Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Michael Portillo and a near-death experience

I've just watched one of the creepiest TV programmes I'm likely to see in a long time, namely Michael Portillo presenting an edition of the BBC science series Horizon.

Entitled How To Kill A Human Being, the programme was an examination of whether it is possible to have a humane means of executing people. Portillo examined the methods currently used in the USA - lethal injection, hanging, electrocution and the gas chamber - and found them all wanting for one reason or another.

In his search for the perfect method of execution, Portillo himself underwent a series of experiments in which he tested out different methods (not to their ultimate point, of course). We saw him spun round in a centrifuge chamber to deprive the brain of blood and then he went into an altitude chamber, to induce hypoxia. This is the starvation of oxygen in the blood, resulting in the person so affected becoming light-headed, unconscious and, very soon after that, dead. But it is apparently painless and Portillo described the sensation as being one of euphoria, even though he was apparently just seconds away from death.

Portillo's eventual 'perfect killing machine' was to induce hypoxia by exposing someone to excessive nitrogen. But when he put that potential 'solution' to one of the USA's leading pro-death penalty campaigners, he was told that the death penalty is meant to be nasty and that if the prisoners died feeling euphoric, that would be an injustice to their victims.

Portillo has done us all a service in reminding us that, no matter how it is carried out, the death penalty is barbaric. Had his 'optimum' method of execution been in place in the UK, I'm sure the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and Stefan Kiszko would all have been duly grateful to have been despatched with a feeling of euphoria. They, and other victims of miscarriages of justice, would have had no way back, whether they'd gone by hanging or hypoxia. Portillo himself acknowledges this, saying at the start of his film that miscarriages of justice were the main reason why he switched from supporting the death penalty to opposing it.

But even without that consideration, there can never be a wholly humane way of carrying out the death penalty. If you've been sentenced to die, that in itself creates a real level of mental anguish, as Kenny Richey, the Scot freed from death row in the USA last week, explained when he spoke about being left to rot in hell. That anguish must be all the more intense if, like Richey, you are minutes away from death when you get a stay of execution.

Although Portillo's programme made for very uncomfortable and creepy viewing, in the end it was worth it as it once again showed that execution is undoubtedly barbaric, no matter how it is done. No nation can call itself completely civilised if it continues to allow the death penalty. The sooner it becomes history on a global scale, the better.


Jock Coats said...

I agree - it was very uncomfortable viewing. And the swivel eyed loon at the end - I'm sure there are probably millions more like him which is scary. If he can't understand that death itself is the punishment rather than the mechanism of it inflicting pain it makes it all the more barbaric. His logic braks down on so many levels!

The Troll said...

I read about this the other week and, apart from anything else, Portillo's methods are fundamentally flawed in that it is difficult to gauge a reaction to different forms of execution of you have confidence that it won't be carried through. In other words, Portillo felt euphoric but how would someone knowingly teetering on the edge of death feel?

"If you've been sentenced to die, that in itself creates a real level of mental anguish" - so does rape and murder too. The unreliability of verdicts is a good reason not to execute - but forgive me if I don't get too upset about the mental anguish of a guilty man though.

Liberal Democrat Blogs