Wounded on Death Row: still executable?
July 16, 2006 10:16 PM   Subscribe

Let’s say you’re on Death Row and you break your leg the night before your scheduled execution. Do they have to nurse you back to health before they can kill you?

I feel like I’ve heard that this is the case, but it also sounds a little urban mythy. Thanks!
posted by largecorp to Law & Government (15 answers total)
Define health. They would likely at least set the fracture, then kill you, using of course only the most sterile and healthy death equipment available.
posted by caddis at 10:26 PM on July 16, 2006 [2 favorites]

I am not at all an expert in the area, but my guess is that at least some of it has to do with the 'cruel and unusual punishment' thing. (Is that an actual element of law, by the way?) If I broke my leg and you didn't immediately help me, I could argue it's cruel and unusual punishment.

I seem to recall (this could be pure urban legend) a guy who, back when they hung people, started gorging himself on food every day, until he was incredibly obese. He argued that it was cruel and unusual punishment to hang someone of his size, and he won.

I'm with caddis--the reasonable thing to do seems to be to make sure you're looked after until you die, but it makes no sense to postpone someone's death because they're sick.
posted by fogster at 10:41 PM on July 16, 2006

That was not an urban legend at all, fogster. You're thinking of Mitchell Rupe, who became rather bison-like in his successful attempt to avoid hanging, but ended up dying from complications from his gorging.

Of course, it was a local deal here, so I've been hearing about it for years. The mileage of those not in either the greater Olympia area or Washington State at all may, of course, vary.
posted by Captain_Tenille at 10:51 PM on July 16, 2006

I have read before that, in cases of lethal injection, they use an alcohol swab on the arm of the prisoner before inserting the needle, just like your doctor would before an injection. The reason is that the state is responsible for the health of the prisoner to the very end.
posted by 4ster at 10:51 PM on July 16, 2006

Best answer: Heber Norton, aged 74, had a stroke in his cell on Utah's death row. He was rushed to the hospital and revived. Recovered, but substantially incapacitated, he was then executed on schedule. Source.
posted by Crotalus at 10:55 PM on July 16, 2006

...has to do with the 'cruel and unusual punishment' thing. (Is that an actual element of law, by the way?)

It's from the 8th Amendment. But the interesting thing is that a punishment has to be both cruel and unusual to be banned by the 8th Amendment.

Cruel usual punishment is constitutionally acceptable.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:57 PM on July 16, 2006

IANAL ... and I don't really have an answer ... but there's a weird dynamic here -- that is, the relevance of the injury in relation to the method of execution, and the management of pain with regard to "cruel and unusual punishment."

So, let's say you broke your leg on the way to being hung. Hanging requires you to stand, yes? You could argue that it would be cruel and unusual to force you to stand on a broken leg while the rope was being affixed to your neck. OK, so could you be hung while you're seated in a chair? Maybe, but then you could make an argument that no one's ever been hung while strapped to a chair before, that this method isn't fully determined to be safe, so it's cruel and unusual to make someone a guinea pig.

But, let's say you broke your leg on the way to a lethal injection chamber. You'll be strapped to a table at the time of the procedure. If the pain could be managed with medication, and that medication wouldn't interfere with neither the medications used in the execution, nor your state of mind (i.e. you're not already unconscious), then your broken leg isn't relevant to the procedure and you could continue.

Look at it another way -- what if you broke your finger? Could an argument be made that your level of pain is such that it's cruel and unusual to withhold treatment while you're a ward of the state -- which you'll be right up until the moment that you're dead? What if you just had a hangnail? Does the argument still stand up?

Take an even different perspective -- let's say you're not being executed, you're just in jail. But you suffer from migraines. How far does the prison system have to go in order to alleviate your pain? What if you're lying? After all, no one can peek inside your head and measure the migraine pain -- we kinda have to take your word for it.

All very interesting ethical questons.
posted by frogan at 11:03 PM on July 16, 2006

"Common Sense Law" tells me: Nah. If that were the case then every Death Row lawyer would pass word along to his client to "slip" at the 11th hour.
posted by bamassippi at 1:44 AM on July 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

I have read before that, in cases of lethal injection, they use an alcohol swab on the arm of the prisoner before inserting the needle, just like your doctor would before an injection.

They did in Dead Man Walking.
posted by orange swan at 5:29 AM on July 17, 2006

My assumption is that they would not leave you writhing in pain in your cell overnight. I would assume that in any case of a medical emergency (broken bones included) they would care for you no matter if the injury were just hours before an execution.

Setting a broken bone, depending on the extent of injury, is relatively simple and does not take long.

I doubt any western prison system would take the stance of "What’s the point, he’s going to die tomorrow anyway."
posted by ASM at 5:37 AM on July 17, 2006

Here is the Straight Dope on alcohol swabs and lethal injection. Similar logic applies here; death row prisoners are given the same medical care as other prisoners until the last minute both for humanitarian reasons (denying medical care to prisoners is forbidden by a number of mechanisms) and because as mentioned in the straight dope article, there is always the chance of a last minute stay or commutation.
posted by TedW at 5:39 AM on July 17, 2006

ASM: without wanting to get into the cruelty and/or futility of American jails, French jails are pretty nasty. If you saw "Catch Me If You Can", Frank Abagnale comes out with pretty severe pneumonia, and looks like he's in bad shape. If you read the book, he mentions that prisoners are regularly put into solitary confinement for months at a time, and are generally not well treated. I read a confirmation somewhere of his account, so I don't believe it's (all) hyperbole.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 6:47 AM on July 17, 2006

TedW fails to promote up into his reply the most important reason why they alcohol swab the arm:
Which brings us to what I think is the real reason for swabbing the arm--it allows the executioners to think of themselves as professionals doing a job rather than killers.

Interviews with members of execution teams reveal that they place great stock in following proper procedures. We may be certain that if the prisoner were to choke on a chicken bone during his last meal, the authorities would spare no effort to save his life an hour prior to ending it. Indeed, if you can believe Chuck Shepherd's News of the Weird column, that's already happened. "In Texas convicted murderer David Lee Herman slashed his throat on April 1 [1997], a day before his execution, but was patched up and given his lethal injection one day late," Shepherd writes.

Nazi death camp guards observed no such niceties. Thus do we persuade ourselves that we are better than they.
Not everyone is a big Fan Of Cecil, and his thinking is sometimes questionable, but damn, if the boy don't have style.

Thanks to Ted for finding that; I'd seen it, but didn't remember where.
posted by baylink at 7:03 AM on July 17, 2006

The death penalty leads to a lot of confusing or contradictory behaviors.

There's at least one case pending now that keeps making its way into the neurologic news. A schizophrenic person was tried for murder, and used as the defense that they were not able to distinguish right from wrong at the time of the murder - the classic defense, "not guilty by reason of insanity."

However, by the time the patient was examined by the forensic psychiatrist, they were on psych meds. These meds improved the subject's mental state so much that the psychiatrist found the subject able to distinguish right from wrong. The trial then proceeded and the verdict was the death penalty.

The subject's lawyer is currently arguing that the subject should have the right to refuse the psych meds, in order to return to a state of mind in which the subject could (again) no longer tell right from wrong; in that case, an appeal would be lodged on the grounds that we don't execute people for their crimes who can't tell right from wrong.

The AMA recommends that doctors not be involved in executions, and looking at funny business like this I can certainly agree.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:20 PM on July 17, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks, folks. I’m curious because it seems like a fun idea for a plot, and there’s a lot of fodder here for messing around!
posted by largecorp at 3:16 PM on July 17, 2006

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