Friday, September 18, 2009

Pain for the Sake of Pain: Killing the Killers.

This morning the New York Times reports on a case in Ohio that gives us another look at how we usher people in our society to their death. In 1984, Romell Broom was convicted of raping and murdering a 14 year old girl. On Tuesday, the state tried to execute him with lethal injection, but failed. Because of prior drug use or dehydration, the executioners were unable to find a viable vein on Romell. Execution by lethal injection typically includes three separate drugs. The times article quotes a 2007 study from The New Scientist:

In most states, the lethal injection is a three-drug cocktail: sodium thiopental to make the person unconscious; followed by pancuronium bromide to paralyse muscles and stop breathing; and finally potassium chloride to stop the heart.

An Ohio judge last year ordered the discontinuation of use of a drug that was found to be banned in pet euthanasia in 42 states. Yet:

In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that lethal injection was not “cruel and unusual punishment,” like other methods of execution, “such as disemboweling, beheading, quartering, dissecting, and burning alive, all of which share the deliberate infliction of pain for the sake of pain.”

Now an Ohio attorney, Tim Sweeney hopes to convince a judge that attempting to execute Broom a second time, after the first two hour, "unsuccessful" ordeal, will amount to cruel and unusual punishment. The mother of the girl Broom is convicted of killing doesn't agree:

She doesn’t buy the argument that Broom’s two-hour ordeal amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. “Look what happened to my daughter,” she said. “Was that cruel for him to take a knife and stab her all up?”

If our society doesn't consider a humane, painless death for the "innocent," terminally ill important, of course the fight for a humane death of convicted killers is an uphill battle. Suffering is a form of punishment that the state is not required or obligated to alleviate; in fact, as punishment, suffering is a realm that the state, as warden of justice, wishes to control. The Appellants' (state of Montana) brief for the Baxter v. Montana case now before the Montana Supreme Court which will determine the constitutionality of assisted suicide states that our society's role for the suffering, terminally ill is, "...where suffering cannot be further alleviated, to show solidarity with them by standing by them and furnishing what support we can." Whatever that support is, I don't know, other than denial of the dying person's wish to end their suffering.

Suffering plays an important redemptive role in our society. It is seen as a person's duty to experience the pain that God, in the form of a terminal illness, or the state, in capital punishment, inflicts. Innocent or guilty, pain is an important part of life, the reasoning goes. The idea that those who have inflicted suffering and pain, like Romell Broom, deserve a painless death goes against our equation of getting what you give. In the case of Broom, Phillip Morris, a columnist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer writes:

[I]t’s time to turn back the clock a bit on capital punishment. The death penalty was once administered with ropes, guns and electric chairs, not technicians with syringes. What we have now is a gentle form of euthanasia designed to ease the conscience of civil libertarians or those who want to take out the garbage in the most humane way possible.

We kill with just a bit too much kindness.

ASIDE: If palliative and general practice doctors know how to end life painlessly with injection, as is done in Washington, Oregon and other countries for assisted suicide, why is the penal system still using unproven, painful methods of drug injection to end prisoner's lives?

One can only assume that the medical profession, reticent to take up pain relief and issues regarding end of life for "innocent" patients, has limited interaction with the prison system. That the science of ending a life exists in only particular fields is alarming but not surprising. Our government still practices torture, after all.

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