Florida State Rep. Brad Drake is taking heat for suggesting the state bring back the firing squad. He’s actually sort of right. But as is usually the case when a politician says something sort of sensible, he’s right in ways he didn’t really intend. Drake wants to bring back the firing squad because, “I have no desire to humanely respect those that are inhumane.”
In fact, for the person actually getting executed, the firing squad is probably more humane than the lethal injection. I got into this a bit in a piece for Huffington Post a couple weeks ago. When we debate the the humaneness of executions, we’re usually talking about what effect they have on everyone except the person we’re killing.
A 2005 study in the Lancet found that as many as four in 10 of those executed may have been given inadequate anesthesia.
A large dose of a single barbiturate would kill just as effectively and painlessly. Opponents say pancuronium bromide isn’t necessary, and it masks any indications a prisoner may be experiencing pain. But as The New York Times’ Adam Liptak reported in 2008, defenders of the three-drug procedure offer an interesting argument in response. “[L]awyers for John D. Rees, the Kentucky corrections commissioner, said the three-chemical combination was safe and painless and produced a dignified death,” Liptak wrote. “Using only a single barbiturate, they said, was untested, could result in distressing and disruptive muscle contractions, and might take a long time.”
Liptak went on to write about how the state of Texas came to adopt the three-drug protocol. “[T]he medical director of Texas’ corrections department, Dr. Ralph Gray, consulted a veterinarian in Huntsville, Tex., Dr. Gerry Etheredge,” Liptak wrote. Etheredge says he told Gray that in veterinary medicine, they used a single barbiturate, and that, “we overdosed it and everything went smoothly. It was very safe, very effective and very cheap.” The problem, Etheredge said, is that Gray feared “people would think we are treating people the same way that we’re treating animals. He was afraid of a hue and cry.”
These anecdotes are telling. Rather than subject witnesses to unnerving post-mortem twitching by prisoners who are experiencing no pain, prison officials instead use a procedure that leaves open the possibility of immense, unimaginable pain, but also ensures that witnesses will see no signs of it. We’ve shunned the effective, painless procedure regularly used in veterinary medicine because we don’t want to give the appearance that they’re treating prisoners like animals. But in the process, we may be treating them worse.
Jonathan Groner, the trauma medical director of Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio and a death penalty opponent, told ABC News in 2008, “One of the great ironies about capital punishment when you look at it historically is that when executions appear to be more humane, the application of the death penalty becomes less humane.”
When Utah death row inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner asked to die by firing squad last year for the 1985 murder of a defense attorney, there was some consternation that such a frontier method of execution could still even be an option in America. (It’s only still used in Utah, and only at the request of the condemned.) But a number of experts say death by firing squad is swift, relatively painless and less likely to go wrong than other means of execution. Groner told ABC News the least painful method of execution may be the guillotine.
But the idea of bringing back firing squads or the guillotine would make most Americans cringe — even ardent death penalty supporters. That we’d recoil from the idea suggests that we’re gauging the humaneness of state executions not by the swiftness and painlessness they provide for the condemned, but by the amount of discomfort they arouse in the rest of us. We prefer the method of execution least likely to remind us that it’s actually an execution. And that suggests that we may not be as comfortable with executions as we think.
None of this changes the fact the fact that Drake is a grandstanding buffoon. It’s just worth pointing out.