Ohio executes inmate with drug untested for executions; results are both predictable and unjustifiable

The state of Ohio executed convicted murderer Dennis McGuire yesterday by lethal injection.  Because some the drugs used in the lethal cocktail (usually three) are made overseas, and foreign countries are increasingly unwilling to export drugs used for genuine medical purposes to the U.S., where they can be used to kill people, American states are experimenting with other lethal drugs.  One of those experiments involved McGuire, who was killed with a combination of drugs never before used for executions. The results were predictable: McGuire apparently died a horrible and painful death by suffocation.

As the Guardian reports:

A death row inmate who was executed by the state of Ohio on Thursday with an untried and untested combination of two medical drugs appeared to gasp and snort in a procedure that took an unusually long 25 minutes to kill him.

Dennis McGuire was pronounced dead at 10.53 am at the Southern Ohio Correctional facility in Lucasville. His lawyers had warned ahead of the proceeding that the experimental combination of the sedative midazolam and painkiller hydromorphone might subject him to “air hunger”, an insufficient flow of air into the lungs causing the sensation of suffocation.

. . . A reporter for the Associated Press, which sends a journalist to every execution in the US, wrote that McGuire “appeared to gasp several times during his prolonged execution … McGuire made several loud snorting or snoring sounds during the more than 15 minutes it appeared to take him to die. It was one of the longest executions since Ohio resumed capital punishment in 1999. McGuire’s stomach rose and fell several times as he repeatedly opened and shut his mouth.”

Another eye-witness report from the Columbus Dispatch provided concurring evidence. Dispatch reporter Alan Johnson wrote that four minutes into the procedure, “McGuire started struggling and gasping loudly for air, making snorting and choking sounds which lasted for at least 10 minutes. His chest heaved and his left fist clinched as deep, snorting sounds emanated from his mouth.”

Ohio’s department of corrections originally put the official length of the execution at 15 minutes, but later in the day revised that to 25 minutes.

McGuire’s defence attorney, Allen Bohnert, said that according to reports he had been given from witnesses in the chamber, the prisoner was gasping for breath from about 10.30 am to 10.44 am. At some point, witnesses told Bohnert, McGuire tried to sit up, turned his head toward his family members who were witnessing, and spoke to them. One witness described the scene as “ghastly”.

Midazolam is a benzodiazepine used to control seizures, insomnia,and other conditions requiring anxiolytic drugs.  According to the Guardian, the drug is in short supply in hospitals and will now be in even shorter supply. A typical dose for an execution is 500 mg: 100 times the dose for a patient.  The use of this drug for executions—or any drug that is prescribed for “normal” medical conditions—is opposed by U.S. physicians as well as by foreign governments and companies that refuse to help the U.S. execute criminals by supplying the requisite drugs. As the Guardian notes:

Ohio’s recourse to the midazolam-hydromorphone combination was forced by a shortage of pentobarbital, a drug originally manufactured in Denmark, which has been subjected to strict export licences that prevent sale to US departments of correction. A European-wide boycott, designed to ensure that medical drugs are not used to kill people, has begun to bite across the 32 states that still have the death penalty on their books.

Ohio ran out of pentobarbital in September.

The adoption of midazolam as an alternative drug – not only in Ohio, but also in Florida, one of the most active death penalty states – has led to expressions of anger and disgust by leading physicians in the US. Joel Zivot, the medical director of the cardio-thoracic and vascular intensive care unit at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and an opponent of the use of anesthetics in lethal injections, called the use of midazolam in executions “appalling and unethical”, and said, “The public should be concerned that [the] medicines that are used to help them are being diverted instead to kill people.”

The human rights group Reprieve, which has been a key influence behind the European boycott, has accused Ohio and Florida of stockpiling midazolam to the detriment of medical services.

The U.S. is the only First World country in the West that still practices capital punishment. Wikipedia reports that 58 nations still practice it occasionally, but in 2011 Amnesty International listed only 21 countries known to have executed people. Here’s that list of shame, which puts the U.S. in pretty dire company:

Picture 1

What is the purpose of executing people? The only one I can see is precisely the one that we should not be using: retribution.  “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” says the scripture, and many people agree. Indeed, that’s clear from the Guardian report, where the family of the victim wants to see the perpetrator suffer, and the court apparently doesn’t care:

In court proceedings last week, an Ohio state prosecutor said bluntly: “You’re not entitled to a pain-free execution,” and a judge allowed the execution to proceed.

. . . Members of Stewart’s family were present at his execution, and before it they put out a statement that said the manner in which McGuire was put to death was more humane than the brutal way he had murdered Joy.

Well, if that’s the case, why use drugs: why not just garrote the guy slowly? Why even attempt to give him a “humane execution? Why not just subject him to a slow and brutal murder, and why not have him raped with a broomstick in the process?

Don’t get me wrong: McGuire was a horrible person: he raped and murdered 22-year-old Joy Stewart in 1989, and Stewart was 30 weeks into pregnancy, so her fetus also died. The guy certainly deserved to be removed from society, probably for life. In all likelihood he could do it again, and we need to get such people out of our society both for our own protection and to serve as deterrents for others. Without punishment, people would commit more crimes, as Steve Pinker famously pointed out when recounting the wave of crime that followed a 1969 police strike in Montreal.

But execution doesn’t have any salutary effects on society. It serves only to satisfy people’s brutal feelings for retribution. Further, it costs more than imprisonment without parole (my solution for people like McGuire), and there is always the chance that someone executed could be exculpated by later evidence. (This is becoming increasingly frequent in the era of DNA evidence.) You can’t free someone in those circumstances if you’ve already killed them.

Further, if McGuire, as I believe, had no choice in his actions, and could not have refrained from killing Stewart, does he really deserve a painful execution for that, and to lose his life? Aren’t there better ways of dealing with people whose backgrounds have driven them to do things about which they had no choice? The motive of retribution, unlike that of deterrence, sequestration, and rehabilitation, is based on the supposition that the criminal had a choice in what he did.  If you’re a determinist, or even a compatibilist, you know that’s not true. The list of countries above includes many that are religious, and that’s no surprise, for Abrahamic religions are based on the supposition of libertarian free will, and that presumption that you have a choice about murdering is a natural partner with retributive capital punishment.

If McGuire had been mentally ill, he would not have been killed. In that way the law recognizes that people driven by forces they can’t control shouldn’t be punished by execution. They are usually put in secure mental facilities, where attempts at “rehabilitation” are made. Those often fail, but that’s because serious studies on how to rehabilitate people are rarely done.

But McGuire’s actions are also the result of his physical constitution and his environment: things he couldn’t control either. He had no choice to refrain from a horrible act.  What is the justification for killing him but not those who “don’t know the difference between right and wrong” or “who aren’t competent to think about the consequences of their act”? None of those people could have behaved other than the way they did. Further, we can’t even use the excuse of deterrence to execute people, for the death penalty is not a reliable deterrent to capital crimes (see here, here, here, here and here), and is opposed by most law-enforcement organizations in the U.S. And even if there were marginal effects on deterrence, do those outweigh the possible execution of innocent people?

The death penalty is one of the consequences of not thinking seriously about free will.  Most rational societies have abandoned executions as a brutal and useless exercise.  The United States should, too.  So long as we kill people like McGuire, don’t really care much whether they die painfully or not, and think that they deserve what they get because they chose the wrong action, we should have no place at the table of civilized countries.


  1. Barry Lyons
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    “Humane execution” has always been an oxymoron. This is disgusting.

  2. gbjames
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    It is barbaric. Shame on Ohio.

    • Prof.Pedant
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      Execution is barbaric and wrong. But why there is all this angst about methodology is puzzling – I am sure there is enough heroin seized across the country to provide every death-row inmate with an overdose.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, but then they might die happy. Can’t have that.

        • Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

          Death from a heroin overdose is extremely painful and unpleasant. Have you ever seen someone die from an overdose or who has died from one? I have, and I can guarantee you it is an awful sight.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

            OK, but my point was that the kind of people who vote for the death penalty will likely vote against using heroin to do it, for more or less the reason I gave.

            • Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

              I see – sorry I took your post at first degree. 🙂

  3. Nate Thomas
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    An Examination on the Efficacy of Capital Punishment: A Review of the Literature


    • Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink


      You might note that that paper also shows no deterrent effect and a much greater expense of a death-row system than of incarceration without parole.

      Thanks for calling it to our attention. I’ve added it to the list above.

      • Posted May 3, 2014 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

        The paper above is mine. Any further questions, let me know. (Although by this time, I doubt there is hahah)

  4. alexandra moffat
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    pentobarbitol is used in the humane euthanasia of dogs, cats – as I undertsand it. With that shortage, and knowing that we humans care even less about what happens to “lesser” animals than to humans, where does that leave HUMANE euthanasia for animals?

    • Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      That ‘shortage’ referred to the (depleted) stockpiles of correctional facilities due to export restriction by the country of manufacture. There is no shortage of pentobarbital for medical institutions including vets.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      Having had to put pets to sleep (a dreaded experience) it is very humane. I’m not sure why, if people feel they must execute criminals, this method is not used.

      Moreover, IIRC studies have shown that the most humane way to execute a person is via the guillotine as long as it is maintained properly (the French perfected this during the French Revolution when guillotines operated almost non stop for a period of time).

      My only conclusion is 1) the state wants the executed & even their families to suffer 2) the state wants to “appear” to be humane (aside from this incident) not actually “be” humane, so something obviously bloody like guillotine appears less humane even though it is more humane so it is therefore ruled out.

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        The current (February) edition of Harper’s has a selection in its “Readings” section describing the last ~half hour of the life of a subsequently guillotined prisoner (“This will be the last,” pg. 24).

        Like all execution stories it makes obvious that the true suffering is the victim having to live with the knowledge that s/he is going to be killed. The ancillary effects on those who carry out or just witness the procedure would seem to be nearly as horrific. Especially appalling are the overt attempts at “kindness”–the offerings of last cigarettes, a last shot of rum, etc. “To show you what upstanding humans we are, we’re going to kill you with kindness before we actually kill you,” essentially.

        As always, this is my ultimate objection to the death penalty–what it says about those of us who actually carry it out.

        • Diane G.
          Posted January 17, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

          & sub

        • darrelle
          Posted January 17, 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

          “As always, this is my ultimate objection to the death penalty–what it says about those of us who actually carry it out.”

          Exactly my position too. Even if 100% accuracy of determination of guilt were possible, that barely scratches the surface. The long term impact on society, accrued individually, one by one, is the most serious issue for me.

      • Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

        Apparently, decapitation by guillotine is not really instant death, the brain remains conscious for a short while.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, it may have been firing squad that turned out to be the most humane. I can’t remember which but it was from a show that examined all of them: hanging, lethal injection, electric chair, guillotine, firing squad….I think that was all of them.

          • microraptor
            Posted January 18, 2014 at 3:58 am | Permalink

            The firing squad is more humane than the guillotine only when it’s at 100% optimal. Under normal conditions the odds of the individual suffering a wound that isn’t instantly lethal from the firing squad are higher than the odds with a guillotine.

            And with both the guillotine and the firing squad, you have the fact that it’s a messy form of death and is therefore more traumatic to the people who have to clean up the body once it’s been completed than lethal injections or the electric chair, which IIRC was one of the main reasons that they fell out of favor.

            Of course, like most of the other posters here I’m opposed to execution in general.

  5. Kevin
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Executing people is useless. Killing someone is not a solution or remedy. People’s misguided understanding of free will may play role in making the death penalty justified, but I think it is very minor role.

    Bottom line: Will killing someone or the threat of killing someone prevent them from behaving a certain way? Almost certainly not. It is time we move on to other humane and reasoned solutions.

    • natalielaberlinoise
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      ” …People’s misguided understanding of free will may play role in making the death penalty justified, but I think it is very minor role. …”

      Don’t agree, I think it makes a huge difference. People who believe in free will are much more likely to think that the guy deserved to die.

      • Kevin
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

        People who think the death penalty is a good idea generally have no tangible concept of free will in mind. Though you are probably right.

        • paxton
          Posted January 18, 2014 at 7:24 am | Permalink

          I would say that the vast majority of both supporters and opponents of the death penalty implicitly believe in free will, though most will also acknowledge external influences on behavior. It’s only a small minority of radical intellectual skeptics who don’t. This doesn’t mean the skeptics are not right. The beliefs of most people are based on received opinion with little examination. I expect that this will never change, which is why scientific/rational arguments like Jerry’s make so little headway with the general public.

          • Kevin
            Posted January 18, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

            What Jerry is suggesting requires a lot of work: doing solid research on sociological, psychological, environmental, genetic, etc. motivations for behavior. It is the path we should take. But one does not have know anything about free will in order to carry out good research in these areas (though it would help).

            Along similar lines, see Pinker’s latest answer to what scientific ideas to retire (Edge website). Behavior = Envirnment+Genes or does it? (http://www.edge.org/responses/what-scientific-idea-is-ready-for-retirement)

    • Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      “Will killing someone…prevent them from behaving a certain way? Almost certainly not.”

      Seriously? I think it will prevent them from “behaving” at all. I think you need to re-word that. I’m not sure what you’re trying to say, but what you said makes no sense.

      • Cliff Melick
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

        He’s talking about recidivism, not deterrence.

      • Kevin
        Posted January 18, 2014 at 8:14 am | Permalink

        There are a lot of people who do not care about what happens to them if they do something bad. Death or the threat of death is unimportant to a lot of people. At a fundamental level we all share a similar optimism about life: we have the ability to turn off possible future that include our death or bad things happening to us. Like scaling a mountain that has huge risks, or swimming in ocean waters infesting with sharks, or just walking to work where we tend to think, ‘It will be that other guy who gets run over’. We all have the spirit: we won’t get caught today.

        The same drive opens itself in an artist or athelete. They work relentlessly, uncompromisingly towards a goal, sometimes futile. They think, ‘I will take the risks; failure, injury, or lack or response from peers only happen to other people, not me’.

        • microraptor
          Posted January 18, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

          The number of casinos in the US shows just how prevalent that type of thinking is.

  6. gravityfly
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Out of curiosity – why isn’t pentobarbital manufactured in the US?

    • gravityfly
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      …especially since there’s an apparent need for it?

    • RFW
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Undoubtedly some financial wonk in some pharmaceutical company ran a spreadsheet, observed that phenobarbitol was only yielding a 73% p.a. ROI, so they canned it and let offshore manufacturers fill the gap.

      Or they deliberately offshored its manufacture to screw the unionized workers who’d been making it.

      These days many businesses don’t seem to understand that if you are in Business X, then there is a wide range of products you have to sell; some of those products won’t be very profitable, but their manufacture comes with the territory, so to speak. Being in business isn’t all about cherry picking the best ROIs and throwing the rest to the curb.

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        Respectfully, you have that so wrong. Being in business is all about making a profit and out-competing the other guy. The only way to ensure the production of non-profitable but necessary items is through government regulation.

        • Prof.Pedant
          Posted January 17, 2014 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

          If a business is defined as “a service to society” RFW is right. If a business is defined as “a profit-making enterprise” then you are right. The problem is that a lot of businesses want the “we are valuable to society” image of providing services to society, but they want to be able to make their financial decisions solely on the basis of anticipated profit and not on whether they are actually providing needed services.

          • Diane G.
            Posted January 17, 2014 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

            In what circumstances is a business defined as “a service to society?”

            Your word “image” is the key here; no matter how many donations they flaunt, etc., no business is going to negatively affect their bottom line. And it comes down finally to the consumer, of course. Until they’re willing to pay a little more for principled business practices, corporate altruism is basically corporate suicide.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted January 17, 2014 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

              I agree with Diane. Businesses have one goal: make money. Sometimes they also benefit society but that isn’t their prime raison d’etre.

            • Prof.Pedant
              Posted January 17, 2014 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

              The word ‘image’ is indeed key. So is the assumption that ‘profit’ must mean ‘get all you can’ instead of ‘acquire enough resources to keep doing what you want/need to be doing’. And for consumer choice to be relevant to principled business practices it needs to be clear that ‘principled business practices’ is anything more than – key word here – another image enhancement. A company that wants to be seen as ‘a part of the community’ should know that claim is looking pretty specious when they claim that they ‘have to’ make business decisions that hurt that same community because they are not making ‘enough profit’. In essence: hire me or fire me because of how it affects your pocketbook – but don’t expect me to regard you as family if that is how you treat me.

              • Diane G.
                Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

                We’re definitely on the same page here. : -)

              • Notagod
                Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

                If a business wants to be seen as part of the community, they do that by running community friendly advertising and doing incidental community projects that can also be used as advertising. That kind of stuff is fully tax deductible and often qualifies for business tax credits. In addition to kickbacks for the company officers from government officials.

                When it comes to the product, particularly if they have any competitors, there is only one consideration, profit. Caring about the typical employee is illusory.

    • John K.
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      I understand that it mostly has to do with regulations for producing substances so lethal to humans, but also most chemical companies opt out of selling substances to states when they know the purpose is for executions.

      • gravityfly
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

        But doesn’t phenobarbital have benign uses as well? As a sedative, for example.

        Can’t state governments manufacture their own for execution purposes?

        It jut seems strange that they are beholden to foreign companies for something that they need.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted January 17, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

          State governments need all kinds of things, from computers and automobiles to pencils and staplers. Some of those things might be manufactured within the state, and some are purchased from companies in other states and countries. Nothing strange about that; it’s how commerce works.

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted January 18, 2014 at 3:15 am | Permalink

          It’s sodium pentobarbital.

  7. Achrachno
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    “You’re not entitled to a pain-free execution,”

    Seems he thinks that knowingly inflicting pain is OK. What’s with the ban on “cruel and unusual” then? What was the intent?

    • Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      One would argue that he may have meant “completely pain-free’. A small amount of pain would not be considered cruel and unusual. And certainly not torture to reply to kraut, below.

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted January 18, 2014 at 3:18 am | Permalink

        I would consider choking someone to death over a period of 25 minutes to be “cruel and unusual” as a form of judicial killing. Might as well just spend 25 minutes waterboarding him to death.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      Indeed, the US signed on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights so this statement seems to contradict that.

      • microraptor
        Posted January 18, 2014 at 4:01 am | Permalink

        For a very long time, the US as a country has had a Do As I Say stance on human rights.

  8. kraut
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    What I found more disturbing is the response by the law that “no one has the right to a painless death”. Meaning that torture is basically a right of the law agencies in the US to inflict.

  9. paxton
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Veterinarians have the drugs to put animals down peacefully, without struggle. Why can’t executioners use the same?

    (I too oppose capital punishment, but if it’s going to be done it should be done humanely).

    • RFW
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      Those drugs are the very ones in short supply for state “correction” (recte, “cruelty and incarceration”) departments.

  10. Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Why not use what many feel is the best way to commit suicide – nitrogen gas?

    People simply fall asleep with zero sensation of oxygen deprivation and are completely unconscious within seconds. Death occurs within minutes. No suffering at all.

    You can get nitrogen gas from any industrial gas supplier.

    • Andrew Platt
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      I was wondering why they can’t administer a general anaesthetic first, of the type a hospital might administer before an operation.

      Is the cost or availability of the anaesthetic an issue? Surely the US can afford the cost of an extra 43 doses of anaesthetic a year. An anaesthetist would not be required as there is no need to ensure the “patient” recovers.

      Not that we are meant to be debating such details. I think we are being invited to express our revulsion at the barbarity of the act.

      While I do have reservations – who could be relaxed about any state having the power of life and death over citizens? – I think murder is even more barbaric. Most murderers care nothing for the suffering of their victims or their families.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

        Yes, they administer a general anaesthetic first to pets before they are put to sleep. They even make sure that the animal is prepped in a way so that the medication that kills them does not burn their skin.

  11. natalielaberlinoise
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    The judge who gave this execution the go ahead should himself be dragged in front of a court. But what are the chances of that ever happening…

    • mordacious1
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      Why? He is just following the established law, nothing wrong with that. If you don’t like the death penalty, change the law. Going after those who administer the law is the wrong approach.

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

        That. (;) )

        And it is somewhat comforting to know that many states, such as my Michigan, have indeed abolished the death penalty.

      • natalielaberlinoise
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

        Hi Mordacious1,

        The judge made the call for it to Be OK, that the inmate be killed with a cocktail of drugs untested, thus potentially inflicting unnecessary harm onto the individual. And it turned out to be nothing short of unnecessary torture.

        Now, seen from my, admittedly very uninformed, point of view about American jurisdiction from across the Pond, this seems to me a decision that should NOT have been lawful. As the host said, loosly paraphrased, something to do with being a civilised country, in the 21th century.

        Yeah, McGuire had been convicted to death. Could the State of Ohio not have waitd until it had the “right” cocktail of drugs available? Thus preventing “unnecessary harm”?

        The decision, plus the wording of the judge, make this decision, from my contemporary, albeit geographically removed point of view, a crime.

        Very much looking forward to your mordacious point of view!

        • mordacious1
          Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think I need to be mordacious here. 🙂 I save that for obdurate religious folks.

          Let me first state that I do not support the death penalty. That being said, my point here was that a judge cannot and should not be held responsible for something of which corrections in charge.

          Let’s say they abolish the death penalty and a child raping serial killer gets life. Now you and I know that these guys don’t do well in prison. They are beaten, raped and sometimes killed by other inmates (and sometimes guards). According to your logic, any judge who would put this guy in prison should, knowing all this ahead of time as we do, be held responsible for anything that happens to this inmate. How could any judge give any penalties under these circumstances?

          I suppose ultimately, that Denmark (or whoever refuses to sell Ohio the most effective drug) is also partially responsible for this guy’s suffering. They removed the less cruel method and a more cruel method was found.

          • natalielaberlinoise
            Posted January 18, 2014 at 3:51 am | Permalink

            Oh, bite away! I like sarcasm, it can save lives after all. (You heard it here first.)

            I don’t think though that changing the focus from one dire problem (death penalty) to another (inadequacy of detention centres) advances the argument.

            Ultimately the outrage at the choice of killing method in the case of McGuire serves to highlight an opposition to capital punishment in principle. But why not?

            In this particular case the State chose to ignore the necessity to avoid unnecessary cruelty in the execution of its verdict. Whoever in the “chain of command” is responsible for giving this experimentation with a new “cocktail” of drugs the go ahead should have to account for this wrongdoing. (It seems the family of McGuire are preparing a lawsuit.)

            Unnecessary harm caused by the State also includes the stress of people witnessing this execution. (Videos of the son of McGuire speaking about this can be found with just a few mouse clicks.)

            • mordacious1
              Posted January 18, 2014 at 8:45 am | Permalink

              So, their argument will be that witnessing the execution of their father caused them undue stress? “Members of the jury…my clients were planning a lovely day in the death chamber watching their parent be executed and it turned out to be anything but a good time”.

              Again: I’m not a proponent of the death penalty, but as long as it is legal, you can’t hold the judge responsible for the state’s incompetence in its execution method. The best that can be done, which is what they’re trying, is to bring a civil action against the state. [hint: They’ll lose]

          • microraptor
            Posted January 18, 2014 at 4:04 am | Permalink

            If the people who were responsible for placing inmates into prisons where they could be assaulted, raped, and/or murdered were held responsible for it, the US Justice System would probably see some much needed improvement and overhauling in very short order.

  12. Occam
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    The Columbus Dispatch quotes the rape and murder victim’s family as stating:

    “There has been a lot of controversy regarding the drugs that are to be used in his execution, concern that he might feel terror, that he might suffer. As I recall the events preceding her death, forcing her from the car, attempting to rape her vaginally, sodomizing her, choking her, stabbing her, I know she suffered terror and pain. He is being treated far more humanely than he treated her.”

    So the motive of retribution is clear.

    On the other hand, the Tampa, Florida, moviegoer guilty of texting during a movie preview was shot in a prompt, comparatively merciful manner (albeit without trial).
    It remains to be established wether his wife, who was also wounded during the incident, is to be classified as an accessory or merely as collateral damage.

    This allows us to calibrate the severity of the death penalty (1) according to the gravity of the crime committed within this interval: plain shooting for texting, slow suffocation for rape and murder.

    (1) Given that the principle of retribution is deemed justified, it matters not whether the death penalty is administered by the state or by a private person.

    • Flaffer
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      The family response is question begging: the action the executed committed is ILLEGAL. To argue that the State should commit acts it views as patently ILLEGAL on its citizens, no matter what they have done. The question is what the State does, not what an individual did to get to that point.

      If the executed had, say, shot her in the head only and not raped her heinously, would it then be wrong for the government to execute using the new cocktail? The argument is absurd on its face.

    • John K.
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      Given that the principle of retribution is deemed justified, it matters not whether the death penalty is administered by the state or by a private person.

      Not entirely. A private person is skipping any and all due process, which is why being a vigilante is illegal and private citizens may not incarcerate people they think are a danger to society at their own discretion.

      I would argue that the imperfect nature of the judicial process should preclude irreversible sentences like the death penalty. Regardless, the fact that I think revenge is inherently immoral is more than enough for me want to ban all state sanctioned killing of its own citizens anyway.

  13. compuholio
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    […] an Ohio state prosecutor said bluntly: “You’re not entitled to a pain-free execution,”

    I really wish I could properly express my contempt for such a miserable excuse for a human being who could utter such words. Such indifference to another person’s suffering leaves me speechless. I put him into the same category as the person committing the crime.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted January 18, 2014 at 3:23 am | Permalink


  14. Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    “But execution doesn’t have any salutary effects on society. It serves only to satisfy people’s brutal feelings for retribution. Further, it costs more than imprisonment without parole (my solution for people like McGuire)”

    I’m not sure I would agree that there are no salutary effects. It sets an ethical standard for society: There are some crimes this society considers so heinous that the penalty will be your death. Cross that line at your peril if you choose to live here. PS – we are serious.

    Why is taking the life of such a criminal so distasteful? Are we really going to argue that human life is sacred? What could be further from the truth?

    And how is locking this criminal up for the rest of his life in the hellhole that is our Federal penitentiary system more ethical then taking his life?

    • natalielaberlinoise
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      If you think the hellhole is worse, wouldn’t it serve as a better “deterrent” in your view?

      It’s wrong to kill someone. Life is all we have got. Not sacred, it’s just all there is and ever will be. You kill someone, you take away the chance of not making the mistake of having killed an innocent. It’s worth not having the death penalty at all ever, if one wrongly convicted man can be spared.

      And institutionalised murder is not acceptable. (Yes, the thought of animals in abattoirs can not be pushed aside either…).

      • Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:42 am | Permalink

        I didn’t argue whether it was a deterrent.

        It’s wrong to kill someone? Why do we have a military, then?

      • Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:07 am | Permalink


        “Did you read what I wrote?

        Life without parole is

        1. Cheaper
        2. Has no less deterrent effect
        3. Most important, a fair number of criminals convicted for serious crimes are later exculpated. How can you make up for that if they’re dead?
        4. And, you know, it’s possible that some murderers can be rehabilitated and actually become productive members of society.

        Further, if you can’t choose what you did, do you really want to take the lives of those people?

        I don’t expect you’ll agree with any of this because you simply seem to want to see these people killed. But that serves no purpose. I have said nothing about human life being “sacred”.Yes, I read what you wrote.

        I haven’t argued against numbers 1,2,3 or 4.

        Merely that there may be a salutary effect for execution, and that life without parole may not be less cruel or more ethical than execution.

        Don’t know why you charge me with thinking “these people” should be killed, but, no, I think there may be an argument that if certain criminals were killed it might have a certain salutary effect and therefore would disagree that it serves no purpose.

        Ethical societies limit or remove individual liberties all the time. Drive drunk, you go to jail or lose your driver’s privileges. Most European countries, for example, limit free speech rights by proscribing certain topics for public speeches, and backing this up with jail time for the offender.

        They have said, in effect, that giving a public speech, say, denying the Holocaust will land you in jail. And these countries do this to demonstrate what they believe to be the highest of ethical standards.

        If life is not sacrosanct, then does it not seem reasonable that ethical punitive restrictions on individual liberty might include execution? Or are all punitive corrections unethical?

    • Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      Did you read what I wrote?

      Life without parole is

      1. Cheaper
      2. Has no less deterrent effect
      3. Most important, a fair number of criminals convicted for serious crimes are later exculpated. How can you make up for that if they’re dead?
      4. And, you know, it’s possible that some murderers can be rehabilitated and actually become productive members of society.

      Further, if you can’t choose what you did, do you really want to take the lives of those people?

      I don’t expect you’ll agree with any of this because you simply seem to want to see these people killed. But that serves no purpose. I have said nothing about human life being “sacred”.

      • Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

        I would argue for capital punishment only in the undisputed cases, where there was no doubt of guilt.

        As for your points:
        1. Changes to the judicial system could make that argument irrelevant.
        2. I agree.
        3. I agree, hence my statement above, only for cases in which there is no doubt.
        4. Possibly. However as a quote from John Douglas’s Mindhunter book, he played a tape made by some murderers as they commited their crimes to John Glen (research while they were filming Silence of the Lambs). It left John Glen in tears, saying that “he couldn’t believe there were people like that, and he could no longer oppose the death penalty”.

        My argument is that capital punishment would prevent repeat of crime.

        • scottoest
          Posted January 17, 2014 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

          So you agree with Jerry that capital punishment is in no way a more effective deterrent than, say, life in prison (as the data shows), but then your last sentence asserts that capital punishment would “prevent repeat of crime”?

          And your point #4 is an irrelevant anecdote. Rehabilitation may be impossible because… one time John Glen (I suspect you mean Scott Glenn, the actor) was played a tape of a particularly disturbed individual, started crying, and changed his view on capital punishment?

    • Vaal
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      Think about that “ethical standard” being set, vs other possible ways of setting the standard.

      Let’s say our aim is to encourage empathy, and discourage/reduce the desire to kill people, in our society. We want to create aversions to killing people.

      Which “message” seems more likely to get across the idea that “killing people is wrong.”

      “If you kill someone, or do something we deem wrong enough; we’ll kill you.”


      “We think killing is so wrong, that we will not even kill murderers we have captured.”

      The first clearly seems to keep alive the desire to kill – as retribution. Hence it keeps the “killing as retribution” desire circulating in society. “killing is GOOD…UNDER circumstances where it seems to be deemed retributive for a bad deed.”

      This seems to keep alive and encourage in people some desire to kill;that it is to be a satisfactory action in the face of someone who has “crossed a line” you don’t want crossed. But not only does this encourage or keep alive the desire for killing by the state, but it’s clear that a lot of killing that goes on amounts to people who have made their own assessment of when someone has “wronged them enough to be killed.”

      Whereas the second message is much less equivocal, and is more discouraging of the desire for killing other people.

      And, from what I understand, there is empirical support for the idea that countries in which the second desires are promoted (“desire not to have capitol punishment/kill even murderers), the murder rate is lower.


      (Not that everything is all easy, neat and clean like that. But the general idea is there).

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        Hear, hear.

      • abrotherhoodofman
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

        Well spaketh indeed.

      • mordacious1
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

        But think of all the innocent civilians the government kills each year overseas. Don’t they count? Having a government that doesn’t kill at all would be difficult to achieve in the current geopolitical situation. And it would be easy to say that the US should just quit being the world’s policeman, etc., but I think that the total world deaths would actually increase if that were to happen. I do, btw, agree that the government shouldn’t kill as a punishment for crime, but isn’t that what we do when we respond militarily to a terrorist attack or to defend another country that is being attacked? I can’t see that changing anytime soon.

        • Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

          The best response to a terrorist attack is a police response – and not the hyper-testosterone killer swat team kind – followed by arrests and trials.

          That is how civilized countries respond.

          • mordacious1
            Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

            Well, we did ask the Taliban to turn over OBL for trial…they refused. If a country is training suicide bombers or harboring those who plan and commit terrorist acts, then that is an act of war. Impossible to arrest someone if the country harboring them won’t co-operate.

            • microraptor
              Posted January 18, 2014 at 4:20 am | Permalink

              The US didn’t really ask, so much as demand Bin Laden, then shout “LEEEEROY!!!”

            • paxton
              Posted January 18, 2014 at 7:08 am | Permalink

              Well military invasion and war didn’t get OBL, what we might describe as police action (a commando raid) did. Arguably the war in Afghanistan, like that in Iraq, accomplished more harm than good.

              • mordacious1
                Posted January 18, 2014 at 8:18 am | Permalink

                We will just have to disagree on that one, Bush could have trapped OBL in Afghanistan, but let him slip into Pakistan…and yes, war always causes more harm than good.

            • Posted January 19, 2014 at 1:13 am | Permalink

              Actually, it was Bush who rejected the Taliban’s offer to hand Bin Laden over:


        • Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

          Oh, and which country has the USA militarily defended a country that has been attacked since WWII?

          • Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

            Way past my bedtime, cannot properly put a sentence together. 🙂

          • mordacious1
            Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

            S. Korea…Kuwait

            • Posted January 19, 2014 at 1:11 am | Permalink

              I disagree about South Korea – it was already occupied by the US military in 1945 after the US had divided Korea in two. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_War

              With regard to Kuwait, the US rushed in to protect its oil interests above any other consideration.

              • mordacious1
                Posted January 19, 2014 at 5:25 am | Permalink

                Korea…what difference does it make if the US is already there before we defended a nation against invasion? We were in W. Germany to defend them against a possible Soviet invasion (among other reasons) and our presence was a successful deterrent. It is still defending a country from attack, if the attack doesn’t come because you already have boots on the ground (sorry Jerry). Also, the reason we defend a nation is irrelevant, just that they got defended.

                This conversation is way off-topic, so I’ll let it rest here.

  15. Andrew Platt
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    It seems there is more condemnation here for the family – for wanting the murderer to suffer – than there is for the murderer. Logically, if free will really is absent, then the family have no more choice over their desires than the murderer had over his actions. How about a little consistency?

    • gbjames
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      It is not inconsistent. The absence of free will doesn’t preclude criticism of anyone or anything. And it certainly doesn’t require support for blood vengeance.

      • Andrew Platt
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

        But on what basis can we criticise people for things that are not their fault?

        • gbjames
          Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:37 am | Permalink

          We criticize behavior we disapprove of because it is harmful to others. We criticize it because our critiques form part of the environment in which they operate and may influence their behavior for the better.

          What other basis is required?

          • Andrew Platt
            Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

            I can see that argument and agree fully with it, where we are trying to correct behaviour.

            I would argue that seeking retribution is a normal human drive and is therefore not something that needs correcting.

            Not that I am advocating indulging it, of course!

            Those who deny free will do not seek retribution because they do not blame the criminal. Some religious people do not seek retribution because they believe ultimate judgement will be served at a later time. What about the rest of us – the atheists who believe in free will, who do blame the criminal and see no justice beyond that delivered on earth?

            I can only assume our views need to be corrected through criticism by those who consider their views to be right and ours to be wrong. Who set them up as arbiter of what is right and wrong though?

            Wishing suffering on someone – even a criminal – is unpleasant, but so is what the family of the victim has been through. I find their position thoroughly understandable; a healthier response, in fact, than that of the Christians who turn the other cheek and are willing to forgive the most heinous crimes.

            By all means spare the suffering of the criminal, but please do not criticise the family for feelings most normal people would have in their position.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:42 am | Permalink

              The family are entitled to their feelings. They’re not entitled to be lionized as media celebrities because of those feelings, or to enlist the state as agent of their personal vengeance.

            • gbjames
              Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:43 am | Permalink

              “I would argue that seeking retribution is a normal human drive and is therefore not something that needs correcting.”

              This is an example of the naturalistic fallacy.

              “Not that I am advocating indulging it, of course!”

              And that appears to suggest that you don’t quite agree with yourself.

              I’m not sure whose comment you are referencing in your “please do not” stance. If someone criticized the family for feeling angry I missed it. But regardless, criminal justice systems are not designed to be simple extensions of victims’ desires for vengeance. They are intended to represent the best interests of society in general. Vengeful retributive justice does not serve that purpose well.

              • Andrew Platt
                Posted January 17, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

                If you want to correct human nature – and there’s no denying there is a lot wrong with it – you might have a big job on your hands. Still not sure who gets to decide what aspects should be changed, and to what, but the process has already started in the Anglosphere anyway.

                I don’t see any sign I am disagreeing with myself. I can sympathise with and understand the desire for retribution without believing those seeking it should be granted their wish.

                I fully agree with your final comment on what criminal justice systems are designed for, and that vengeful retributive justice does not serve the best interests of society well. I suppose that is why judges, rather than the family members of the deceased, get to pass sentence on murderers.

                Imagine that – agreement between us! 😉

              • gbjames
                Posted January 17, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

                You can’t claim that something does not need correcting (because it is “natural”)and that you don’t think “those seeking it should be granted their wish” and claim constancy. One of those is not like the other.

                It may be true that you have no interest in improving conditions on Planet Earth (because it is a big job). Fine. Please stay out of the way of people who are make the effort.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      I don’t think there is condemnation for the family wishing retribution, only remarks that the execution (& executions in general) are set up to satisfy our need for retributive justice.

      I can’t at all blame the family for feeling the way they do & to want to the murderer & rapist to suffer in the most horrible ways for what he did. It is human nature. The family & others whose mirror neurons are all firing as we read the family’s statements, cannot help feeling this way no more than the murderer could help savagely murdering that innocent woman & her fetus.

      The reason we give the state the power to hand out justice on our behalf is because we recognize, as a society, that an eye for an eye & a tooth for a tooth doesn’t work & by removing ourselves from the role of avenger, we reduce the likelihood of such retribution continuing.

      Unfortunately, when a state executes its citizens, it’s really allowing us to experience retribution by proxy. In other words, the state is not acting in a way that provides the best practical solution, but instead in a way that satisfies our basic human instincts.

      Now, there is a lot to be said about the current justice system & I am most familiar with Canada’s where I don’t feel that dangerous criminals are effectively removed from society & are often released to commit further crimes.

      I think a lot of reform is required. But knowing how humans behave, what motivates us & what kind of society is possible for us to live in goes a long way in informing legislation.

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        Excellently said, Diana!

      • Posted January 17, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        Allowing us to experience retribution/blood lust by proxy holds society back without us even realising it. It’s bullfighting and gladiatorial combat and horrifying Old Testament scenes a thousand times removed so on the surface one can easily think, oh, how civilised we are. How dutiful we are.

        All we are, is, stuck.

  16. francis
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink


  17. Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    “Here’s that list of shame, which puts the U.S. in pretty dire company:”

    Well, most of these countries are, like the US, quite religious. None of them are democratic in any meaningful sense, again like the US. So, no surprise. Yes, the US is quite rich (on average, even if there are many poor people) and has a high standard of living, but so does Saudi Arabia.

    In other words, I’m not surprised.

    • Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      It doesn’t surprise me, as I think someone commented above, that religious countries are more likely to execute people. That, I think, is because execution is a retributive punishment, and retribution really makes sense only if you think there is libertarian free will–essential in many faiths.

      • religionenslaves
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

        The causal link between religious countries executing more people than secular one may reside in the fact (which many contributors seem to neglect) that in a secular society any crime is a breach of contract against the State not against the individual(s) affected, whereas in a religious society (say, Muslim) the law is an application of divine commands (which may include the victim’s – or the victim’s relatives – as relevant parties).

        • Posted January 17, 2014 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

          Or it could just be that they take their laws from an old book, which they take to be the unchallengeable edict of their deity.

    • RFW
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      Regarding national wealth: many years ago I was reading one Frank Kingdon-Ward’s books on plant hunting in the Himalayas. He described his interactions with an obscure tribal people and remarked that the true measure of the standard of living in any society is what the poorest person can expect to have as a matter of course. In the village he was in, everybody at least had a house, food, and clothing.

      I will leave it to WEIT readers to work out the implications of that remark. I believe it reveals the falsity of much modern political and economic thinking.

      The book may have been “Berried Treasure” from around 1950.

  18. Jim Thomerson
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Major problem with execution is that, if a mistake has been made, there is no way to correct it. Given the number of people who get out of jail, often after years inside, from new evidence, I think this is a real concern.

    Perhaps the material cost to society for life imprisonment should be the same as the cost of execution, just to remove any financial consideration.

  19. Chris Slaby
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    There’s an excellent episode of the West Wing about capital punishment in the U.S. Some state is set to execute someone, but President Bartlett (Martin Sheen), a Democrat and Catholic, is against it. (It’s not made clear if this is a public position of his; while Bartlett is decently liberal–so much so that it’s very unlikely he could ever have been elected in the real U.S.–he probably couldn’t have been elected president in the shows fictional U.S. with a position in opposition to the death penalty.) At some point someone asks the presidents body man Charlie what he would want if they found the person who killed his mother, who was murdered in the line of duty as a D.C. cop. They ask something like, “would you want him to be executed?” Charlie replies: “No. I’d want to do it myself.”

    I don’t think this is meant as a tacit endorsement of state sponsored executions. Of course emotion and retribution are involved, but the key is that there are multiples sites of justice. Justice for all of society, justice for the criminal, and, highlighted in the above scene, some sense or form of justice for the victim. I think the strongest argument against state executions is that someone could have been wrongfully convicted. I think the easiest argument for it is people like Hitler. I always think of Norway, which doesn’t have life sentences, except for extreme circumstances, I believe. I guess locking some people up for life is the least bad option, but in a number of ways it’s very unsatisfying. I guess there is no way for us to feel good about the ramifications of things like murder.

    • paxton
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      Mike Dukakis opposed the death penalty. It damaged his 1988 presidential campaign severely when he refused to say that he would take a different position if it was his wife that was killed.

      • ManOutOfTime
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:50 am | Permalink

        Of course, the debate panel neglected to ask Bush père if he would support the death penalty for his son if he were to rape and murder someone. He might have said he would, but my guess is he would have refused to answer for the disgusting hypothetical that question is. In his 1992 debate with Clinton, he vacillated when asked if he would tell his granddaughter not to get an abortion if she needed/wanted one. Morality for thee, not for me.

  20. P. Niemi
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Death penalty is a stupid way of punishment and that’s for many reasons. But I don’t think free will has anything to do with death penalty anyway. We don’t have free will about what we do, OK, I can agree on that. We don’t really choose what kind of things we choose to do or think. Still, we make decisions, and of course the decisions have consequences. Very often the consequences are something we can predict, and sometimes that makes us to decide differently.

    When we agree that we don’t really have free will, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions and say that we don’t have any responsibility and nobody should be punished. If there is free will or not, the best reason for punishing a crime is the effect it has on everybody’s decisions. That effect doesn’t depend on free will, the choices are made somehow in both cases. If we don’t have free will, then we don’t choose to choose right or wrong decisions, but something is always choosed anyway.

    The point I’m trying to make is that if you say that the death penalty is wrong mainly because of “no free will”, then for the same reason it is wrong to ticket illegally parked cars or pay extra bonus to an employee for hard working. I don’t make a list of my reasons to be against death penalty, but there wouldn’t be anything about free will on that list.

  21. Mobius
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    For much of my life, I was supportive to some degree of the death penalty. That changed when I came to realize the problems in our judicial system and the fact that the death penalty is final…no take backs.

    I now feel that the one thing accomplished by the death penalty that has some social value is to remove an egregious offender from society. But that can be accomplished by life in prison, and a life sentence allows for the release of the prisoner if it turns out he is innocent after all. With the death penalty, you can’t bring them back to life.

    On top of this, I feel that there are social ills that are associated with the death penalty.

  22. Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    It is so strange that the people most eager to kill adults are so opposed abortion & so in favour of guns.

  23. brian faux
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Dignitas seems to manage a painless death. Maybe the various states should volunteer one of their executives for a research project.

  24. Jimbo
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Capital punishment should be banned, plain and simple. Botched lethal injection, hanging, firing squad, electrocution (how that method ever became used is beyond me), guillotine–they’re all bad ways to die. There has never been a “humane” way to kill someone.

    I don’t know about rehabilitation. I have many doubts here. Here are some:
    1)How do you determine a rehabilitation treatment’s efficacy?
    2)What if a person’s genes combined with upbringing combined with an inability to feel compassion makes a perpetrator unable to be rehabilitated? Life in prison? How could you possibly determine this given the variables?
    3)Should murderers be held longer in prison based on the severity of their crime (e.g. killed a girlfriend in an argument vs killed a family of 3 during a robbery) or based on the probability of success of their rehabilitation?
    4)Does the serial rapist murder victims because he is a psychopath (non-compassionate brain miswiring) or because it leaves no witnesses (logic)?

    The “couldn’t do otherwise” free will argument is true but as Jerry says, feeding new information into our “meat computers” can alter that. And we get new information all the time, in real time that can completely change the outcome of a crime. To claim someone a murderer because they couldn’t do otherwise is nonsensical and ignores intent.

    Jerry writes: “if McGuire, as I believe, had no choice in his actions, and could not have refrained from killing Stewart…”

    What if McGuire-the-choice-free-murderer saw (hypothetically) Stewart’s 3 year son walk in and decided to stop raping and run? What if he heard a dog barking and got scared and left? What if he’s a true psychopath who had been planning the rape and murder of Stewart for 2 months? What if he tried to shut her up by covering her mouth and she suffocated to death but McGuire never imagined that could happen?

    McGuire has no choice in his actions but also has no choice in what environmental factors will or will not determine if he murders Stewart.

    • Andrew Platt
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      “There has never been a “humane” way to kill someone.”

      I am sure the people at Dignitas would disagree with you.

      Here is another question to add to your list. Given that releasing a murderer carries the risk that they may murder again which side should you err on: keep the murderer locked up longer and risk denying liberty to a reformed character, or relase the murderer early and risk an innocent person being murdered?

  25. Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    The death penalty promotes xenophobia and the idea that retribution (the more violent the better, apparently) is not only acceptable but desirable and even obligatory. It also desensitizes people to deaths that occur as a result of activities other than murder. Death becomes an acceptable consequence of jaywalking, inattentive bicycling, drug overdose, or wandering in the desert without U.S. citizenship, just because those things are “illegal”.

  26. Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Not that it matters much big picture (I am against capital punishment), but I doubt this guy really “suffered.” If he was given enough hydromorphone to stop breathing, he was almost certainly “out of it” enough that he was completely unaware of what was happening. Why not just give propofol with it, though? The whole thing doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

    • Jimbo
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      Because there’s no way in hell Astra-Zeneca wants propofol (a great anesthetic drug) and their name to be associated with intentionally killing people.

  27. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    What is the purpose of executing people?

    To pad the resumes of politically ambitious prosecutors.

  28. Darkwhite
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I am a committed materialist and have at least tried to think carefully about free will, yet I still support capital punishment, in principle. That is, I think there the death penalty is only very rarely the best alternative, but I don’t think there is anything fundamentally wrong about it.

    This case, given that guilt was proven beyond all shades of doubt, seems like one of those rare cases. While a more straightforward execution would have been preferable, accidentally inflicting the rough equivalent of a migraine headache on a callous murderer and rapist is hardly barbaric.

    The practice of locking criminals up together and making minimal efforts to prevent them from terrorizing, raping and brutalizing each other, though, is indeed barbaric.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      The thing is that if capital punishment is only very rarely warranted, then you’re better off not doing it at all, because the harm done by getting it wrong (as you surely will) vastly outweighs the dubious benefits of getting it right in that rare case.

      • Darkwhite
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

        If it is very rarely warranted, you’re best of doing it very rarely. I think that Norway is a worse country, for failing to execute Breivik, the man who killed 77 people, 69 of which one by one with a semi automatic rifle. The -harm done by getting it wrong- argument doesn’t apply to cases where live footage, hundreds of witness’ testimonies and the perpetrator’s own confession prove guilt beyond all reasonable doubt.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted January 18, 2014 at 12:50 am | Permalink

          But how do you propose to guarantee that it will be used only in cases where guilt is indisputable? The fact that it’s rare means that prosecutors who handle such cases will become famous. So there’s a built-in incentive to stretch the rules to cover more cases than originally intended.

          And for what? What does it mean to say that “Norway is a worse country, for failing to execute Breivik”? That the quality of life for Norwegians has somehow declined as a result? I’m extremely skeptical of that claim. Or do you mean simply that your opinion of Norway, or of the Norwegian judicial system, has declined because they resisted the urge to stick it to him? Well, mine has increased, so I guess it all balances out.

          • Darkwhite
            Posted January 18, 2014 at 1:44 am | Permalink

            I cannot guarantee anything. Our current judicial argument cannot guarantee that innocents aren’t imprisoned, nor that they will exonerated within reasonable time when it happens. If this isn’t the trump-all argument against imprisonment, it cannot be against the death penalty, either.

            That Norway would have been better off for executing this man, is just an unsourced opinion, just like how Dennis McGuire should be imprisoned without parole rather than, say, released after 25 years is just an opinion.

        • P. Niemi
          Posted January 18, 2014 at 1:30 am | Permalink

          Well, Breivik really wanted to be killed, and therefore the death penalty would have been something like assisted eutanasia to him. Some of the serial killers make suicide and some are seekiking martyrdom. I suppose the death penalty is never a good way to affect any potential psychopathic murderer. Long life in prison is probably much harder punishment to almost everybody. Death penalty is too easy way to “GAME OVER”. Of course some people assume that the death penalty is a gateway to eternity in hell, but that has no effect on most people’s decisions anyway.

          So, we don’t need death penalty in cases like this. Probably we don’t need it anywhere.

          • Darkwhite
            Posted January 18, 2014 at 1:49 am | Permalink

            Coyne just argued that the death penalty is wrong because the added cruelty, as compared to life in prison, inflicts suffering without additional deterrence. And now you are arguing that life in prison is better precisely because it is crueler? Do you agree with both of these positions simultaneously, or have I misrepresented either of them?

            • P. Niemi
              Posted January 19, 2014 at 12:39 am | Permalink

              My opinion is clearly different from Jerry Coyne’s opinion, but not completely different.

              In most cases the death penalty is too irrevocable. The judicial system has made mistakes, and in USA, there has been too many mistakes. And, in many cases, it could also be too cruel. Still, there should be penalties to minimize the crimes in the future, and we should not think too much about absence of free will. There still is no anybody else using anyones “free will” from outside.

              But do we need death penalty reserved for people like Breivik? I don’t see any good reasons for that, especially because these people are willing to die that way.

              So, my opinion is that there shouldn’t be death penalties anywhere in the world. Perhaps there is nothing fundamentally wrong about the death penalty, but in practice there is very much wrong.

  29. Posted January 17, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Great exposition of what’s wrong with capital punishment. Hopefully it will never be reinstated in the UK.

  30. Posted January 17, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    I have no sympathy for this man, and I can understand why a grieving family might demand blood. What I find harder to comprehend is why most American states would still go to such extraordinary lengths to give it to them. The evidence is pretty clear that capital punishment brings no benefit to society other than indulging some people’s desire for revenge; and I don’t see indulging people’s desires as the purpose of criminal justice systems. In general, it is not in human nature to approach horrors with sang froid; but legal systems can and should.

    I broadly agree with Jerry’s reflections on determinism and the morality of retribution. On the other hand, I don’t think the moral rightness of ‘punishment for its own sake’ necessarily ensues from the existence of free will, either. For example, I don’t think there is any contradiction in being a utilitarian and a libertarian, and revenge is hard to support from a utilitarian perspective. In general: the claim that people can make ‘free’ choices (whatever that means) does not necessarily imply that it is morally right that they suffer for some of those choices.

    [PS: apologies if posted twice]

  31. Posted January 17, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    A lot of discussion above about who is responsible for the botched execution.

    Ultimately the responsibility has nothing to do with judges, cost effectiveness, drug companies etc.

    It lies squarely with the people of the USA.

    If you are a citizen of the USA then, like it or not, this execution represents you in the eyes of the world. It occurred in your democracy and in your judicial system. It is not the result of a system imposed upon you by an authoritarian regime or theocracy.

    The company the USA keeps in the list of nations and their execution rates should give cause for self reflection.

    • Diane G.
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      Yes. I am always amazed at how many WEIT-ians express some support for the death penalty!

    • gbjames
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      Gee! I never thought of that before.

  32. Posted January 17, 2014 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    “The motive of retribution, unlike that of deterrence, sequestration, and rehabilitation, is based on the supposition that the criminal had a choice in what he did.”

    In my opinion this distinction doesn’t matter: what difference does it make if a person could choose their actions? The way I see it, this choice would have been dependent on the previous experiences of the person, and so rehabilitation (ie supplying the requisite experience) would be a more appropriate course of action, rather than punishment.

    Or perhaps I have assimilated the notion if no free will a little bit too well: being unable to think like a compatibility in this matter 🙂

    • Posted January 17, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      *compatibilist, not ‘compatibility’

  33. Diane G.
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    States with and without the death penalty:


    Executions by state:


  34. Isaac
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    If, because we don’t have free will (as I believe we don’t), we can’t really say the the criminal chose to kill his victim, then, by the same token, we can’t say that the jury/judge chose to sentence the criminal to capital punishment. In other words, we can’t exonerate the aggressor but indict the punisher. One couldn’t choose his wrongdoing anymore than the other.

    • natalielaberlinoise
      Posted January 18, 2014 at 2:22 am | Permalink

      In this particular case it wasn’t a question of whether the accused would receive the death penalty, it was a question of when and by what method. If the judge overstepped the mark with his decision, then there is no reason for there not to be an investigation. As you say, the judge couldn’t help himself either. But that doesn’t mean society has to let him get away with it, just as much as the convicted murderer didn’t get away with his crime.

    • natalielaberlinoise
      Posted January 18, 2014 at 3:12 am | Permalink

      My last sentence was unclear, so I try again:

      If there has been a wrong decision made in the handling of McGuire’s execution, then there needs to be some investigation to prevent such a mistake from being committed again – just as the imprisonment of a convicted murderer is a measure to ensure that he will not commit another crime.

      It looks like such an investigation might be under way:

  35. Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    In countries in which there is no death penalty, there is a far lower level of violent crimes and of recidivism than in those countries that do have the death penalty.

    Then, there is what I call “suicide by execution” whereby an individual doesn’t have the courage to commit suicide and has such a low level of self-esteem (if any) that they will commit a crime punishable by the death penalty so as to undergo all the misery of trials, jail and the death row to justify their low self esteem, followed by the execution that will satisfy their death wish. Often, at trials, the criminals themselves will express the desire to be executed. This, of course, never occurs in those countries which do not have the death penalty.

    Those families of victims, who strongly desire vengeance, never find closure as a consequence of the execution of those who committed the crime or allegedly committed the crime, either.

    • Darkwhite
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

      Japan, probably the least violent country on the planet, practices the death penalty.

      You will similarly see that armed police correlates with levels of violence, which of course proves that sending officers to do their job unarmed would magically reduce crime rates in these countries.

      For your last paragraph, I would be interested in seeing a source, unless you’re just stating the trivial – that families of people brutally murdered never really get over it, regardless of how the criminal is punished.

  36. bacopa
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Sorry to get here so late but the only media outlet in the US that covers executions LIVE is KPFT 90.1 in Houston. They also cover anti death penalty protests in Houston and Huntsville, and interview legal experts in each of the cases.

    Kinda funny that the only media outlet that covers executions in Texas live on the air is a Pacifica network station. Executions in Texas start around 6 PM, and KPFT radio broadcasts whatever their reporters hear. I never saw Channel 13 breakinging into “Wheel of Fortune” to announce the death.

    Tells you a lot that only an anti-death penalty station has the guts to give live execution coverage.

    • paxton
      Posted January 18, 2014 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      Thank ceiling cat for Pacifica. Amy Goodman is a national treasure.

  37. Thanny
    Posted January 18, 2014 at 2:47 am | Permalink

    Capital punishment certainly has some kind of deterrent effect, which is the only conceivably legitimate use for it. Whether or not that deterrence is measurable and quantifiable is another matter entirely. It is entirely unreasonable to suggest that no one has ever not committed murder for fear of the death penalty.

    The problem is that the judicial system is not perfect, and never will be perfect. Innocent people are convicted all the time. Killing someone is permanent. Even with years (or even decades) of appeals, innocent people have been executed.

    No system can be trusted to make such a final decision.

    • Posted January 19, 2014 at 12:44 am | Permalink

      If capital punishment had a deterrent effect, how do you explain that in those countries and in those US states that do not have the death penalty, the rate of homicides and violent crimes is significantly lower than in those countries and US states that do have the death penalty?

  38. gmaduck
    Posted January 18, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Two things I have trouble understanding. One is if killing a criminal is any type of deterrent then why aren’t the executions public?

    Secondly, being a recovering addict who overdosed, I can attest that dying by an overdose is extremely pleasant (if only for a second). So if it must be done, what’s wrong with a simple heroin overdose?

    • microraptor
      Posted January 18, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      Executions used to be a public spectacle. They were considered entertainment.

  39. Posted January 20, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on A man and his brain.

  40. Brett Bernardi
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:59 am | Permalink

    Haven’t posted in a while here, so I thought I would like to through my two cents in. I have a intimate experience with this drug combination (benzodiazepines and opioids). On my 21st birthday I overdosed on them and was not breathing and very close to death. It should be noted I was under the influence of alprazolam(Xanax) and heroin plus some alcohol but that should not make much of a difference. The point is that the only thing I remember are snorting my last line of heroin and waking up in an ambulance after receiving a shot a naloxone, which is an opiate antagonist. I was told by my ” friends” that I was trying to talk and walk but eventually just collapsed on the floor but again I have zero memory of this. I am not convinced this person , who presumably had no tolerance to either opioids or benzodiapines which are not given out in death row, could have been remained anywhere near conscious. Let it be known that I am 100% against the death penalty, however.

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