So, here’s what David Powell—the man who’ll be poisoned to death by the state of Texas in Huntsville on June 15th—has me thinking about today.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org), the first known death penalty laws date back to the Eighteenth Century B.C., under the government of King Hammaurabi of Babylon. And from that time til this, governments have been sentencing their citizens to death for crimes that have included such grave offenses as cutting down a tree and robbing a rabbit warren. In the Old Testament, crimes that deserved the death penalty included, among others, cursing your parents, breaking the Sabbath, perjury, contempt of court, having sex before marriage, having sex with someone of your own sex, having sex with animals, incest, and adultery. As of 1612, they could kill you in Virginia for stealing grapes or killing a chicken. And under the Seventh Century B.C.’s Draconian Code of Athens, death was the punishment for everything—which is a criminal code that even manages to make Texas’ look progressive.
Various methods that governments have used to execute their own citizens have included boiling, hanging, drowning, stoning, burning, beating, beheading, impalement, electrocution, and of course, crucifixion (that last one rings a bell, for some reason).
It may or may not surprise you to learn that the idea of democracy has gone hand in hand with efforts to cut down on governments killing their citizens. In fact, the great brains of the Enlightenment—folks like Thomas Jefferson and Voltaire and Montesquieu, and particularly a fella named Cesare Beccaria, who wrote an influential essay on the subject called On Crimes and Punishment in 1767—were among the first people in world history to seriously begin questioning the state’s right to kill its people, no matter how rotten they were. This all makes a lot of sense, when you think about it—kings and emperors and such had always argued that they were infallible, because they had a divine right to power. And Enlightenment philosophers were among the first to say that since governments often got stuff wrong, governmental power should be checked and scrutinized. Which tends to put a serious curb on citizen-killing.
Anyway, speaking broadly, over the last three centuries there’s been a significant historical trend that’s gone: democracy up, death penalty down. Today, over half the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty. And the number of folks who get killed by their governments keeps going down. In 1998, America executed 300 of its citizens; in 2009, it killed 106.
Which is one of the reasons that the enormous rise of the death penalty in Texas is so extraordinary—we’re executing folks at a rate that, to quote a terrific article by Ned Walpin, “has no parallel in the modern era,” and is terribly, terribly out of step with the overall trend of democracies around the world.
Now, we stopped electrocuting people partly out of courtesy to them, but also out of courtesy to the folks who had to watch it, since it was super disgusting. Here’s a really gross quote about death by electrocution—again found on the Death Penalty Information Center’s website, from a 1994 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer:
“The prisoner’s eyeballs sometimes pop out and rest on [his] cheeks. The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool. The body turns bright red as its temperature rises, and the prisoner’s flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking. Sometimes the prisoner catches fire….Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh permeates the chamber.”
And that, folks, was our government’s principal method of executing people for decades, and was only ruled unconstitutional in 2008!
Today, we inject people with poison, because that’s supposed to be a lot more pleasant—for the folks being poisoned, and also, for the folks who have to watch them get poisoned. Which I suppose is a sign of progress—that our government’s now trying to kill people as attractively as possible. It gives us a stronger claim towards being a civilized country—as opposed to the other countries that still kill large numbers of their citizens, and that don’t worry about keeping it pretty, like Yemen and Saudi Arabia and Iran and Iraq.
Now, why am I going on and on about this? Particularly since it’s all “grody to the max.” Because, I think if you asked people why we still have a death penalty, they’d say a number of things. They’d say—vengeance, and crime deterrence, and they’d also say, I think, something like, “Because it’s what we’ve always done.” You know, sort of like those characters in Shirley Jackson’s story, “The Lottery.” People would say, “Throughout history, we’ve always had a death penalty. It’s in the Bible, for Pete’s sake.” And they’d be absolutely, 100% correct.
But I think folks ought to know what historical legacy they’re referencing. And to ask themselves whether that legacy has anything to do with the sort of country they live in, or the one they’d like their children to live in.
And, in the meantime, David Powell—who committed murder thirty-two years ago—has four days left to live, before he’s poisoned to death by the state of Texas.
And here’s a clip from a movie about David:
And here’s a website devoted to David’s case:
And here’s a link to Amnesty International’s clemency campaign on