« "Perceptions of Fairness and Justice: The Shared Aims & Occasional Conflicts of Legitimacy and Moral Credibility" | Main | "The Real Prison Industry" »

November 25, 2011

What humane reasons justify blocking a sane death row inmate's wish to die?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new piece in the Los Angeles Times, which carries the headline "Death row inmates' desire to die renews debate: Legal experts are divided on whether a condemned prisoner who drops resistance to execution should be allowed a dignified end." The piece gets started this way:

Serial wife-killer Jerry Stanley wants to die. Imprisoned on death row for the past 28 years, Stanley insists he deserves execution for the cold-blooded killing of his fourth wife in 1980 and for shooting to death his second wife five years earlier in front of their two children.

Despairing of the isolation and monotony of San Quentin's rooftop fortress for the purportedly doomed, Stanley earlier this year stepped up his campaign for a date with the executioner by offering to solve the cold case of his third wife's disappearance 31 years ago — by disclosing where he buried her body.

When bartering failed to secure him a death warrant, he offered himself up as the test case for resuming the three-drug lethal injections, which had been suspended for six years and remain under judicial review.

"I am willing to be the experimental guy to see whether or not they work," Stanley, 66 and ailing, said in a statement to The Times.  "Assuming I can't get lethal injection because of the injunction on the chemicals, I am willing to accept the gas chamber.  I understand the gas chamber is available and I insist on getting a date."

One of 718 prisoners on California's death row, Stanley has renewed an ethical debate among legal experts about whether a condemned prisoner who drops resistance to execution has been driven insane by his confinement or has accepted his fate and should be allowed a dignified end.

An Alameda County judge has ruled that Stanley is competent to decide his own legal matters.  He is one of at least three condemned men on the nation's death rows volunteering to expedite their sentences.  Gary Haugen, an Oregon man convicted of killing his former girlfriend's mother in 1980, and a fellow inmate in 2003, was ruled competent in September and faced a Dec. 6 death by lethal injection until Gov. John Kitzhaber just days ago banned further executions during his term.  The third, Eric Robert, killed a guard at his South Dakota prison in April while serving an 80-year sentence for kidnapping. He has vowed to kill again until his death wish is granted.

Since the modern era of capital punishment began with the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah, civil rights advocates and death penalty supporters have debated whether a state would run afoul of laws prohibiting execution of the mentally ill if they bow to a condemned inmate's suicidal impulse.

"Most of these people aren't dropping their appeals because they believe it's the punishment they deserve," said John Blume, a Cornell University law professor and author of "Killing the Willing," a 2005 study of those who abandon pursuit of reprieve.

Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida and other states with more frequent executions see more inmates asking their lawyers to drop appeals, said Blume, who believes that more than 10% of the 1,277 executed nationwide since 1977 had lost the will to live by the time they were executed.  "California has never had a lot of volunteers, maybe because you have lawyers that are better funded and better able to establish relationships with their clients, and there's not a pattern of systematic executions" to demoralize others on death row, said Blume.

One sometimes hears some abolitionists assert that an LWOP sentence is a harsher penalty than death, and some murderers who have been condemned to death apparently agree.  Assuming the condemned person is sane when expressing a genuine wish to die, I have never fully understood what humane justification could support requiring this person to continue living an awful extended and painful life of permanent confinement without any hope for freedom.  If one is eager to torture (psychologically and physically) a condemned murderer by denying him the opportunity to end his LWOP suffering, I suppose it makes sense not to honor his wish to die.  But is there a truly humane reason to refuse such a request to end LWOP suffering if the condemned murderer has no reasonable basis to hope for any eventual freedom from harsh imprisonment?

November 25, 2011 at 09:14 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference What humane reasons justify blocking a sane death row inmate's wish to die?:


This is one of those silly "debates" that always seem to happen because of idiotic law professors, judges etc.

If a death row inmate wants to die, then who really cares?

Posted by: federalist | Nov 25, 2011 10:40:09 PM

Not me! If the inmate can pass a psych exam....go for it!

Posted by: rodsmith | Nov 26, 2011 12:44:21 AM

The appellate lawyer bar needs the $million in pointless fees. The prison industry needs the government make work jobs. And no one may die without paying the medical profession their $300K in torment and end of life futile care (the doctors naturally blame pushy relatives threatening to sue).

Have you ever tried to get a tune up on a Mercedes?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 26, 2011 2:17:10 AM

The humane answer to the question is that the conditions of incarceration for life, where that punishment is absolutely necessary, should reflect the aims of dignity and self-fulfillment within a secure environment. That policy should extend throughout the prison service of course. The continued references to "harsh imprisonment" merely reflect how far US incarceration policy and practice is from the norms of Western standards. In fact they are more closely aligned perhaps to those of Indonesia, where Frank Amado (American) lingers in despair on death row for a drugs offense (click my name for story).

Posted by: peter | Nov 26, 2011 8:46:12 AM

Pretty shallow defense coming from your kindred here, Doug. Agin, you give no backgroud to what led this man to his capital crimes (within/without prison), from which the defense you taunt opponents to offer might be made. Maybe you could just let slow news days go by without reprising the "let's play humane killers ourselves" fantasy.

Posted by: nan | Nov 26, 2011 10:24:16 AM

What justification is there for continuing to pay the lawyers who in fact are not representing their client or his wishes? At this point, how much money has the government spent paying for not one, but two lawyers who are pursuing their own abolitionist agenda rather than representing their purported client?

Posted by: What justification | Nov 26, 2011 1:13:53 PM

state assisted suicide for everybody

Posted by: Dott. claudio giusti, italia | Nov 26, 2011 1:20:54 PM

Prof. Berman:

How very uncomplicated it all is for you. Just plug in the factors (as you see 'em), and...voila, a nice easy answer comes out.

Posted by: anon | Nov 26, 2011 4:10:25 PM

If a long sentence is such "torture," does this mean rapists and others who don't want the "torture" of spending long sentences, in some cases life sentences (in some cases, parole is at best dubious possibility and perhaps they are getting on in years and at best they will be left out when they are on their last legs) should be killed by the state too? Why should those sentenced to death get such "humane" options?

The fact that LWOP might be worse than death (it depends) does not necessarily mean it is "torture" and if it is "torture" it is unconstitutional since the Constitution doesn't allow torture. If the word is used colloquially, again, I'm curious why those who commit perhaps the most heinous crimes get the "humane" option here. Put aside that in some cases, the death sentence would be illegitimate in some fashion. Even if the convicted person rather not "benefit" from not being executed here, the state has an obligation not to execute someone not properly sentenced to die.

So, as a death penalty opponent, respecting the complication of the question, I don't really see the validity of selectively helping heinous murderers in this fashion. After the mandatory appeals in place in some places to safeguard the system, yes, they are not forced to continue appealing to the last possible one is lost. This can quicken things. But, if the rest want to ease things, commit suicide yourself. If rapists, three time losers etc. can deal with long prison sentences, those who killed two people can as well. Sorry about that.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 27, 2011 7:59:19 AM

These inmates know their best self-interest better than anyone else. Let's have an official change in sentencing. The verdict is guilty. The sentence is LWOP or the death penalty. The choice of death may be made at any time, even years after the verdict, even after the onset of a fatal disease. The choice of death would make it less cruel and preferable to LWOP. Let's see the fraction choosing the death penalty. If a super majority choose it eventually, it makes it less cruel in real life.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 27, 2011 10:21:16 AM

It is my understanding that only a small subset "volunteer" here. As to self-interest, I'm not sure about that. Many of these people aren't exactly people who judge things that well, including making good long term choices before choosing to take lives (others or their own). In the long run, it might benefit them not to die. At the very least, it wouldn't be a one size fits all. Also, again, if this results in shorter sentences than rapists etc., why should they get special benefits?

Posted by: Joe | Nov 27, 2011 10:29:18 AM

Joe: To think you or other well meaning people can ever understand and exercise good judgment on behalf of an inmate in the extreme situation of LWOP or on death row is not realistic.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 27, 2011 9:26:52 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB