Below is some disturbing footage of the last public guillotining in France, in 1939 (before it was completely abolished in 1977):
A reader writes:
Bringing back the guillotine will never happen, for one reason: the uber-ick factor. I raise and kill my own rabbits for meat, and kill them using cervical dislocation – somewhat similar to the guillotine. I hold the rabbit, pet it, thank it for nourishing me and my family, slip a loop over its neck and yank. The head is dislocated from its spine immediately, and (in theory!) the rabbit feels nothing.
The problem is that, just like a chicken running around with its head cut off, its lifeless body “runs” for an eternity afterwards. It’s really only about a minute or two, but it can feel like an eternity – its head dangling, and the body flailing. Later, when you’re cutting up the carcass, muscles can still be twitching. That would happen to humans, too. Not as much – our limbs are heavier and harder to move – but some.
Are we really sure that, as Kruzel writes in his post, “quickly severing the head is believed to be one of the quickest, least painful ways to die”? I remember reading this from a biography of Catherine the Great:
[W]as death by guillotine so instantaneous as to be truly painless? Some believe not. They argue that because the blade, cutting rapidly through the neck and spinal column, had relatively little impact on the head encasing the brain, there may not have been immediate unconsciousness… Witnesses to guillotining have described blinking eyelids and movements of the eyes, lips, and mouth. As recently as 1956, anatomists experimenting with the severed heads of guillotined prisoners explained this by saying that what appeared to be a head responding to the sound of its name or to the pain of a pin-prick on the cheek might only have been a random muscle twitch or an automatic reflex action.
Now I don’t know about you, but after reading this section, I’ve had a few dreams where I thought I was the subject of one of these experiments. Someone’s just cut off my head and then immediately stuck a needle in my face to see if I could feel it and then said, “Nah, he’s fine! It’s just a twitch!” (In a French accent, no less.)
Yeah, I think when cutting off the head of another human being is the “most humane” form of capital punishment, it may be about time for the U.S. to join the two-thirds of the world that has already abolished the death penalty. I’d love to see the public opinion numbers if the states that still have the death penalty all announce that to respect the rights of the prisoners they’ll be using the guillotine in the future. Public opinion would probably turn faster than any issue ever polled.
[A] recent study found that, since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted that moratorium in 1976, the majority of executions have been performed in just 2 percent of U.S. counties. And six states have abolished the penalty in as many years. In 2012, only 80 people were executed nationwide.
All of this lends even more weight to the argument that the punishment is increasingly “unusual” as defined by the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual standard. But it may also explain why half of Americans still think the punishment is imposed fairly. With so many states and counties eliminating the punishment, many simply have little exposure to those cases in which shoddy evidence or discriminatory decision-making lead to arbitrary sentencing.
Andrew Cohen highlights the racial disparities in those put to death. He concludes:
Like all polls, this one gives us little more than a snapshot of current attitudes about a topic that clearly is evolving as a matter of both law and politics. Six states have banned capital punishment since 2006 and lawmakers in several others are contemplating similar measures. And that’s really where these poll numbers ought come into play—as a reminder of how far the conversation has come on capital punishment and how far it still has to go. The numbers may change here or there, the percentages may vary a little, but the truth is that the death penalty in America either needs to be overhauled so that it is fairly and justly applied or it needs to be scrapped altogether as a capricious practice unbecoming a civilized nation of laws.
Erin Fuchs considers reasons why more Americans now oppose the death penalty:
We spoke to death penalty expert Douglas Berman, who attributed the drop in support to three big factors: high-profile exonerations of death row inmates; the disappearance of “tough on crime” attitudes popular in the ’80s and ’90s; and the successful repeal of the death penalty in a number of U.S. states.
On AC360 Later last week, I detailed my own opposition to the death penalty (unembeddable clip here). Jennifer Kirby notes that falling support for capital punishment correlates with the decrease in violent crime. But Allahpundit doesn’t think this explains the drop:
[L]ots of Americans don’t actually know that crime has been dropping over time. A Pew poll published in May of this year provides additional evidence. The number of crimes committed while using a gun has fallen along with the rest of the crime rate, but a clear majority of Americans (56 percent) thinks it’s gone up over the past 20 years. (Only 26 percent knew the truth.) How can support for capital punishment be eroding due to America becoming safer if Americans don’t know that it’s safer?