Written by Paul Dail
Devil’s advocate: A person who, given a certain issue, takes a position he/she does not necessarily agree with—or simply an alternative position from the accepted norm—for the sake of debate or to explore the thought further.
On Tuesday, March 10, the Utah Legislature sent a bill to Gov. Herbert for final approval which would make the firing squad the secondary method of execution should the state find itself unable to procure the drugs necessary for lethal injection. In a previous Devil’s Advocate piece on this topic, I said that given the two possible death penalty methods, I believed firing squad was the better of two evils.
However, after stumbling across a story about a doctor advocating for prisoner suicide, the devil’s advocate in me now thinks that if we’re going to keep using the same justifications for upholding the death penalty, we should just let death row convicts kill themselves.
The good intentions
As I stated in the previous Devil’s Advocate piece, the idea behind reinstating the firing squad is chock full of good intentions. First you have the drug companies which have traditionally provided the three-punch lethal injection cocktail suddenly deciding their good intentions revolve around no longer wanting to provide their drugs for executions. This search for replacement drugs has led to some notable executions demonstrating what might be considered “cruel and unusual punishment.” The firing squad, on the other hand, is a pretty sure-fire second alternative…no pun intended.
Further, while opponents to the legislation in Utah most certainly argued against the practice of capital punishment in general, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Ray, chose not to speak on the death penalty.
“The state of Utah has adopted a death penalty,” Ray said, “and in doing so we have to have a means in which to carry it out.”
In other words, the state has already decided we will kill someone when we feel it’s the right thing to do, now let’s make sure we demonstrate that our intentions are to do it the right way.
The path of a “dead man walking”
There’s an old saying about the paving of a certain road.
But for now, I’m going to put aside the theological discussion, even though this is still a country that largely legislates morality. Eternal damnation aside, many proponents of the death penalty will be quick to say that capital punishment is about justice and not about vengeance, as many opponents claim.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “justice” much as you would probably imagine: “fairness; the exercise of authority in the maintenance of right … justness … equity…equitableness.”
If we are going to use this definition and say that in the case of murder, one death deserves another on the scales of “equity,” wouldn’t justice still be served as well by suicide as by execution? Otherwise, why do we make them wait?
At the very least, letting death row convicts kill themselves makes sense from a financial standpoint.
Many opponents to capital punishment argue that the cost of the death penalty is actually much higher than the cost of sentencing someone to life in prison. While I don’t think I’ll get them on board with my argument here, they should at least be happy to know that letting death row prisoners kill themselves would save taxpayers’ money.
According to Argus Leader, a Gannet Company, approximately 10 percent of executed inmates in the U.S. “fall into the category of a ‘volunteer,’ or a person who ends their appeals early.” This means they’re just waiting around to die at the taxpayers’ expense.
First, I know that much of the costs of death row come from the appeals, but even just having someone in prison—whether on death row or not—costs approximately $29,000 per inmate annually. At last count (or as “last” as I could find), there are 3,035 death row convicts in the country. That’s over $88 million per year.
I’m also aware that “waiting around to die” is not necessarily the same as agreeing to doctor-assisted suicide, but shouldn’t they have the option rather than waste their time and our money?
In 1996, the country of Belgium ended the practice of capital punishment. In September of 2014, they made headlines when they granted prisoner Frank van den Bleeken the right to die with the help of prison doctors. Van den Bleeken was a serial rapist and murderer who would’ve most likely been sentenced to death in the United States had he been convicted in one of the states which still uses capital punishment.
According to an Australian ABC News 24 report following the announcement, Philip Nitschke, a doctor and euthanasia advocate, applauded the move and says he thinks the same should be true for Australia, where capital punishment has also been abolished, but not life in prison without possibility of release.
“It looks to me like the state is not only prepared to incarcerate people forever in certain circumstances, but to try and maximise the suffering of those individuals,” Dr. Nitschke said. “To me, that’s equivalent to torture and I think it’s something that the state should not be involved in.”
Here in the United States, the government will kill people in 32 states and call it “justice,” even though this act of fairness and equity is carried out on our behalf without us ever having to dirty our own hands. The government doesn’t even force us (or in some cases I’m sure, allow us) to do it ourselves. If we’re going to say that suicide is “the easy way out” for these convicts and that they should have to wait and suffer in prison until we get to kill them “ourselves,” are we still talking about justice? Or have we crossed that line into vengeance, if not for ourselves, then for those with whom we sympathize?
[vengeance: n. punishment inflicted or retribution enacted for wrong to oneself or to a person, etc, whose cause one supports]
The theological side is a little more difficult. Is it better from a moral standpoint that we kill them than if we allow them to kill themselves? Some would say even if they’re guilty, this time of waiting gives them time to come to terms with God and save their souls. The tricky part is that many of the faithful who would argue this are the same who would otherwise damn them if they chose not to seek forgiveness.
It’s a little like entrapment, I think, but I can understand this side of the argument (ergo, the devil’s advocate side of me that drives my wife crazy). I was baptized in one of those same churches that believes in mortal sins, although I don’t have to take off my shoes to count how many times I’ve worshipped in that particular church since then.
While I may not necessarily subscribe to all of their beliefs anymore, I’ll say that I can at least see where they’re coming from. Suicide is a guaranteed ticket down that proverbial road. They may have done a horrible thing, but do we compound that horrible thing by not allowing them the chance to find God instead?
Except let’s be honest. I’d be willing to bet that most people who want to see someone rot in jail as long as possible until the state ultimately killed them don’t necessarily have the soul of the sinner in mind. It’s time to be honest.
If our country insists on having the death penalty, I still think the firing squad is the better alternative. I would agree with 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Alex Kozinski who called the process of lethal injection “a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful–like something any one of us might experience in our final moments.”
The firing squad is brutally honest. And if we’re not going to allow death row convicts the right to kill themselves, then perhaps the next brutally honest step is going to be to stop calling it “justice.” It may just be a matter of semantics, but as a writer, I believe the words we use mean everything, and the system in our country sounds a lot more like vengeance.
In the parlance of the youth of today, I’m just sayin’.
Paul D. Dail received his BFA in English with a Creative Writing emphasis from the University of Montana, Missoula. In addition to news and his bi-weekly opinion column, he also enjoys writing creative nonfiction and fiction (with a penchant for the darker side of the page). His collection of flash fiction, “Free Five,” has spent over a year and a half in the top 50 Kindle Horror Shorts Stories since its publication in 2012.
Currently Paul lives on the outskirts of Kanarraville, surrounded by the sagebrush and pinyon junipers, with his wife and two children. Read more about him at www.pauldail.com. While he prefers that any comments directed at a specific article be posted in a public forum, he welcomes all other correspondence at [email protected]