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Editorial: Of the Death Penalty and Human Dignity

Let’s be clear: The appalling circumstances attendant upon the execution of Dennis McGuire in Ohio last week did not render capital punishment barbaric; they merely personified its inherent barbarity. We hope the New Hampshire Legislature will take note and finally repeal the state’s death penalty in the firm conviction that it is morally repugnant for the state to take human life.

McGuire was put to death with a new and untested combination of drugs that took 25 minutes to perform its lethal work while he was gasping, snorting, choking and moving as though struggling — a result his defense attorneys had anticipated in an unsuccessful court filing that sought to block the execution. In opposing their motion, Ohio Assistant Attorney General Thomas Madden contended that while the Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment, “you’re not entitled to a pain-free execution.”

The family of Joy Stewart, the woman whom McGuire raped and murdered in 1989, issued a statement following the execution saying that whatever suffering McGuire endured, it paled in comparison to that which the victim went through. “He is being treated far more humanely than he treated her,” the family said.

Anyone who finds themselves in the position of the Stewart family certainly could feel justified in holding that view, and it is entirely understandable in view of the emotional pain and loss they have suffered. But the problem with it, along with Madden’s argument, is that it asserts a kind of equivalence between an official act of the state and that of a brutal murderer. Inflicting less suffering than McGuire did does not render the act of putting him to death morally acceptable. This is perhaps reflected in what necessitated the use of the experimental combination of drugs in the first place — the European manufacturers of the drugs previously used have blocked their further sale for use in executions.

While all this was transpiring in Ohio, the New Hampshire House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee was holding a three-hour hearing on a bill that, for the third time in the past 13 years, attempts to repeal the state’s death penalty law. New Hampshire is one of 32 states that allow capital punishment, although it has not executed anyone since 1939.

According to the Concord Monitor, members heard testimony from religious leaders, police officers, lawyers and family members of murder victims urging them to repeal the law. They discussed issues such as the high costs associated with imposing the death penalty, unfairness in deciding which defendants are sentenced to death, and the very real possibility that an innocent person will be wrongfully executed.

These are all powerful arguments in favor of abolition, but we found most compelling statements that focused on the moral compromise inherent in the death penalty.

Former Attorney General Phil McLaughlin told the committee that he had changed his mind on the issue after his son returned from serving in Iraq and told him, “Our government shouldn’t kill its own people.”

And the Rev. A. Robert Hirshfield, Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, said that, “Repealing the death penalty is a way for the state to counteract and push back against the culture of violence. Whenever the death penalty is administered by the state, the dignity of all our citizens is diminished.”

In fact, the death penalty makes killers of us all. And that’s hard to live with.