A death row inmate in Washington is currently suing the state because the state's execution method, lethal injection, can be long and painful if not administered correctly.
The judge in that case, in order to evaluate the chance of lethal injection being administered correctly, asked for information concerning the qualifications of the team of four prison employees at the Walla Walla state penitentiary who perform executions. Very few people know who they are. Out of fear that their identities would get out, the death penalty team resigned.
Of course, the judge said he had to review their qualifications but he wouldn't let any identifying information get out. Their secret would most likely be safe with the judge, so you have to wonder just how afraid they are that their identities will get out that they wouldn't even be willing to take a very small risk.
The attorney general said:
They don't want picketers showing up on their front lawns, and they don't want offenders knowing who they are.
This seems like a bizarre situation to me, considering just how many people are involved in an execution. It's hard to point the finger at this team of four for the fact that someone was killed when there are the prosecutors, the jurors, the judges, legislators, and a governor who, together, bear more responsibility for an execution. Everyone else has their name plastered all over these cases, so why are these four hiding?
In many state elections for attorney general, you're likely to hear about just how "tough on crime" the candidates are. Governors and state legislators are often unlikely to reform death penalty procedures, prisons, or the criminal justice system because they want all of their constituents to know that they're responsible for putting the bad guys to death.
This is a society where the death penalty is still pretty popular, and a significant group of citizens want to continue and expand it. Politicians love to be associated with it, and many judges, whose names appear in newspapers, don't resign in protest when they have to sentence someone to it or uphold it.
The only difference is that these folks don't pull the trigger or push the plunger. They can all talk as tough as they want; when it comes down to it, there's a big space between ordering someone to die and actually killing that person.
And the team of four would understand that difference. The secretary of the state Department of Corrections said in the article that it's hard to find qualified people to perform executions and that they might have to fly in another team from another state (conditioned on their complete anonymity) for the next execution.
There are plenty of unfortunate comments on the Seattle Times article from people asking to play executioner in the team of four's place. I have no doubt that there are people who would find pleasure in performing the death penalty themselves; there are plenty of sickos in this country.
But whether we're talking about qualified people who take this job seriously while performing their work in secrecy or people who think it'd be a whole lot of fun to kill someone else, the conversation is about the actual act of killing. And if we assume against all logic that someone who'd want to avenge an executed individual but would bypass the judges and prosecutors and the governor and everyone else who campaigned on a "tough on crime" platform and go after just the people who actually performed the execution, then it shows just how much weight we place on the act of killing over all the talk and process and justifications that go with it.
Because for all the justifications of the death penalty, the discourse on justice, the fact that many people believe in the face of real evidence that it's good for society, the talk about being tough on crime, the complex legal hoops that must be jumped through, and rhetoric of guilt and innocence, the death penalty is, at its heart, about killing human beings.
And no legal, ethical, or philosophical argument can change that.