The Associated Press reported this week that Ohio inmate Kenneth Biros would be given a single, untested pet-euthanasia drug for his execution. This was supposed to take longer than death by the previous method, which involved a three-drug cocktail, but was given the greenlight because Ohio's capital-punishment system is still reeling from the disaster that was Romell Broom. Broom's executioners couldn't find a usable vein, so they stuck him with a needle time and time again. His execution was halted, at least temporarily, on the grounds that following up the botched attempt would be cruel and inhuman.
It may seem odd to worry about what is "cruel and inhuman" where people like Romell Broom and Kenneth Biros are concerned. Broom raped and murdered a 14-year-old girl more than two decades ago. Biros, whose lesser crimes included attempted rape, aggravated robbery, and felonious sexual penetration, murdered a woman in 1991 and then threw her body parts out of the vehicle as he drove across at least two states.
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Quite apart from the method of execution used, there are those bleeding-heart liberals who contend merely waiting on death row is itself cruel and unusual punishment. The fact that convicted murderers wait to die so long because our legal system permits them every possible avenue of appeal and delay before they are executed is an irony lost on those complaining about the inhumanity of the wait itself. But what if we set aside this argument and focus solely on the technology of state-mandated death? Is there still room to argue? And if there is, should we do so?
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there have been 51 executions in the U.S. in 2009, up from only 37 in 2008. Every single one of those executions was by lethal injection – with the exception of 60-year-old Larry Bill Elliot, who rode the lightning on Nov. 17, 2009, when he was strapped into an electric chair in Virginia. Elliott, described as "a former Army counterintelligence worker," shot two people in 2001, apparently over an obsessive romantic infatuation. Elliott's execution is significant because he chose to die by electrocution. He is only the fifth death-row inmate in Virginia to do so since 1995, when death by lethal injection became the standard. The oak chair in which Elliott died, still proclaiming his innocence, is over a century old.
Only seven states, among the 35 that have the death penalty, still routinely execute prisoners by electric chair (if such a thing can be termed "routine"). The device is said to have been invented by Albert Southwick, a 19th-century Buffalo dentist who, the story goes, saw a drunk man electrocute himself accidentally when touching a generator. At the time, hanging was the standard for capital punishment, but to hang a man could sometimes turn into a grotesque display. Those who were hanged might strangle slowly for minute after minute – or they could be beheaded. The latter was the case in 2007 when the Iraqis executed Awad al Bandar and Barzan al Tikriti, "among the most reviled figures of [Saddam Hussein's] regime." Barzan was decapitated when the trapdoor of the gallows fell away.
The first electrical execution was carried out in 1890 at Auburn Prison. The condemned man was William Kemmler, who was quite literally an axe-murderer. According to History.com, 700 volts were passed through Kemmler for 17 seconds. The power failed, leaving Kemmler still alive. As a second charge of 1,030 volts coursed through his already charred body, his head began to smoke. After two minutes, Kemmler finally died – but not before the electrode attached to the back of his head burned its way down to his spine. Dr. Southwick reportedly lauded the Kemmler execution as presaging a new era of high-tech, humane capital punishment, saying, "We live in a higher civilization from this day on." George Westinghouse was more cynical. He is said to have commented wryly, "They would have done better with an axe."
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Hanging a murderer is certainly more humane than, say, having a crowd of people throw stones at his head until he finally dies from it. The electric chair may or may not be a better means of taking a human life, but it's at least an entirely repeatable, quantifiable process, a bit less subjective than trusting a hangman's choice of rope and counterweight. Lethal injection, in which a killer goes to sleep and never wakes up, surely would be considered a more "humane," less violent option. Convicted child-killer John Albert Taylor died by firing squad – his choice – and whether that is "humane" seemed to matter less to Taylor than that it was, at least in his mind, a way of going out with more dignity (and while causing greater difficulty for the state). The gas chamber, meanwhile, was once seen as a peaceful alternative to the electric chair – but its subjects die slow, excruciating deaths. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled gas chambers cruel and inhumane in 1996; even a broken analog clock is right twice a day. But should we care?
All methods of state execution, including that used to end Kenneth Biros' life Tuesday, apply technology to the awkward problem of killing a killer. We try, as a society, to insulate ourselves from the visceral reality of this act because we cannot face it – but we should. We should accept and embrace it. We should murder the murderers, and to hell with their excuses.
Whether done covered in blood or in the trappings of government sanction, to end a life is implicitly, inherently violent. The cruelty of an act of violence is not found in its mechanics, but in its context. To take a life except in self-defense is what is cruel and inhuman. Justice for such a crime is not cruel. No matter the technology applied, to redress the wrong of murder by killing the murderer will always, and should always, be justifiable – no matter the method.