Why you should care

Because we’re all tinkering with the machinery of death. 

Even for those who support it, capital punishment is an unpleasant business. Couple its essential grimness with the way executions are handled these days — the Supreme Court just upheld the use of a lethal injection method, despite its risk of leaving the condemned conscious during the procedure — and the flaws are almost too much to take.

The good thing about awful systems is that there’s plenty of room for improvement. Here’s an idea: Let those sentenced to death decide how they die — to pick their poison, so to say. Or to die by noose or firing squad or, hey, cordless bungee humping. The rationale here is that giving the inmates a choice is a final gesture of humanity, much the same way that letting them select their last meal or say a few final words is. We have no problem letting those facing death eat pancakes for breakfast. Why not offer them the more dignified, meaningful choice of selecting how to spend their last seconds on this planet? The outcome won’t change.

Victims’ rights organizations dislike the idea, as one might expect: “These killers didn’t give their victims a choice,” points out Michael Paranzino, president of the pro-death penalty group Throw Away the Key. But in fact, a version of this idea already exists. States including Tennessee, Florida, Arizona and Utah offer inmates a choice between the needle and a secondary method if they were sentenced before lethal injection became standard procedure. That’s how, in 2010, a Utah convict chose to be killed by firing squad. Of course, there are only two options, and the rationale here is not about humaneness but about legal strategy: Prosecutors don’t want another reason for an appeal.

Which hints at why many abolitionists also hate the idea of giving prisoners a choice of method; they worry that the choice would only validate a process that is intrinsically flawed, utterly irredeemable. “It’s impossible to regard any mode of execution as being more ‘humane,’” says Evan Mandery, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the author of Capital Punishment in America: A Balanced Examination. But you know what? Judging by popular support for capital punishment — about 60 percent of Americans are in favor of it — the death penalty is not going away anytime soon.

In the meantime, it’s better to alleviate the suffering of the more than 30 people whom the U.S. kills each year. Offering inmates a choice could plant a seed of recognition for the prisoners’ humanity. Even the choice between the syringe and Wild West methods like the firing squad or hanging may be better than none at all, given lethal injections’ miss rate. Seven percent of them are botched, according to Austin D. Sarat, a professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College. “The injection is not necessarily an enviable choice,” he adds. To put it mildly.

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