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Lethal Injection, the Supremes and China

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

The question everyone is asking is whether anything is happening in the United States of America other than a two year long marathon to decide who will be the next president of the United States, news of each milestone being covered as though it were the determining factor in establishing the winner. As we draw closer to the time when there will be an event that actually determines that fact, news of all else is virtually eclipsed by news of what was, was not, is, is not, will be, may be, or won’t be insofar as it affects those seeking the presidency. I am happy to report that there is other news even though it is not altogether new news. It concerns the death penalty. And it is a subject with which two countries that treasure human rights above all else–the United States and China–are dealing.

In the United States the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on January 5 addressing the important question, simply stated, of whether being executed by a three drug lethal injection is more likely to hurt than being put to death by a one drug injection because of the protocol accompanying the injection. If it does, it may be unconstitutional and if it doesn’t, it isn’t.

The people who are best able to answer that question are those who have received the injections and they are unable to give an opinion. Next best, however, are lawyers and Supreme Court Justices and it is the lawyers who presented the arguments as to why the three-drug injection is apt or not apt to hurt, and the Justices who will decide whom to believe.

As the Supreme Court case demonstrates, many people in the United States are concerned about the pain inflicted on those being executed notwithstanding Justice Antonin Scalia’s sensitive observation during oral argument that there’s no constitutional requirement that executions employ the “least painful method possible.” Some medical evidence suggests that a single barbiturate is easier to administer and less likely to cause pain than the three-drug approach now commonly used. The one drug method is used by the humane society in Kentucky and other states when euthanizing animals and is reportedly painless yet effective. According to Adam Liptak of the New York Times, however, one of the objections to switching to the single drug method employed on animals is that it is employed on animals. Death penalty proponents think that human beings are better than animals and should not be put to death the same way animals are put to death. It devalues the entire procedure.

While the Supreme Court contemplates the question, China has announced it, too, is trying, to use Chief Justice Roberts’ words from the oral argument, to have a procedure that produces a “humane death.” Traditionally China has executed those who have earned the right to be put to death by one shot to the back of the head. Mindful of the sensitivities of the survivors, those being shot have been asked to open their mouths when the shot is fired so that the bullet can pass through the head and out the mouth without disfiguring the victim.

Early in the New Year, Jiang Xingchang, vice-president of the Supreme People’s Court announced that lethal injection was more humane than the shot to the back of the head and would eventually replace the latter method of execution. It is already being employed in some places in China although the formula is the same three-drug formula that the Supreme Court is considering. Thanks to a relatively new invention, however, death by lethal injection has been made much more pleasant as well as efficient, in China.

According to a report in USA Today, in 2004 authorities began acquiring a new death van designed by Kang Zhongwen in which executions by lethal injection take place. Mr. Kang says that their introduction shows that China “promotes human rights.” The vans enable executions to take place in the communities where the condemned lived thus making it more convenient for family members who want to attend, a truly thoughtful touch. Mr. Kang was quoted in USA Today as saying of the van: “I’m most proud of the bed. It’s very humane, like an ambulance.” He then shows how the bed in the van slides out so the victim can lie down and when secure, be powered into the van. All in all, it seems like a highly civilized approach to state sponsored death. Whether China will be influenced by the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion of three drugs vs. one drug only time will tell.

Now you readers who have wasted two minutes reading the foregoing can go back to the internet to see if the polls that are frequently wrong but slavishly reported and commented on, show any change in the standings of the candidates.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at: Brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu. Visit his website: http://hraos.com/

 

 

 

 

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