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November 26, 2007

Does hyperbole help or hurt in lethal injection debate?

Eric Berger has this notable op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on lethal injection protocols, headlined "Unfit to execute: States know that their lethal injection procedure may cause excruciating pain, yet they defend it anyway."  As these snippets show, the piece is full of forceful rhetoric:

For years, the conventional wisdom has been that lethal injection is a humane means of execution. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth....  Thirty-seven states have selected potentially excruciating chemicals, and many have delegated administration of those drugs to unfit personnel.  As a result, it is virtually certain that inmates have needlessly suffered painful deaths and that more will continue to do so -- unless states and the federal government substantially revise their methods.

The prevailing method of lethal injection employs three drugs that simultaneously create a risk of terrific pain and conceal that pain from all observers.... Experts agree that other drugs could cause death without the risk of also causing undue suffering.  Because the states have selected drugs that are so sensitive to error, however, it is imperative that they employ the right people to administer them. But numerous states employ people who are manifestly unfit....

It is disturbing that states not only use needlessly painful chemicals but that some also employ unqualified people to administer them.  What is intolerable, though, is for states to insist on retaining those same chemicals and personnel once they have been alerted to the significant risk of profound suffering.  Numerous states have done exactly this -- and then sought to conceal all information about their procedures....

It is outrageous that states and the federal government have elected to carry out executions with dangerous, painful chemicals and then abdicated responsibility for the procedures to untrained, unqualified personnel.  Government owes its citizens a transparent, careful reconsideration of this deeply flawed procedure that, as currently constituted, is bound to fail.

Though I agree with the basic gist of this op-ed, the piece seems less effective because of its hyperbole.  The piece hints of a mass conspiracy to "needlessly" cause "undue" and "profound" suffering during executions, and it suggests that a "deeply flawed procedure" is "virtually certain" to lead to inmates "needlessly suffer[ing] painful deaths."  The piece leaves out the fact that a number of states have gone through a "careful reconsideration" of its protocols in recent years on their own initiative, and others have done so when courts have said they should.

Many death penalty critics are justifiably troubled by a lack of transparency in state reviews of execution protocols.  But this op-ed and other critics do not acknowledge the reality that any transparency good deed tend to get punished through additional legal challenges and delays.  Indeed, the fact that a state has recently tried to improve its protocol is often a key point for a defendant asking for another judicial review.

I have been urging for years now that execution protocols are a matter of national significance calling for the attention of the nation's legislature, as so I am sympathetic to the themes of this op-ed.  However, since the nation's High Court has decided to get involved after congressional inaction, I think it is important for the hyperbole to be replaced with more sober and balanced analysis of these issues.

November 26, 2007 at 11:42 AM | Permalink


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Hyperbole doesn't help unless you also say that the debate is now over and declare victory.

Posted by: Gray Proctor | Nov 26, 2007 12:16:33 PM

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