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Why Don’t We Just Shoot Condemned Inmates?

If we’re going to kill people, there's only one good way to do it.


No matter what your stance is on the death penalty, it’s hard to work up much sympathy for the man executed by the state of Missouri this morning. Joseph Paul Franklin was, without exaggeration, a white supremacist serial killer. His preferred targets were Jews, blacks, and anyone connected to interracial couples. During a three-year spree beginning in 1977, he murdered at least seven people, may have killed 15 more, and wounded civil rights leaders Vernon Jordan and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt for good measure. His victims include a father of three leaving a bar mitzvah, and two teenage African American boys.

But the most striking thing about Franklin’s case isn’t why he was killed, but how. He was among the first prisoners in America’s history to be executed by lethal injection using only a single drug—the sedative pentobarbital. Ever since lethal injection was introduced in the 1970s, virtually every state has used a combination of three drugs: one to put the inmate to sleep, the next to paralyze his muscles, and the last to stop his heart. That protocol has come under withering fire in recent years, however, from activists and medical professionals citing a growing body of evidence that indicates the process isn’t always as painless as it looks; in many cases, in fact, the prisoner may remain conscious but paralyzed, unable to scream or thrash, as her heart is slowly squeezed to a stop. One result is that chemical companies have stopped selling those drugs to prisons. Hence Missouri’s switch. (Other states are trying different drugs for their own executions.)

I honestly think that if we’re going to execute people, we as a society should have the integrity and the honesty to face up to the fact that that is what we’re doing.

But there's something absurd about this whole debate. Here’s the thing: We—the American body politic—have decided we are going to commit the ultimate act of violence against condemned inmates. That is, we are going to kill them. And yet, having made that decision, it’s as though we are so conflicted about it that we have to tie ourselves in knots trying to carry out this most heinous of acts nicely. We have phased out hanging, the electric chair, and the gas chamber in an attempt to find a way to kill a man or woman in an inoffensive way. And now we’re trying to find just the right chemical to shoot into a man’s bloodstream to end his life as palatably as possible.

Listen: I oppose the death penalty. I do so primarily for two practical reasons. One, I believe our legal system and human beings in general are so imperfect that we can never know for certain that we have convicted the right person. Two, the death penalty is applied in such an arbitrary way, and the deck with which it’s dealt out is so blatantly stacked against those with no money and/or dark skin that it can’t be considered “justice” in any remotely meaningful sense.

That said, I honestly think that if we’re going to execute people, we as a society should have the integrity and the honesty to face up to the fact that that is what we’re doing. By all means, let’s do it in the most humane way: strap them to a gurney, just as we do with lethal injection, and then shoot them in the head.

Why not? Because it’s barbaric? No more so than other forms of killing. A bullet to the head is a quick and painless way to die, far quicker and more certain than lethal injection, or any of our other historically favored methods.

Because who would pull the trigger? If it seems too much to have someone actually standing there holding the pistol, the gun could be mounted on a stand and triggered remotely by an executioner standing unseen in an adjacent room. Again, that’s how lethal injection is typically carried out.

Because it would create a sickening mess? Yes, it would. That would require some special preparations and clean-up. But again, that process would leave no doubt as to what actually happened.

Let me say again: We should abolish the death penalty. But if we’re going to have it, let’s stop pretending that we’re doing anything nobler than actually killing people.