Friday, March 27, 2015

The Fifth Bullet

When Utah resumes executing condemned prisoners by firing squad, four of the five rifles will each be loaded with a single live bullet. But not the fifth rifle. One rifle will hold a special bullet— an “ineffective” round which, unlike a blank, has the same recoil as a live round. Its purpose is to allow each shooter to be able to believe he might not have fired the fatal shot.


Unlike jury duty, no one is forced to serve on a firing squad. One must volunteer. The shooters must want to kill someone. So why the psychological escape hatch?

The reason for the fifth bullet is to instill doubt. It leaves open the door of conscience, by a crack. But why should a volunteer marksman carrying out a lawful execution of a convicted criminal have a guilty conscience? Is he not merely administering justice in a lawful manner? The citizens of the jury returned a death verdict under the auspices of a judge; the legislature enacted the prescribed method of execution;  the court held it constitutional; and the governor refused to stay the execution. Thus, the people and all three branches of government – judicial, legislative, and executive – have spoken. So why should any rifleman feel guilt over executing the law… or a fellow human?

Perhaps, the fifth bullet is a tacit recognition – or admission – that there is something to feel guilty about. Guilt is the emotion we punish ourselves with when we have done something wrong. Something morally wrong, even if not legally wrong. Because deep down, we all know being Swiss-cheesed with bullet holes is not how any of us wants to die. It sounds horrible. Some might even call it cruel and unusual punishment.

Throughout history, many nations have executed their criminals... and also their political dissenters, oppressed minorities, and innocent men wrongfully declared guilty. But I won’t digress to discuss totalitarian justice, or lynchings in the Wild West or the backwoods of Mississippi, or those poor souls unfortunate enough to be saddled with a bad lawyer or an even worse jury. No, lets stick to the scum who deserve to die. How can we, as a civilized society, end their lives in a manner that conforms with our constitutional values – in other words, in a way that is not cruel and unusual punishment?

I think we can all agree that crucifixion, disembowelment, drawing and quartering, keelhauling, impalement, flaying, boiling, and death by torture all qualify as cruel and unusual punishment. What’s left? America has used the electric chair, the firing squad, the gas chamber, hanging, and lethal injection. None of them sound particularly pleasant. Admittedly, punishment is not supposed to be pleasant, but neither should it be gruesome. Saudi Arabia carries out executions by beheading. France was infamous for the guillotine. Stoning is currently a preferred method of execution under Sharia law in Brunei, Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia, and the United Arab Emirates. While all of the above forms of execution are cruel, they are obviously not unusual, so I suppose they would pass constitutional muster under the Eighth Amendment.

Still, they all seem wrong on some level, whether immoral or gruesome. Ever wonder why executioners either wear hoods or place them over the people they kill? Is it because they don’t want anyone to know who they are, or because they can’t look those they kill in the eye? The truth is, there is no good way to kill someone. It will always be messy and painful. But then, that’s the whole idea of execution: it’s supposed to act as a deterrent to others who contemplate the same act as the condemned. There will always be individuals who commit acts so heinous that they must be permanently removed from society. The death penalty is a cruel punishment; and it is also a necessary one in certain cases. Every society faces a choice: either accept that the death penalty is a cruel but necessary means of eliminating those who pose a threat to its members, or recognize that the guilt associated with carrying it out is proof of its immorality. One cannot have it both ways; there can be no fifth bullet.

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