The death penalty is uncivilized

The Japanese are nothing if not stubborn. It took a visit from Hiroo Onoda’s former commanding officer, by then a retired bookseller, to persuade the erstwhile lieutenant to abandon the guerrilla outpost he had maintained in the Philippines and come home to a Japan that had been at peace for nearly 30 years. Onoda became a national hero, and his passing this year at the age of 91 was duly noted in the world press.

Less attention was paid to the story of Iwao Hakamada, who was granted a retrial this March after spending more than 45 years on Japan’s death row. Lest you think this is an impossible anomaly, it is not particularly uncommon for prisoners on America’s 33 death rows (32 state, one federal) to wait 30 years or more for their date with the needle, and some, like Hakamada, to be in their 70s before being executed.

Japan has some special refinements, though. Death row prisoners are kept in solitary confinement and may not speak to guards. Execution dates are never announced, so that Hakamada could wake up each Monday through Friday for nearly half a century not knowing whether that day was to be his last (there are no executions on weekends in Japan, so you can spend Saturdays and Sundays waiting for Monday).
Hakamada was subjected to 20 or more consecutive days of 12-hour interrogations with no bathroom breaks until he signed a confession, which he then repudiated. DNA evidence finally cleared him, but he was still not exonerated. While imprisoned he went mad, believing himself to be an omnipotent God who, having absorbed Iwao Hakamada into himself, had freed all death row inmates in Japan and abolished the death penalty.

Then there’s the Iran of the ayatollahs or George W. Bush’s “young democracy” in Iraq, where prisoners are executed by the bushel. Or Egypt, where 529 men were recently sentenced to death in a mass trial for the killing of a single police officer. Not content with this Guinness record, the court then sentenced another 683 to death en masse. And there’s Pakistan, where death is the penalty for blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad. Or China, where the families of the condemned used to be charged for the bullet used to execute them.
Civilized societies, whatever their flaws, do not execute people. We can judge for ourselves the company we’re keeping.

America has a very bad conscience about what it’s doing in putting people to death, which is why it has created the world’s most contorted system for doing so. Death sentences are subject to automatic review, and appeals can drag on for decades. Two-thirds of all death sentences are reversed at some point, some because of actual innocence but the majority because of egregious procedural errors, inadequate representation or prosecutorial malfeasance. You’d think if anyone deserved the death penalty, it would be a prosecutor who knowingly framed someone in a capital case, but no such luck. I’ve seen some, and they’re still gainfully employed in what we laughingly call the justice system. Sovereign immunity, you know.

The bad conscience comes out in the way we put our fellow citizens to death. The standard method of execution in 19th-century America was hanging. It was not an exact science and often caused prolonged suffering. The electric chair was introduced in 1890 as a more humane alternative, and it became the industry standard despite the horrific botching of its first exercise. Straining limbs, roasting flesh, and occasional spurts of fire took their toll on executioners and witnesses, and in the 1920s the gas chamber was introduced, again in the interests of delicate sensibilities. With gas, witnesses could watch the condemned thrash more freely while gasping for air. This method became a little less popular after the Holocaust, and lethal injection was introduced, being America’s current execution method.

All the while, of course, far more efficient and less painful methods were available. Modern hanging is a science; you can calculate the exact weight and drop it will take to break a person’s neck. The French used the guillotine for more than a century and a half; it was even more effective. The Chinese use of a single bullet was equally parsimonious. The problem with these procedures, though, is that they look awful. Heads tumble or explode; blood gushes.

The popularity of lethal injection (now used by the Chinese as well) derives from the fact that it works exactly the way a hospital anesthetic does, and the prisoner on his gurney looks, but for his bonds, just like a patient awaiting a lifesaving operation. Thus is the distinction between therapy and lethality effaced. The condemned prisoner lies trussed in a sealed chamber, awaiting the seepage of poison into his veins, without even the dignity of standing erect before a firing squad or sitting in a wired chair.

Because with the declining popularity of capital punishment it is more and more difficult for death penalty states to access the drugs they like to use, they have resorted to alternative chemicals, including some hitherto used to euthanize animals. Because many of them have never been used to kill humans, some executions are medical experiments performed on live subjects, and some go wrong. Recently, Oklahoma staged its first double execution since 1937. The first prisoner, Clayton Lockett, took 43 minutes to die. The second execution was postponed for fine-tuning.

The guillotine would have done the job in a couple of seconds. Bloodletting, anyone?

The courts have ruled that prisoners do not have the right to know with which chemicals they are being executed, nor from which supplier they are procured. Because the medical profession disallows doctors from participating in executions, amateurs are left to mix lethal cocktails and monitor the results (Lockett died of a heart attack). Texas tries to avoid the problem by using a single drug, and its governor, Rick Perry, has recommended this protocol to prison officials in Oklahoma.

The longer we go on killing, the worse we seem to get at it. There must be a moral in this somewhere.

Abolitionists like to point out that we are in the company of such countries as China, North Korea and Iran in retaining the death penalty, which every Western country save ours has now abolished. We may object to being classed with tyrannical states, but in fact the case is worse with us precisely because we are a democracy. In democracies, the acts of public officials are done in the name of all and are thus the acts of us all. This means the blood is on your hands and on mine. Only we don’t see it because those who work our death chambers are scrupulous never to spill a drop.

Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected]

  • Chris Castillo

    My mother, Pilar, was murder in November 1991 at the hands of two Honduran nationals who were renovating her house. At the time, I was angry and in extreme pain. It felt like someone pull my heart out of my chest. Years later, after receiving help for depression; someone talked me into doing prison ministry. My reasoning was that I didn’t want anyone to go through the same pain that I had to endure.
    It was through a program called Bridges to Life that I learned to forgive the men who killed my mother. I did it to be a healthier human being, not because I was a saint. Now, I find myself against the death penalty for many reasons.
    I think the system is flawed, and that our government, who can’t get anything right, shouldn’t be in charged with weighing whether or not a person should live or die. Plus, the death penalty is too expensive. It costs more for the death penalty than it does to put someone in prison for life (without the possibility of parole). It costs two to three times as much to prosecute a capital murder case when compared to a non-death penalty case.
    Also, in many cases there have been men who were innocent who have been put to death because the death penalty machine doesn’t slow down for anything. It only grinds to stop after it leaves another family facing the death of a loved one – the family of the accused.
    Just last month my daughter was married. I so wished my mother would have seen my daughter grow up and eventually have grandchildren. My mom died at 52.
    I know that there is not a just sentence for anyone who takes a life. If we take emotions out of it, we can make our community safe while murderers serve a lifetime in prison.
    We need to change from a people focused on revenge to a society that strives for justice.