I'm unsure how much national press this has gotten – I suspect that having colleagues at University of Nebraska who are anti-capital punishment activists to boot has made me disproportionately aware of it – but Gov. Pete Ricketts' epic quest to find ways to kill death row inmates despite the lack of lethal injection drugs is like a modern day version of Moby Dick. Well, that's a rough analogy. The novel was a complex, brooding commentary on man's search for meaning. This is just a story about an asshole who wants to kill people so other, terrible people will like him more.
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As with every post in the history of Gin and Tacos that deals with capital punishment, let us remember the incontrovertible truth that politicians love the death penalty because it's the only way a bunch of paunchy, candy-ass white guys can look tough. Many death penalty opponents look at Ricketts as a perfect example of the way inmates' lives are used as fodder when elected officials need to shore up support with their old, white base. It's also a good example of political miscalculation and not knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em – Ricketts has chosen to die upon this hill (so to speak) without having much of a strategy once his first steps didn't result in success. But more than anything the wrangling, legal and practical, over lethal injection pharmaceuticals is a black comedy skit on the illusion that killing people as the endpoint of a legal process made up of fallible, biased humans can be made Humane.

I am 100%, without exception opposed to capital punishment.

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I also believe that if you're going to kill someone it doesn't make a hell of a lot of difference how you do it provided the infliction of suffering isn't one of the goals of the process. We like lethal injection because it's bloodless and doesn't create a gruesome scene. It looks, when it works properly, like someone calmly passing out and never waking up. Unfortunately for the states that continue to insist on using it, it's also not a particularly effective method. I see nothing valuable about the method. If you're going to kill people anything quick and reliable will do.
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Gunshot to the head. Long-drop hanging. Hell, why not the guillotine. They're all just means to a cruel end of a cruel process. The only advantage lethal injection has over any of them is that it makes us feel better about ourselves as a society. It lets us feel morally superior to the "uncivilized" Chinese shooting people in the head or Middle East heathens beheading people with cartoon sized swords.

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As if it matters. As if the morality of killing people is determined by the method employed.

To see Ricketts go full Ahab so that his state can continue sanctioned homicide would be funny if the consequences weren't so grave. It's useful, though, to let the country see what rabidly pro-death penalty politicians really are: a group of people who are so enthusiastic about killing that they will devote themselves to concocting ways to circumvent the law they claim to care about upholding. It's almost like they're a little too excited about killing. You know, the kind of person who we generally consider a danger to society.

42 thoughts on “CHARADES”

  • I'm opposed to the death penalty for a number of reasons.
    Mainly, one innocent life is too great a cost. Yeah, it would suck to find yourself in prison wrongfully for the rest of your life, but the alternative…

    As someone with little understanding of these things, why the cocktail of drugs?
    From where I sit, why not cyanide?

    I believe someone with a background in pharmacology can shed light on this.

  • Agreed! However you look at it, the "death penalty" is state-sanctioned murder. That's really the only fact one needs to decide against it. BUT, if one needs other reasons (why?), criminologists have long indicated that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent. SO glad we long ago abolished this medieval practice long ago here in Canada (and not even our right-wing politicians – – thankfully currently in decline – – dare touch it)!

  • Last week my nephew asked me about Moby Dick, and I sketched out the story. He asked, "So it's told from the whale's point of view?" I need to work on my summarizing.

  • Of course, small-government bozos scream about death panels in health care, but when it comes to criminal justice, sorting out who deserves to live and die seems to be the moral duty of the state.

  • A few years back I learned of just how many people on death row were either known to be or later found to be completely innocent of the crime they were sentenced for. A shocking number of those on death row are also completely incapable of understanding the charges against them for varying reasons (extremely low IQ, mental health issues, etc.) If that weren't bad enough, so often the lethal injection just plain doesn't work, subjecting the victim to an agonizing torture. Amazing how the so-called "pro-life" crowd seems to have no problem with it.

  • Hanging was the method used in the UK until it abolished executions in 1964. But doing it properly is a skilled job. A British hangman reminisced about the executions of war criminals at the Nurembeg trials:

    There were hangmen from each of the four powers: America, France, Britain and Russia. But a couple of the executioners the Yanks sent over were gas-chamber lads. Hadn’t a clue about hanging. They started by dropping them too far, were pulling the heads off them! Then they overcompensated so they weren’t dropping far enough and they were strangling. We had to take over their quota.

    When done correctly, it's a quick, painless and bloodless death:

    Without a sound Pascoe plummets 5ft and dies instantly as his neck is broken and the nerves from his spinal column to his brain are severed by the weight of his body.

    It's still an obviously violent and ugly end. I don't agree with the death penalty, except perhaps for war criminals and similarly extreme cases; but IMO, if you're going to deliberately kill a human being, it should be ugly.

  • The passion for lethal injection is grounded in the usual political motive, denial. Lethal injection is the climate change denial position, so to speak. It's obvious that a firing squad is more effective, and god knows we believe in the deification of fire arms in every aspect of our lives except, for some bizarre reason, the death penalty. Hopefully in the next Rethug "debate" Dr. Carson and Ms Carly can discuss the various concoctions now being offered as better than a bullet.

    Oh, yeah, I think the death penalty is morally wrong, and that this is actually obvious to everyone.

  • H.M.S. Blankenship says:

    I believe that some of the difficulties these death penalty states have had recently are caused by pharmaceutical companies which object to having their products used for this purpose. It sounds like the invisible hand of the marketplace in operation. The thing about that invisible hand, you don't know where it's been.

  • @Talisker:
    "It's still an obviously violent and ugly end. I don't agree with the death penalty, except perhaps for war criminals and similarly extreme cases; but IMO, if you're going to deliberately kill a human being, it should be ugly."

    In that case you want crucifixion. ;)

  • Townsend Harris says:

    One of screenwriter Robert Bolt's points in his 1962 "Lawrence of Arabia" is the Englishman who denounces the desert tribesmen as "a little people: greedy barbarous, and cruel". The Englishman becomes the tribesmen's wartime leader, and he and his bosses prove every bit as greedy, barbarous, and cruel as all the tribesmen combined.

  • Pete Ricketts has two accomplishments, one being born into wealth, the second buying a red state governorship. His next goal is to appear as if he knows something. The legislature has thwarted several of his attempts to run the state by fiat, and he knows that a large portion of the population is reactionary and extremely moralistic, in a nasty vicious way, in my opinion he is trying desperately to demonstrate his authority, too bad if somebody has to die. After all he is a member of the one percent, and the rest of us are just moochers. He is perhaps the most repulsive governor of my lifetime, no I take back the perhaps.

  • Note: Born and raised in Nebraska. Lived in many other places but I still live here. Watch the legislative sessions on TV as much as time allows. Big Ernie Chambers fan. While Sen. Chambers is (now) not the only black guy in our one house legislature he is black and doesn't let it escape anyone's attention. He's also smarter than the rest of the legislature combined. He's been trying to end the death penalty for decades.

    Ricketts failed in his bid to buy a U.S. Senate seat but succeeded in buying the Governors spot. Thinks government should be run like a business. As the son of the founder of Ameritrade, he's almost a caricature of "Born on third base, thinks he hit a triple." He hates Ernie Chambers and my thought is that as a Governor he doesn't care about the death penalty. He merely wants to defeat Sen. Chambers.

    Even when the ballot measure to restore the death penalty passes – don't bet against the stupidity of our average voter here in NE – it won't be the end of it. Sen. Chambers will bring the repeal back again and, with some actual bi-partisan (in a supposedly non-partisan legislature) support will get it repealed again.

  • Check out the work done by the Innocence Project. The number of people wrongly convicted or murder and sex crimes that have been release through their help is staggering. What's worse, as they point out, is that murders and rapes are the types of crimes where the accused gets the most resources for their defense and there is often DNA evidence that can help identify a suspect. Lower level crimes such as theft or drug cases tend to have far less money for experts, time for public defenders to work up a case, or some definitive evidence. Instead, low-level prosecutions rely on eye witnesses which are famously unreliable and filled will bias. Real scary stuff.

  • @ Xynzee. Crucifixion? I don't know. Could be worse. You could be stabbed. At least crucifixion gets you out in the open air.

  • @Xynzee

    My preference is ugly to the observers but as painless as possible.

    Frankly if we can't eliminate the death penalty completely, executions should be performed by a) doping the subject into unconsciousness with morphine and then b) using a very sharp guillotine. From what I've read that would be far more humane than the drug cocktails that states have been using.

  • @bad Jim : that's really why Moby Dick, of all the reading-list staples that get fed to high school students and people early in college is really a book for adults that kids aren't going to get. The obvious approach to this book from anyone who grew up in recent decades: that the tragedy is the death of the whale, is really just not in the text. Depending on how you read it Moby Dick is either actually malevolent or a black (white) slate and is morally neutral. But the whale is not a sympathetic character in that story, and young people try so hard to find that in there.

    Also yes, I am against my government murdering people.

  • Funny how these small govt types never seem to realize that executions cost more than just locking someone up.

    Or that it executions are the perfect media storm to indulge in a sociopath's narcissism.

  • @nonynony: Yes, that's the point I was trying to make.

    If we are going with morphine + guillotine, I would give the condemned the option of refusing the morphine. Some might prefer to be awake and alert when the blade fell, instead of drooling and unconscious.

    (The article I linked to mentions that in the old days in the UK, the condemned was offered a shot of whisky before hanging.)

  • My favorite quote more or less, says that as the only supposedly advanced nation with a death penalty, we are now guilty of cruel and unusual punishment.

    Cruel but sadly not so unusual, are people like Ricketts.

    I read that some states have looked into getting drugs from places like India with some embarrassing results. Has anyone else read this?

    I frankly do not miss all the electric chair jokes of the past.

  • As a nurse in a burn unit, I feel confident that with a large amount of propofol, fentanyl, rocuronium (a paralytic) and potassium I could give someone a comfortable death – my job is usaully to use these drugs and NOT kill someone. However, the dosages and timne required are always variable and require some knowledge and skill to administer properly, which is probably why these things go wrong.
    I am against the death penalty anyway, so it will never be an issue. I think I would choose either firing squad or old age for myself.

  • Guillotine is my choice. Quick and full-on gruesome. On the public square, with required attendance by all pro-death lawmakers. Should be televised during prime time and preempt all other programming–including all shows on cable. If we're going to be a pro-death nation, let's go all the way, goddamn it!

  • @ John Noble. One state wanted to use propofol. The manufacturers are European and said that if the drug were used for executions, they would stop ALL exports of propofol to the US. I think other drug manufacturers are doing the same thing — hence the shortage of acceptable drugs.

  • In 1989, after five black and Hispanic teenagers were arrested for "wilding," brutally beating and raping a woman who'd been jogging in Central Park, Donald Trump spent $80,000 on newspaper ads calling for the teenagers to get the death penalty.
    It turns out that the kids were innocent. Thirteen years later, a felon who was already in prison for three rape-robberies and one rape-murder admitted that he and he alone had committed the crime.

    'Nuff said.

  • Leading Edge Boomer says:

    Ricketts is trying to restore the death penalty by referendum in NE after the unicameral (and allegedly non-partisan) legislature did away with it. A lot of people were surprised at what the legislature did, but many people came together with different reasons to vote as they did. People–
    –Who are morally opposed to taking life under any circumstances.
    –Who take their New Testament out for a spin beyond Sunday morning.
    –Who know that the presence of a death penalty does not prevent future crime.
    –Who know a death sentence, after appeals, etc. costs more $ than life w/o parole.
    –Who are concerned with the number of faulty death sentences overturned by DNA evidence or prosecutor misconduct.
    –Who understand the difference between justice and revenge.
    –Who understand the extreme difficulty in obtaining drugs approved by the courts to avoid the "cruel and unusual punishment" Constitutional problem.

  • Anti-death penalty people, take heart. Your job is almost complete.

    A little Order of Magnitude stuff..

    We have been murdering about 10,000/year of our fellow US citizens for many years.

    Let us assume that 10% of these murderers are truly worthy of the death penalty – so that we should expect about 1000 executions (assumes one murderer per person killed – not always true) per year as the murder production process has been operating at this level for decades.

    Actually, in a typical year we have about 50 or fewer executions nation wide- whatever the method AND about half of them occur in Texas (As Ron 'Tater Salad' White used to say "You kill somebody in Texas, and we'll kill you back !")

    I recognize that only about 38 states have the death penalty and murders are not uniformly distributed throughout the states. But assume they are for this exercise.

    So 38/50 x 1000 = 760 executions should be happening every year.

    If we have Texas accounting for about 25, you expect for the 37 other death penalty states you would have about 735 executions.

    In fact we have about 25 / 735 = 0.034 or about 3.5%

    My assumption about 10% of the murders death penalty worthy is one that needs to be qualified or corrected.

    So with the exception of Texas, we are about 96% execution free in the United States using this simple first cut.

    Further refinement might make the number higher in the 37 other states.

    The obvious conclusion for anti-death penalty forces is to concentrate on Texas – to get the most return for your effort.


  • One of the problems, from what I've read, is that most people who are trained and qualified to inject lethal drugs are medical personnel. Most doctors, nurses, etc, are reluctant to be the ones doing the injecting.
    Since it has no detectable deterrent effect, the only plausible justification that I can think of is vengeance. Causing the prisoner pain is considered cruel, but shutting someone in a room and saying, "At a certain date in the future, we are going to take you to another room and kill you." is not. The idea that human life is so precious that we punish murderers by killing them has long struck me as one of the odder ideas we've come up with as a species.

    There is such a thing as "stay in prison until you die of old age". Given what USA high security prisons are like nowadays, that should be vengeance enough for anyone.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    Spot-on post. If you want to kill people, do it in a messy, brutal and effective way that's over in an instant. Don't screw around with drugs and needles so you can pretend to be some sort of humanitarian.

    I would only add that every generation or so, a new, more "humane" method of capital punishment comes along. And in another generation, we're appalled by how barbaric it's come to seem. The guillotine was supposedly more humane than hanging. The electric chair was supposedly more humane than the guillotine. Lethal injection was supposedly more humane than the electric chair. Lather, rinse, repeat.

  • @seatea: (face palm) Of course! How could I forget the benefits that crucifixion provides by getting out in the fresh air and even catching a few rays. I mean if you're going to die, why not have a nice tan when you go. ;)

  • One thing to keep in mind about execution is that doctors are prohibited from administering lethal injections via the hippocratic oath. Which means they also won't prescribe a huge batch of barbiturates for some sheriffs flunky to inject. Which means lethal injections are usually an odyssey of awful. The more you know.

    Also electric chairs were invented by Thomas Edison to scare people from the dangers of alternating current and not to actually be used to kill people. Edison was against the death penalty. Irony alert.

  • There was an opinion piece in the LA Times a few years back by a physician, not in favor of the death penalty, suggesting that would-be executioners might profit from picking up an anesthesiology textbook. For practitioners of this difficult art, whose insurance premiums are staggering, the trick is not killing the patient.

    More or less what John Noble said.

  • @Bad Jim: I'm glad you brought that up. I've believed for years that there are plenty of Republican doctors and nurses who strongly believe in the death penalty and would be glad to do the job for a few hundred dollars. Also, the reason they can't get the original drugs used is because the European Union has a law that forbids their pharmaceutical companies from shipping those drugs to countries where they might be used to execute someone. Given the size of the pharmacopeia I can't believe there is only a single combination of three drugs that would do the job, probably a lot better than the original "cocktail." It hadn't occurred that an informed layman could pick up a textbook and find the information, but now that it's pointed out it seems obvious. Which raises the question of why they don't. Oh, wait,… it would require they know how to read and also believe in science.

  • What these 'Law and Order' types never understand: every time you kill/imprison an innocent person, the guilty person goes unpunished. The don't care about justice, they just want some blood.

  • Grew up in Omaha; Erie was a commiemaumau when I was in my early twenties (not my take, but that of many of my contemporaries).

    I like the sound of "Bernie'n'Ernie 16",; well, that and the sound of esplodin' Husker heads!

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