December 9, 2022

Killing the willing

On Thursday (Oct 20), 38-year-old Christopher Johnson was executed by lethal injection in an Alabama prison after only four years on death row. The average time between sentencing and death in the US is currently about 14 years, but Johnson consistently declined to appeal or ask for clemency. He had murdered his six-month-old son to spite his estranged wife.

On Thursday (Oct 20), 38-year-old Christopher Johnson was executed by lethal injection in an Alabama prison after only four years on death row. The average time between sentencing and death in the US is currently about 14 years, but Johnson consistently declined to appeal or ask for clemency. He had murdered his six-month-old son to spite his estranged wife.
Opponents of the death penalty said that Johnson was an example of death penalty “volunteers” who are using execution as a kind of assisted suicide.
John Blume, of Cornell Law School, has studied the phenomenon. He found that of 93 inmates who declined to appeal their sentences between 1977 and 2003, 88% had histories of mental illness. Apparently Johnson was never evaluated for psychiatric illness and the jury was not told of his history of sexual abuse as a child, exposure to drugs and alcohol, and severe behavioural problems as a youth. Blume contends that many of the volunteers are not competent to waive their right to appeal. “Are these executions carrying out a lawful punishment, or are they a form of state-assisted suicide?” Blume asked the UK Guardian.
Alabama has the highest per capita rate of execution in the US. Johnson is the sixth person to be executed in 2011.
There is a medical ethics angle to the debate over Johnson’s execution. The governor, Robert J. Bentley,  is a strong supporter of the death penalty but he is also a medical doctor, a former President of the Alabama Dermatology Society, a practicing Christian, and a foe of of abortion. As governor, he has the power to commute a death row prisoner’s sentence. As a doctor, should he?

Michael Cook
assisted suicide
death penalty
professional ethics