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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

A Modest Proposal Concerning Means of Execution

California's death chamber
California's death chamber
Sunday ends the public comment period for California's proposed regulations for a new safe and sane lethal injection procedure.

The regs are in a 29-page document, to which are attached 18 forms that cover things like the condemned's written acknowledgment that "it was explained to me that I have an execution date of [insert date] and that I may choose either lethal gas or lethal injection as the method of execution."

So I address this (very public) comment to the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Dear CDCR,

I admire the team tasked with the macabre and impossible job of developing what they call "a humane and dignified execution" process. I can't fathom what it is like to be tasked with clearly imagining, and designing procedures for:

--choosing who is qualified to kill a person on our behalf, training them, and organizing them into sub-teams

--giving the condemned a choice of how to be dispatched and appropriate forms for last meals, witnesses, property distribution, and burial arrangements

--dealing with the chemical supply problems posed by manufacturers who won't have their medicines used as poisons (letting the warden choose any of 4 drugs for a particular execution is brilliant!)

--sending the prisoner to health-care professionals for a "vein assessment" on where best to administer the overdose

--making sure that the prisoner's list of people who are to be informed "in case of death, serious injury or serious illness" is up to date

--assigning a liaison to the condemned prisoner's family (surely a coveted job)

--assessing whether the person is mentally healthy enough to be killed

--ensuring that suicide doesn't interfere with the state's planned homicide

--deciding exactly how much money to spend on a human being's last meal on this planet

--postulating what differences in handling are required in putting a woman to death

--projecting when and to what degree the executioners need to rehearse their tasks

--designing contingencies if someone on the team won't be able to go through with the job

--briefing the condemned on what will be done to them

--detailing medical procedures for the killing process to work effectively, including protocols for horrifying scenarios where the injections, injections at the backup site, and backups to the backup plan fail to turn the human into a corpse

--offering post-trauma counseling to the people who do this job for us, and

--designing forms to document it all.

It must be hard to put oneself through imagining how all this might go, so as to design its institutionalization. I am no expert, just someone with a lot of caring for the 3 people I know on death row. It looks to me like you have done a thorough and thoughtful job. I can't blame you for the weird and disturbing disjunct between aseptic language prescribing standardized procedures and the reality of plotting how to take another's life. And I won't repeat the reams of comments you've received about the pitfalls of this experimental 1-drug protocol.

My complaint is with the overall attempt to civilize an uncivilized act. Every venture at making state killing more refined has dug us into a deeper hole. This is true in terms of your stated goal of respecting the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel punishment. It's also true from the perspective of the spiritual health of our society and its ability to make informed public-policy choices.

In contrast, the guillotine (used in France until its 1981 abolition of capital punishment [The last execution in France was carried out in 1977]) and the firing squad (Utah's not-so-old method) are gruesome but truly swift and certain, unlike anything we've come up with since.

Surely they are less cruel than sending the condemned to nice nurses a week before execution to find the best veins, then, at the time of the blessed event, inserting a catheter and backup catheter (will they first swab with alcohol to prevent infection?), dripping saline until it's time for the drug to be injected, needing a backup to the backup in case the poison doesn't flow right, and inviting God-knows-what hellish visions to possibly zip through the mind as the barbiturate finally begins to hit the nervous system of a person experiencing execution.

Society's interest is even more clear. With shootings and beheadings, we get to know what we're doing: no whitewashing it as a medical procedure, no pretending we're different from our ISIS enemies and our Saudi friends. The person offed someone a few decades ago - now we're offing them. That is, after all, the logic of the death penalty.

Please abandon the attempt to civilize the barbaric. As long as we feel we need barbarisim, let's be open about it.

Source: Huffington Post, Michael Goldstein, May 13, 2016. Mr. Goldstein is a political writer, author, mediator and death penalty appeals lawyer.

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