A Missouri inmate was put to death just after midnight for raping and killing a college student in 1995, making him the first US prisoner put to death since an Arizona lethal injection went awry last month. The Missouri Department of Corrections says Michael Worthington was executed by lethal injection at the state prison. He is the seventh Missouri inmate executed this year. Worthington had been sentenced to death for the attack on the 24-year-old woman during a burglary of her Lake St. Louis condominium.
The US Supreme Court and Missouri’s governor declined to block the execution yesterday. Worthington’s attorneys had pressed the Supreme Court to put off his execution, citing the Arizona execution and two others that were botched in Ohio and Oklahoma, as well as the secrecy involving the drugs used during the process in Missouri.
I’m not opposed to capital punishment. On the contrary, I am in favor of it in the case of capital crimes. The only alternative to capital punishment is the enslavement of the taxpayers.
Of course, that by itself is not a direct argument for capital punishment. The only argument that determines whether or not capital punishment is just is the question: Are there any capital crimes? If there are, then capital punishment must be inflicted in those cases (and only those cases).
But there are two problems with capital punishment as it is carried out in the United States revealed in this story. The first is that we don’t seem to want to admit that it is capital punishment at all. Instead, it is a form of euthanasia. It is more like putting an animal to sleep than it is like punishing a criminal.
I don’t mean that pain needs to be inflicted intentionally. I just mean that demanding the person fall peacefully asleep is far more than the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment demands. Hanging or firing squad both have a long heritage and neither one would be open to the kind of handwringing we have seen about drug cocktails. Well, maybe hanging would lead to the Supreme Court hearing arguments about the inadmissibility of rough rope as opposed to velvet rope.
Personally, I think putting criminals to sleep is demeaning to them. They took action and inflicted violence on others. Shouldn’t the state deal with them as human actors rather than as merely diseased animals?
The other problem in this story is the almost two decades that elapse between the action and the crime. While I don’t think deterrence is the purpose of capital punishment, it is a social benefit that should not be stolen from society. But no criminal is going to associate a consequence that is more than fifteen years later from the cause. People simply don’t think a punishment that is that far away in the future—even if it is death—is worth exercising restraint.
I don’t want people to lose reasonable appeals, of course, but something in our justice system is obviously broken when justice is delayed that long.