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January 16, 2008

A bit of historical perspective on execution methods

Providing an interesting perspective on the Supreme Court's consideration of execution methods in Baze, Jonathan Turley today has this notable op-ed in USA Today.  Here is part of this piece that immediately caught my attention:

Pain has long been a surrogate issue for a deeper unease with death as a punishment.  At one time, pain was part of the purpose of the moral execution.  Early practitioners sought ever more gruesome and prolonged methods. Phalaris, the tyrant of Agrigentum (571 to 556 B.C.), used his infamous Brazen Bull, which was designed so that a man placed inside over a fire would roast while his moans were amplified through a series of tubes as soothing music for the tyrant.  The Romans punished parricide (murder of a parent) by putting the condemned into a sack with a dog, a rooster, a viper and an ape — then throwing the sack into the water.

In the USA, executions were recorded almost immediately upon the landing of Europeans. In 1608, George Kendall was executed in Virginia for plotting against the Crown.  By 1612, Virginia Gov. Sir Thomas Dale enacted the Divine, Moral and Martial Laws, which mandated the death penalty for virtually any conceivable crime, from trading with the Indians to killing chickens. Colonial executions included hanging, beheading, drowning, burning and breaking at the wheel (where a person was tied to a wagon wheel and his limbs were broken; then the shattered limbs wrapped around the wheel spokes).  With the age of enlightenment, the idea of executing someone in a way to heighten suffering came into disrepute as states sought uniform methods of capital punishment.

I spotlight this passage not only to provide historical perspective on the modern debate over lethal injection protocols, but also to raise issues concerning the relationship between theoretical justifications for the death penalty and execution methods.  It seems that the Romans and colonialists sensibly believed that, whether society's goal is to deter capital crimes or to achieve retributivist justice for, say, murder of a parent, an extreme execution method might better serve these goals than a painless one.

January 16, 2008 at 10:18 AM | Permalink


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The passages you quote might more usefully be used to remind us that in our world today, where we tend to believe our state of democracy and society has become more sophisticated and civilized, such barbarism is best left to history and to the horror chambers of Madame Tussaud's. But of course our bed-fellow, Iran, still practices the amputation of a right hand and left foot.

Posted by: peter | Jan 16, 2008 12:16:24 PM

"putting the condemned into a sack with a dog, a rooster, a viper and an ape — then throwing the sack into the water."

On the off chance that lethal injection is overturned, I suggest states adopt this as the new, alternative method. Might also make a good reality TV show. ;)

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jan 17, 2008 9:31:17 AM

Interesting that some Americans consider the death penalty a bit of a joke. They're right, it is. In any field of human activity, mistakes will be made, to coin a phrase 'to err is human'. Which means of course that any system which condemns people to death will also make mistakes, it's just the way it goes, after all the people making the decisions are human and human fallibility in legal systems is well known (look at OJ Simpson, in jail now but for the wrong crime). Anyway that being said mistakes will be made when executing people which means innocent people will sometimes be killed, which means any legal system which practices capital punishment is no better than the murderers it is executing. After all, they too killed innocent people. This is where morally the arguments for capital punishment fall flat on their face. Advocates of capital punishment believe the authorities make mistakes everywhere, indeed are often suspicious of activities of the authorities, governments, but when it comes to capital punishment choose to believe mistakes are never made. Ironic or wot.

Posted by: M. Seal | Apr 22, 2010 8:03:33 AM

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