Please Stay Alive, We Are Supposed to Kill You

September 22, 2010

[Update 9/22/10:  You can take action to stop the execution of Brandon Rhode]

Brandon Rhode was rushed to the hospital today to prevent him from dying following his attempt at suicide. This afternoon, the Georgia Department of Corrections announced a delay in his scheduled execution, vaguely referring to an “incident”. Rhodes did not get strapped to the gurney tonight, but the state may try to kill him Thursday instead.

It is the irregular situation like this one that magnifies the cruelty of the death penalty. Clearly, the thought of being executed was terrifying to Rhode, as it must be for every individual facing the pre-ordained and publicly announced time, date and method by which their life is to be ended. What will it be like for him between now and Thursday as his body and mind recuperates from his failed suicide attempt, and as he contemplates the moment when he will be strapped to a gurney and killed?

Those who believe the death penalty is not cruel are focused on the acts of those who commit murder and the belief that retribution is a legitimate means to justice. The idea of human rights, however, is that society sets a standard based on what is cruel and inhuman period, not what is cruel and inhuman in comparison to the worst things an individual may have done to others. Somehow, we get that it would be disgusting to rape someone convicted of rape and we don’t burn down the property of arsonists, but killing those who commit murder seems to be fair game, at least in the minority of nations left using the death penalty.

Retributive justice may feel satisfying to a primitive part of the brain or to a society that wants a simple and loud outlet to relieve a base level of outrage. But retribution is a dangerous place to take justified feelings of anger about the injustice of violent crime. The attempt by Mr. Rhode to violently end his life breaks the façade of the sterile, hospital room-looking, “civilized” execution chamber. Homicides are performed on the gurney in that room in the name of the citizens of the state, dragging us all into a new crime. And we pour millions into this system rather than ask ourselves what went wrong in Mr, Rhodes’ life that led him to do what he did (and a lot did!) and how could we prevent future violent crimes? How could we give law enforcement more tools to effectively tackle crime? They know the death penalty is not a deterrent and doesn’t make our streets safer. What are the needs of the loved ones who survive the victims of violent crime? So many things we could do with our energy (and money) besides resuscitating prisoners only to then kill them.