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Do You Believe in the Death Penalty?

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When I was about 18 one of the records I bought was Do You Believe In The Westworld?, Theatre of Hate's soaring post-punk anthem. I think half of the appeal was that strange questioning title. Believe in it?

The song comes to mind (my mind anyway!) in the wake of recent debate about capital punishment in the USA. Let me ask: do you believe in capital punishment? If yes: read on. (If you don't: er, still read on!)

People say they "believe in" or "support" the death penalty so what, I wonder, would it take to get people who are pro-capital punishment to reconsider their position? A lot, is probably the answer. It seems that this faith-like belief is almost hard-wired in with some people. That's apparently why the subject is one of those (like assisted dying) where parliament says MPs and peers should have a "free vote". Whether the state has the power of life or death in the justice system is deemed "a matter of conscience".

So I doubt there's much that will shake your average hanging's-too-good-for-'em type out of their position. Except... what about something like last week's appalling botched execution of Joseph Wood in Arizona? Will that have ...er, unsettled them? Maybe. Executions - modern, "humane" executions in "advanced" countries like the USA - obviously aren't supposed to be like this. A reminder of what happened ...

Wood, a double murderer who'd spent over 20 years on death row, was executed by a secret combination of drugs which took almost two hours to kill him

After being "sedated" within a few minutes according to prison officials, he then began to make convulsive "gasping" sounds, "like a fish on shore gulping for air"

One witness, a local Arizona reporter Michael Keifer, said he counted 640 gulps and gasps spread over one and half hours; another Arizona journalist counted 660 of these gasps

One hour and 57 minutes after the lethal injection was first put into veins in both of Wood's arms, the condemned man was finally pronounced dead

A "normal" lethal injection takes about ten minutes; here the process took so long that midway through it his lawyers filed an emergency motion to a federal court to try to get the execution stopped and for Wood to be resuscitated

His does that sound? Pretty disgusting, to my mind. But then I already strongly oppose the death penalty. It could have lasted five seconds or five hours and I'd still feel the same way.

On the opposite side of the fence, it's a similar, fixed-position story. Arizona's Governor Jan Brewer calmly said Wood had died "in a lawful manner" (though she at least ordered a review of what happened). Arizona's Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan said Wood had been "deeply sedated" until his death. While a spokeswoman for Arizona's Attorney General Stephanie Grisham said Wood hadn't been gasping for air at all but "went to sleep and appeared to be snoring". She even said she was "surprised at how peaceful it was". Relatives of the two victims took a slightly different (in fact more hard-line) tack, appearing to accept that Wood had died in a botched manner, but insisting that death row prisoners "deserve to suffer a little bit".

All pretty unsurprising I guess. State officials or victims' families are unlikely to admit any instant change of heart or that things had been managed badly.

And the wider public? Well, the comment threads I've seen on the Wood case also show people apparently deeply entrenched in their previously-adopted positions, belligerently so in the majority of cases (see here for example). I was taking part in a radio debate on the case last week and a pro-death penalty commentator was totally unfazed by how Wood's execution was handled. He disputed the details of what happened and then said "well, most executions aren't like this anyway". Someone in my family even said they thought it was "terrible" what happened in Arizona last week but that they were still in favour of capital punishment.

So, as you were everybody.

And yet, and yet. Don't cases like this sow a few extra seeds of doubt into the minds of some of those supposedly staunch pro-death people? And isn't there also a drip-drip-drip effect? The debacle of Wood's two-hour death soon after the Clayton Lockett execution in Oklahoma (43 minutes, writhing and groaning) and the Dennis McGuire execution in Ohio (25 minutes, snorting and gasping). In 2009 there was the horrible case of Romell Broom (also Ohio), where the executioners spent over two hours trying to insert a lethal injection into a vein before actually calling the execution off. In fact there's a long list of botched US executions, including where flames have shot out of electrocuted prisoners' heads or prisoners in gas chambers have thrashed around for minutes on end in front of shocked witnesses.

Opinion polls already show slowly diminishing US public support for the death penalty and these high-profile horrors are surely tipping the balance still further.

Yes, people are still digging in on this issue attitudes-wise but doubts over the arbitrariness of how it's imposed, about racism, about the costs, and about miscarriages of justice, are all chipping away at popular support for the death penalty in the USA. Even former executioners have changed their minds.

Capital punishment is a botched experiment with justice. If you still believe in the death penalty, it's time to change your mind.

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