Lethal Solution 2008 03 18 (This World, BBC) avi
In 2007, 42 people were put to death in the United States. As the Supreme Court considers whether lethal injection infringes the civil rights of condemned criminals, This World travels across the US to investigate this method of execution.
(NB: In April the Supreme Court ruled that lethal injection did not amount to "cruel and unusual punishment," which is banned by the US constitution and lethal injections resumed in late May 2008.)
The US really is a foreign country - a place whose cultural and philosophical starting points are different, in many ways, to ours.
They may not have built Utopia, but there is a widespread and deep-seated belief that they have created an especially good society, built upon an idealistic promise for everyone of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
The belief in basic individual rights, protected by law, extends even to those condemned to death. That is the curious world our film inhabits - the US states where capital punishment exists, and where those who have committed capital crimes are protected, to the very end.
The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution declares that "cruel and unusual punishments" may not be inflicted - it is a very particular protection, capable of endless re-interpretation.
Lethal injection largely replaced other methods such as electrocution
When those words - part of the so-called Bill of Rights - were ratified in 1791, they meant hanging, drawing and quartering, and the like.
But the times have changed. Now it is up to the Supreme Court to decide whether the way lethal injection, the latest and most popular method of judicial execution, is "cruel and unusual" - in other words, inhumane. And if so what to do.
Lethal injection involves the use of three drugs in a row. The first is an anaesthetic, the second a paralytic, and the third stops the heart.
Applied correctly, each of them - in the quantities employed - could kill. But if mistakes are made, the first drug can leave the condemned person partially conscious before the second and the third arrive.
That was the issue for one man in our film - Angel Diaz - because the needle carrying the drugs went through, not into his vein. His death took 34 minutes. And there it is argued, lies the Eighth Amendment risk. It is not good enough in America, where everyone has rights, to be dead at the end of the process.
The person needs to die without it being legally possible that he or she has felt excruciating pain along the way. In essence, that is the issue in the test case now before the court.
This World went to Florida in pursuit of the Angel Diaz case, and to California, where a judge in a lower Federal Court thought he had found a way of allowing the state to execute a condemned man, Michael Morales, whilst ensuring his Eighth Amendment rights.
Interestingly the man who invented the lethal injection system is a doctor, the former Medical Examiner of Oklahoma, Dr A. J. Chapman, a forensic pathologist.
When electrocution - the execution system the state had previously been using - left some occupants of the electric chair partly grilled and even set aflame, state legislators asked him to find a better, more humane method. He believes that the anxiety over "cruel and unusual" punishment is overdone.
The issue of capital punishment itself is not before the Supreme Court, just the issue of squaring the procedure of lethal injection with the Eighth Amendment. But if the Court does find the way to allow executions to re-start later this year, no-one imagines that that will be the end of the matter and the legal meaning of the words "cruel and unusual" will then be fixed for all time. They will not.
Jun 09, 2008, 03:10:36
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