On October 19, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a stay of the execution of a death row inmate in Alabama. The inmate, Torrey McNabb, had been sentenced for the murder of Police Corporal Anderson Gordon III of the city of Montgomery in 1997.

That evening, the state Department of Corrections went ahead with the execution by lethal injection. McNabb was pronounced dead at 9:38 PM.

Much of the litigation over capital punishment in recent years has concerned the alleged cruelty of the drugs and protocols employed in lethal injection. A pathologist in Oklahoma, A. Jay Carson, developed a lethal injection protocol in the 1980s, thinking it a humane alternative to the electric chair. The “Carson cocktail” involved sodium thiopental, a short acting barbiturate thought to produce almost immediate sleep, pancuronium bromide, to paralyze the muscles responsible for breathing, and potassium chloride, to stop the heart.

But sodium thiopental is rare, there is no U.S. based manufacture, and because it has acquired its reputation as one of the death penalty drugs, the European Union has of late refused to export it to the United States.

Thus, states are starting to improvise, and the grisly business of improvising new deadly cocktails on the fly raises the possibility that one or more of them will have cruel consequences on the constitutional level. That possibility in turn produces last minute litigation such as the appeal that conspicuously failed to spare McNabb’s life.

Left Wing View

On October 19, Frank Knaack tweeted, “A human being is sitting on AL’s death row right now not knowing if he will be killed by the state tonight. That is just wrong. #TorreyMcNabb”. Knaack counts as to the left of the center of U.S. politics on almost any reading. He is affiliated both with the ACLU and with Palestine Works.

The Next to Die, an activist oriented twitter feed that tracks impending executions around the U.S., carried news at 3:58 PM that, to anti-death-penalty activists, was very welcome: “The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a temporary stay of Torrey McNabb’s execution….”

Soon thereafter, one such activist, twitter denizen Terry Towel, tweeted simply, “Let’s pray it holds up and the execution doesn’t happen.”  Of course it didn’t hold up, SCOTUS lifted (“vacated”) that stay hours later, and Terry then tweeted out a plea to Alabama’s Governor to stop the execution, “It doesn’t have to end like this. Show the world we’re better.” That didn’t help.

The general left wing view of the death penalty is that it is a barbarism, that only the chaotic nature of the U.S. political/legal system preserves it here, and that the rest of the world, especially those nations who are refusing to sell injection related chemicals to us, are way ahead of us on the curve of human progress. Those who feel this way generally understand that direct attacks on the death penalty have been unavailing, so they employ the salami strategy, taking away slices where they can, reducing the sorts of people who can be executed (juveniles, no, the mentally handicapped, no) and at the same time limiting ever more tightly the ways in which it can be done.

Right Wing View

The right and left in the United States argue over the death penalty in terms of factual issues: the likelihood (or otherwise) of innocent people being killed through mistaken verdicts; the value (or disvalue) of the death penalty as deterrent to murder. The social science that addresses these questions is in fact tangled, but the argument isn’t really about them.

The argument is over how much one ought to value the life of a murderer, or whether perhaps indeed the life of a murderer with aggravating circumstances has a negative value, so that society at large is improved by its absence.

Hannah Arendt said roughly this in defense of the execution of Adolf Eichmann. She ends her book on the subject with the speech that she believes the Israeli judges should have addressed to the prisoner, but one they failed to give. This is the speech that, to her philosophically trained mind, would have made the most sense of Israel’s actions from the abduction of the defendant to his death.

Her book ends, “And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations – as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world – we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. That is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.”