Leary

THROUGHOUT HISTORY, the death meted out to those deemed the worst criminals has been a scene of horror that drew a fascinated mob. But now 24 American states deliver as a penalty for crime a death -- by lethal injection -- that is kinder and gentler than the death God ordinarily dispenses, just an easy sleep from which there is no waking.

California's first such death, the February 23 execution of the ''freeway killer,'' William Bonin, who abused and strangled 14 youths a decade ago, was so ''coldly antiseptic,'' according to reporters who covered it, that some were frankly disappointed at the lack of drama. ''It wasn't much to watch,'' lamented one in print.

As a procedure, lethal injection, through a needle inserted ahead of time and preceded by a sleeping drug that is itself potent enough to kill, is considered more ''humane'' than the gas chamber. Its real advantage has less to do with alleviating the suffering of the criminal than with avoiding the increasingly persuasive complaint that the gas chamber is cruel and unusual punishment.

Public-relations ploy

Like a public-relations ploy, lethal injection is meant to allay public discomfort over executions and thereby ensure the continuation of death as the ultimate punishment. Oddly enough, the gas chamber (like the electric chair before it) was introduced some 60-plus years ago for the same reason: it was ''more humane'' than hanging.

Even in the seclusion of a prison, a hanging -- the knotted rope, the black hood, the yanked-away footing and the writhing of the dangling body, viewed and reported by the press -- became more than the public could stomach. It was ended to ensure that capital punishment would survive.

Ironically, now that execution has been gentled, death-penalty opponents fear public repugnance at the process will turn into public indifference. And with so little drama involved, even the news media will cease to take notice.

A way to provide closure

Coincidentally, arguments for the death penalty have undergone a subtle change. Once portrayed as the most effective way for the state to deter criminals, today execution is increasingly depicted as a way to provide closure for relatives and friends of the victims of the condemned.

Once a public act that hyped the power if not the moral authority of government, today execution by lethal injection has become a much more private affair -- almost an act of revenge by the victims' families.

In California, which has the greatest number waiting on Death Row -- 435, including eight women -- a flood of executions is anticipated over the coming months.

But only one of the 435 has exhausted his appeals in the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court has just refused to hear the case of Keith Daniel Williams, who was convicted in 1978 of murdering three in a robbery and has spent the intervening 18 years in legal pursuit of clemency. Now his execution date is set for April. Others continue pleading to one higher court after another, or waiting in line to enter their pleas.

Juries keep 'em coming

Meanwhile juries keep condemning convicted murderers to death. In 1993, 42 new inmates were sent to death row in California, a big jump over earlier years when the new arrivals numbered usually in the 20s. As the numbers rise, both courts and Congress have taken steps to reduce the long process of appeals.

Opinion surveys show overwhelming public support for capital punishment, yet organizations seeking to abolish it are also growing in numbers. The strongest opposition voice may be Amnesty International, which has added abolition of capital punishment worldwide to its exposure and denunciation of human-rights violations. The U.S. and Japan are the only major democratic countries that continue to use death as a punishment for crime. International repugnance may fill the gap created by public indifference to this latest form of capital punishment.

Mary Ellen Leary is a West Coast correspondent for The Economist. She wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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