A Fate Worse Than Death Penalty?

A reader writes:

The comparison one of your readers made between euthanizing a person and euthanizing a dog fails to consider one of the most prominent differences between man and dog: self-awareness.  If dogs are self-aware, it is to a significantly lesser degree than humans, and that is what makes the death penalty such a feared, and inhumane, punishment. If execution is a kindness compared to life in prison, as this reader asserts, why do so many alleged criminals agree to pleas just to get execution off the table, and why do so many death row inmates continue to press to have their sentences commuted to life in prison?

I watched an episode of some crime drama – I cannot recall which one – in which a young criminal was executed by lethal injection. As he lay on a steel table, with the tubes hooked up to his veins, the criminal tapped his fingers on the metal, as though he could will himself to resist the deadly effects of the drugs he was receiving. While fictional, I found the perspective credible. I find it difficult to contemplate no longer being part of the world – being nothing. Why else would so many people describe a good death as one where the deceased passed away "peacefully" in their sleep other than our recognition of how disturbing it is to realize that your death is imminent?

Many people who have spent a long time in prison – who no longer cling to any hope of a miraculous release – decide to do some good with their lives. Others strike up new relationships through correspondence, and still others learn to live this new, severely restricted version of their life. I imagine that just as many people not in prison get up at least five days a week to spend 8 or 10 or more hours at a job that they find personally unfulfilling, lifelong prison inmates make it through the daily drudgery of their lives and learn to enjoy the time they have to choose their own pursuits, whether it is reading, working out, socializing, or watching television. Punishment for these prisoners is often solitary confinement.

The world is replete with examples of people who want to live despite what many of us would consider horrible circumstances – the woman in Austria, locked away in a basement by her deranged father; Stephen Hawking, left only with the use of his brilliant mind; the woman whose face and hands were destroyed by a chimpanzee; the hiker who cut off his own hand, rather than perish. Prison sounds like an awful place, but I'd rather be there than dead.

For more on solitary confinement, read Atul Gawande's excellent piece exploring whether the practice is torture. Dish discussion here and here. Another reader:

I am sympathetic to one of your reader's comments that capital punishment can sometimes seem more "humane," or ultimately less painful/vengeful than, say, life in prison.  I still don't think it's our place as citizens to take the life of other citizens without their permission.  (My only exception to this would be figures that instill fear in the overall populace and whose death brings security and cohesion to the general populace, e.g. Osama bin Ladin.)

Here's the thing though.  We can't automatically say that life in prison is way worse for human beings or that capital punishment is way worse.  If someone has an answer to that, he or she is working off of his or her own biases.  Odds are, I imagine, that some people would prefer life in prison while others would prefer to die.  So why don't we make capital punishment a legitimate option?  

Keeping people alive in prison for decades is expensive anyway, and maybe this voluntary procedure would cut back on all of those appeals costs for those on death row, because people would not need to fight against choices they made themselves.  It could also be the most compassionate as it upholds our values of the choice of the individual and rationally demonstrates that keeping the populace safe is more important than vengeance or the generation of suffering.  Also, wouldn't we save money? That's the death penalty I could support.


Apropos of all the death penalty discussion: The author of this post, a law professor specializing in sentencing, has been on a crusade for more people to pay attention to Life Without Parole sentences, either explicit ("I sentence you to life without the possibility of parole") or implicit (e.g., 160-years-to-life.) These sentences are nearly as barbaric as the death penalty, and imposed by the tens-of-thousands, rather than by the dozens as with death. Yet they get almost no attention.