California is set to exceute Michael Morales tonight via a lethal overdose of barbiturates. This is hardly the glamorous end that most state legislatures have designed for convicted murderers. In years past, societies used corporal punishment – beatings, whippings, and the like – in response to crime. With the exception of the death penalty, American society has abandoned physical punishment, trading it in for incarceration. In the last century, we’ve struggled to figure out how to square the act of killing with this rejection of corporal punishment. We’ve often veered toward technological solutions, presumably because they appear less brutal – less like the destruction of a human body. Unfortunately, gas chambers echoed the tactics of Nazi Germany. Electric chairs just didn’t work that well and the explicit pain accompanying death gave lie to our claim that we no longer punish the body. Finally, we moved to lethal injection which fit in with the modern scientific obsession of the age: medicine. Lethal injection looked very advanced, using a three step process of anesthetic, paralytic agent, and heart stopper. It was supposed to be painless, closer to shutting down a machine than killing a person. In practice, however, this sophisticated medical treatment plan was not quite so antisceptic. Like all medicine, sometimes it worked poorly. Sometimes people regained consciousness in the middle of the process and suffered.
Last night, Morales was supposed to be executed by lethal injection. Judge Jeremy Fogel, concerned about the potential cruelty of this approach, required that the state have an anesthesiologist on hand to insure that Morales never regained consciousness. The appointed physicians rebelled, however, and would not assist in the execution. So California has chosen to overdose Morales on barbiturates. There is something very mundane about execution by overdose, in part perhaps because it is so simple that a person could do it himself. And indeed they do, every day. Society has grand hopes for the death penalty. We hope it will dramatically decrease murder rates. We think that it will provide a just response to a horrible crime. We feel it will make the victims, and indeed society at large, whole again. Compared to these grand designs, death by overdose seems very sad and small. Notwithstanding the national drama, Morales will die just like hundreds of other addicts around the country. I hope it gives the victim’s family some peace.