Better death through circuitry

by on Saturday, 07 August 2010 6800 hits Comments
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Errol Morris’ 1999 documentary Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr[1]. investigates the ramshackle life of former execution device technician Fred Leuchter.

Before stumbling in to the murky waters of revisionist Holocaust history, an act that ultimately cost him his professional reputation and livelihood, Leuchter was contracted by various US states to design and improve execution devices.  Initially his field of expertise was the electric chair, however he also had the opportunity to work with lethal injection systems, offering his services for considerably less cost than other engineering firms.  While each execution method is significantly different, Leuchter’s experience with the electric chair was deemed suitable by state authorities for him to work on other devices.

For all the oddities of his sad and somewhat bizarre story, there was one thing that Leuchter said that really struck me.  He begins the movie by stating:

“I became involved in the manufacture of execution equipment because I was concerned with the deplorable condition of the hardware that’s in most of the states’ prisons, which generally results in torture prior to death”.

Grisly examples of the torture that Leuchter referred to can be found at the Death Penalty Information Center[2].  There is some merit in his idea.  Not only is a botched execution likely to be excruciatingly painful for the prisoner, the guards who have to clean up the mess and any witnesses are more than likely to be traumatised as well.

At the crux of his statement, Leuchter affirms that it is acceptable for the state to kill convicted criminals, but only as long as it is done humanely.  Only if a criminal suffers during execution does a problem arise. Leuchter’s surprising confession of altruism can be used to highlight one of the important aspects of the execution debate – humane death.

Those sentenced to death are done so because their crimes are deemed to be suitably severe.  Their penalty is to be stripped of life, arguably the strongest punishment that can be meted out to one person.

Sometime during western civilisation’s development, it became acceptable for a criminal to be executed but only if he does not feel pain.  Pain is equated with torture. The modern execution is not meant to be a spectacle; it is meant to be a clinical process, devoid of external displays of human suffering. At various stages throughout history execution has been a public spectacle, with the theatre of execution sometimes being drawn out for maximum effect.  Just think of Roman crucifixions.  These days, at least in the USA, prisoners are generally executed in private, with only a few witnesses permitted.

Describing execution as humane simply because the method supposedly does not inflict pain on the criminal is an odd justification for execution.  There is no real way to qualify how much pain someone feels in the process of execution.   Even though the convicted criminal still dies, the execution is still considered humane. Each evolution in execution technology is supposed to offer an improvement over the last.  Faster, more efficient, less chance of failure.  Not surprisingly, each new system also has a whole new bunch of technical flaws that need to be dealt with.

To justify an execution as humane because the executed person appears to show no signs of physical suffering is strange.  There is nothing humane about the essentially brutal act of taking another human’s life.  When a prisoner is executed, the state lowers itself to the level of a murderer.  That’s not to say that perpetrators of heinous crimes should not be punished – they should – but to claim that humane execution is in any way better than non-humane execution is clutching at straws.

If you are interested in the tale of Fred Leuchter, feel free to watch ‘Mr Death’ at the link below.

[1] A copy of the movie uploaded by the director, Errol Morris


Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:34
Paul Farrelly (范寶文)

Paul is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University in Canberra. His primary research interests are new religious movements and religious innovation in China and Taiwan.


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