The death penalty . . . with dignity?
Every morning these days I drive twenty minutes down Sunset Boulevard from our apartment to my ocean-view office at the Getty Villa. Just how glamorous is this, I muse … ignoring the mundane surroundings of the old Toyota Corolla that I’m driving. No cadillacs for Beard.
To pass the time, I listen to the only radio station which seems to give any “proper” news: KPCC, the local branch of National Public Radio. This is a very worthy station which has sober features about student debt and illegal immigrants, and for some time during the night joins forces with the BBC World Service – which is about as worthy as you can get. But yesterday two of the morning news features sounded chilling rather than worthy.
The first was about a local “health care provider” who had made a landmark settlement and agreed “new protocols” on what is bluntly but accurately known here as “patient dumping”. There are 80,000 homeless in Los Angeles and when they end up in hospital, it seems no-one quite knows where they should be discharged to, after their treatment. This particular case involved an elderly woman who was apparently caught on CCTV being dropped off by a taxi in Skid Row (that’s a “cardboard city”) dressed in just her hospital gown and slippers. Frightening enough on its own. But there are 50 more such cases pending.
The second item was almost more shocking. This was about more “new protocols” – this time for the administering of lethal injections to condemned men in San Quentin prison.
Executions in California have recently ground to a halt, because a judge has ruled that the way they were carried out flouted federal law on “cruel and unusual punishment”. The backlog of problems which the radio reported was truly terrifying. The execution chamber was gloomy, tiny and -- according to other reports – painted lime-green (though quite why the colour should add to the cruelty I’m not sure – is it better to die in a brightly lit, pastel blue suite?). It had been the state gas-chamber, modified for new style punishment – and barely fitted the bed. The staff who administered the injections were ill-trained (no doctors would participate) and under-supervised. One of the execution team had, according to the radio, recently been dismissed for smuggling drugs into the prison (recreational pharmaceuticals for the condemned men I found myself hoping, but doubting). None of them seemed to know how (or even whether) the cocktail of three drugs worked. The first anaesthetic was followed by a paralysing shot, before the final heart-stopping and painful potassium chloride. But as the man’s body was paralysed, it was impossible to tell whether the anaesthetic had worked and so whether pain was felt.
The new rules involve better screening and training. You will now need, amongst other things, to have a good attendance record if you want to join the execution team, and there will be six training sessions in the six month prior to an execution – to include “effective communication” and some rudimentary toxicology. The cocktail of drugs will remain much the same, but there will now be a check on the anaesthetic. That is to say the inmate will be shaken to see if he’s awake (I wasn’t all sure how this got around the paralysis problem – or, as one of the interviewees on the radio puzzled, if only anaesthesia were that easy we could all be supervising surgery.) There will also be a brand new execution facility, except that building work has had to be temporarily stopped because it has run over budget. The idea is to make for “a dignified end of life” (though the radio presenter demurred over the word “dignified”).
What was shocking about this broadcast was not only the content. It was the matter of fact way that it was all discussed, and the implied knowledge of the listeners. The budgetary problems of the death chamber could have been those of a new library. And it seemed as if we were all assumed to know about the sequence of three shots and the precise life-ending properties of potassium chloride.
The afternoon before, coming home, I had followed a news item on the forensic science of crimes against animals. Listeners were warned that it might be upsetting for young children. There was no such warning here. They obviously reckon that kids take discussion of lethal injections in their stride.