Capital punishment deprives condemned of human dignity

Allison Bolgiano

Early on Friday, Sept. 10, as most Whitman students slept or put in their final hours on homework, a few miles away Washington State murdered a man.

In its first execution since 2001, the state of Washington ended the life of Cal Coburn, a man convicted of raping, torturing and then murdering Holly Washa in a Seattle-area motel in May 1991. This execution also marks the state as the second in the nation, after Ohio, to use a one-drug instead of a three-drug cocktail to perform the execution. Whether the new method is considered “painless” has yet to be determined.

According to the Washington Department of Corrections, Coburn’s execution was carried out “humanely, professionally, and was dignified.” While the new drug may have worked smoothly, the state-sanctioned murder of a human being is anything but humane, professional, or dignified.

The essence of the death penalty is its frightening ability to dehumanize the condemned. Knowing that on a specific, ordained day unnatural forces will transform one from a functioning, very much alive human to a dead body amounts to torture. Amnesty International defines torture as “an extreme mental or physical assault on someone who’s been rendered defenseless.” While execution methods themselves are arguably painless, imagine the walk to the chamber. Imagine being strapped to a chair knowing that you will soon receive a lethal injection or electric shock. I imagine the act as a clear mental assault on the psyche of a person who has had years to contemplative and to dread this very moment.

“Professionally” is a jarring way to describe carrying out murder. It makes it sound rather like Washington is in the business of murder. As far as I am concerned, our government is engaged in the expensive business of murder. A monumental amount of resources go into executing a convict. The process of executing a person is several times more expensive than sentencing someone to life without parole and keeping them in prison for life. A death penalty case alone costs 70 percent more than a comparable non-death penalty case, according to a 2003 Kansas legislative audit. In Maryland, death penalty cases cost three million dollars, or three times more than non-death penalty cases.

These statistics hold true in Washington. In fact, Okanagan County, Wash. was forced to lay off half of its public health nurses and could not replace aging police equipment after footing the pre-trial costs of a death penalty case. For this, among other reasons, Washington should abandon the practice of capital punishment because it is not a desirable business to be in.

Executions are murder. Murder is never, ever dignified. In the words of death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean: “Any kind of punishment that degrades a defenseless human being and takes away his or her dignity is immoral.” Prejean’s words speak to me. Some death penalty supporters argue that the condemned deserve to be stripped of all dignity since they killed a person. However, Prejean is clear that robbing someone of their dignity is immoral since it violates everything that makes them human. I see no dignity or morality in a government which promises justice for all free of cruel and unusual punishments to strap a citizen to chair inject lethal poison into his veins.

No matter what the circumstances or how gruesome the act, taking the life of another human being is appalling. When a person commits murder, it is fair to be disgusted and outraged at this crime against the infinitely valuable soul of a human being. However, our outrage must be for the act. The moment we wish for retribution we are hoping for the very thing that initially brought us to a state of outrage. To execute a convict is to try to remedy a great loss with anger and violence. Washington should end the painful cycle of violent retribution.

The first step towards accomplishing that is to free ourselves from a mentality in which state-sanctioned murder is considered humane, professional and dignified. On every level–legal, moral, spiritual, economic and judicial–the death penalty is fundamentally flawed.

As much as I hope another execution does not happen while I am at Whitman, it is probable one will. Next time, I plan to give the person about to be killed by Washington State a shred of the dignity that is robbed from him by protesting the execution at the penitentiary. As long as the state destroys the humanity of others, we can utilize ours to show that retribution is never professional, humane or dignified.