Tinkering with the machinery of death

Tinkering with the machinery of death

In centuries past, the death penalty was a spectacle for the masses.

Four hundred years ago, those involved in the Gunpowder Plot - still merrily celebrated as Guy Fawkes Night - failed in their attempt to assassinate King James I and blow up Parliament. The culprits were dragged through London's streets to St Paul's churchyard where they were publicly hanged, drawn and quartered. Guy Fawkes himself managed to jump from the gallows and break his neck. He was lucky. His co-conspirators remained conscious through much of the ordeal, which included disembowelment and castration, their genitalia burned before the watching crowd.

Today's executions are meant to be more civilised, either carried out with clinical formality as in the United States, or in relative secrecy as in Japan and Singapore.

For the US, such clinical formality has become more difficult. The lethal injection method that is most common there relies on drugs that European manufacturers will no longer produce. It is also a process that many doctors will no longer supervise.

Last month, the US state of Oklahoma rejected a last-minute appeal by Clayton Lockett that had sought to disclose the source of the drugs to be used in his execution. His final moments degenerated into a gruesome farce. After taking nearly an hour to find a suitable vein, a needle was ultimately inserted into one in his groin. An untested cocktail of drugs was then administered. He was pronounced unconscious - only to start moving his body and rolling his head from side to side, mumbling incoherently. Prison officials hurriedly drew the curtains between the death chamber and the witness gallery. Half an hour after it began, the execution was called off. But Lockett was pronounced dead 10 minutes later - from a heart attack.

Reassessment in US and Japan

Oklahoma has now suspended executions for six months and President Barack Obama has ordered a review of how the death penalty is carried out in the US. It is possible that this could be a tipping point for capital punishment in the country. The number of executions has fallen by half since 2000, with half a dozen states abolishing it completely in the past seven years.

A similar debate is now under way in Japan, triggered by the release in March of Mr Iwao Hakamada. Sentenced to death in 1966, he was set free after DNA evidence favourable to him was finally admitted and the Shizuoka District Court concluded that other evidence in his original trial had been fabricated.

Though there are many principled reasons to question whether a state should take the life of someone who has been removed from the streets and rendered harmless, this tends not to be the way in which attitudes to the death penalty change. Instead, changes in public opinion are often driven either by revulsion at the manner in which executions are carried out or uncertainty as to whether an innocent person might suffer irreversible punishment.

How the issue is framed is important. Public support for the death penalty remains around two-thirds in the US, for example - but drops to half when there is an alternative of life without parole. It may spike when there is a heinous crime, but plummet after a high profile acquittal.

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