Monday, January 7, 2008

The "Secrecy" of Lethal Injection

Interesting article in today's LA Times on the "unusual secrecy" surrounding the lethal injection debate in the U.S., which culminated in this morning's arguments before the Supreme Court.

"In state after state, defense lawyers contending that the execution method inflicts unnecessary pain complain that judges have denied them access to crucial information, including the identity of executioners and details about the drug cocktail used in the fatal injections.

"State officials have successfully argued that releasing such information could compromise prison security and the safety of personnel. But lawyers for death row inmates say the restrictions have hampered their efforts to question not only the drugs, but how they are administered."

It's an old canard which state officials have hidden behind for years: that the identity of the executioner(s) should be hidden from the public. In Florida, the executioner is still a "hooded individual" who is "picked up anonymously on a street corner", driven to the prison (wearing a hood at all times), paid $150 per execution (in cash), and receives "virtually no training" in how to carry out the job.

I believe Georgia still uses "volunteers", usually three, who all press a button simultaneously to release the chemicals (in the old days, it was to turn on the juice for the electric chair), but only one button of which actually releases the chemicals. This ensures that no one knows for certain which volunteer actually executed the person (collective punishment).

If all of this sounds "shrouded in mystery" as the Times piece argues, that's because it is supposed to be. As Robert Johnson wrote in his groundbreaking book "Death Work:"

"In the process of trying to spare prisoners such suffering (and to lessen the discomfort of the prison staff as well), executions [have become] strained, hidden and hurried undertakings[...] Executioners are not a popular topic of social research, or even of conversation at the dinner table or cocktail party. We simply don't give the subject much thought. When we do think of executioners[...]we picture hooded forms hiding in the shadows of the gallows, or lurking about behind an electric chair." (pp.41, 124)

The role of the executioner and method used certainly received a thorough going-over this morning at the Supreme Court. For more on the oral arguments transcripts go here, and for a summary of where the justices might be headed, go here.

h/t SL&P

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