Monday, January 7, 2008

Uncruel and Usual Capital Punishment, Part One

For the last couple of years, there have been discussions of the commonly-used capital punishment method of lethal injection, including the question of whether this method is "cruel and unusual." These discussions accelerated today as the issue was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court:

Attorneys for two death row inmates in the eastern state of Kentucky argue that lethal injections can cause unnecessary pain and suffering.

The three-drug cocktail injection that Kentucky uses for executions has one drug to make the prisoner unconscious, another to paralyze the body and a third to stop the heart.

Opponents to the method argue that if the first drug does not work, the inmate would not be able to move but would feel excruciating pain.

I don't know if Peter Dawson was thinking about that when he posted this tweet earlier today:

how the heck to do they do clinical trials for "lethal injection" ??

With a passing remembrance of eighteenth century history, I responded:

@peterdawson the sad part is that the guillotine is probably more humane. more gruesome, but more humane.

My thought was based upon the recollection that lethal injection takes a few minutes to work, while the guillotine was much quicker.

Dawson then asked me a hypothetical question which, in essence, boils down to this: Let's say that a country (Dawson used Saudi Arabia as an example) convicted someone of a capital offense, and that "the charges are correct and the verdict is fitting." Would "beheading" (Dawson's word) be acceptable in this situation?

I'm not ready to answer that question yet, but I figured I'd better research my history.

Here are excerpts from a biography of Guillotin at

[Guillotin] became one of the 10 deputies of Paris in the Assemblée Constituante on May 2, 1789, and was secretary to the assembly from June 1789 to October 1791.

Guillotin belonged to a small reform movement that sought to banish the death penalty completely. On October 10th 1789 – the second day of the debate about France's penal code – Guillotin proposed six articles to the new Legislative Assembly. In one of them he proposed that "the criminal shall be decapitated; this will be done solely by means of a simple mechanism." This was defined as a "machine that beheads painlessly". This uniform method of executing was to replace the inhumane methods such as burning, mutilation, drowning, and hanging. An easy death – so to speak – was no longer to be the prerogative of nobles. Guillotin also wanted the machine to be hidden from the view of large crowds, in accord with his view that the execution should be private and dignified....

Guillotin argued for a painless and private capital punishment method equal for all the classes, as an interim step towards completely banning the death penalty. His colleagues, however, laughed when he claimed that a machine he had designed could cause immediate and painless separation of the head from the trunk. It was not until 1791 that a law was passed that everyone condemned to death in France should be decapitated.

Now the experts went to work, designing, building and revising the machine. Generally, the surgeon Antoine Louis who was the secretary of the surgical academy, is credited the design of the prototype together with the German harpsichord maker Tobias Schmidt and France's main executioner, Charles-Henri Sanson (1739-1806). It was Schmidt who built the machine....

Additional improvements to the guillotine machine were made in 1890 by Leon Berger, an assistant executioner and carpenter.

Back in 1792, Sanson argued for the humane nature of the new invention:

Today the machine invented for the purpose of decapitating criminals sentenced to death will be put to work for the first time. Relative to the methods of execution practised heretofore, this machine has several advantages. It is less repugnant: no man's hands will be tainted with the blood of his fellow being, and the worst of the ordeal for the condemned man will be his own fear of death, a fear more painful to him than the stroke which deprives him of life.

But there was a later discovery that cast the humane nature of this invention into doubt:

As the French nobility was largely exterminated and heads kept on rolling at an ever increasing pace during the years of terror, science discovered a new and surprising fact, later confirmed by modern neurophysiology: a head cut off by a swift slash of axe or guillotine knows that it is a beheaded head whilst it rolls along the ground or into the basket – consciousness survives long enough for such a perception.

While the guillotine was used in several other countries (including Nazi Germany), the last known use of the guillotine was in France.

The last execution by guillotine took place in Marseilles, France on September 10, 1977, when Hamida Djandoubi was beheaded for torture and murder. France outlawed capital punishment in 1981.

Assuming that you accept the morality of capital punishment itself, and assuming that the juncture against "cruel and unusual punishment" is important to you, what is the least cruel and unusual method of punishment? Until I discovered that consciousness apparently survives after the beheading, I would have leaned toward the guillotine.

Further investigation is needed. To be continued?

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