Death, be not proud
SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. (The Philippine Star) - March 4, 2017 - 12:00am

“In matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place” –  Atty. Mohandas K. Gandhi. This dogma of the Mahatma could very well be the battlecry of the most rapidly diminishing commodity in the country today – the anti death penalty legislator.

In the House we have been hearing the heroic voices of, among others, Reps. Tom Villarin and Harry Roque. In the Senate, the charge is led by Sen. Dick Gordon. But not every Tom, Dick and Harry are flocking to the banner of life. Most are learning the bitter truth about the courage of convictions after the party leadership thumbs down a conscience vote.

The price of conscience. In theory, the motivations that animate party discipline in political and administrative issues are absent on gut issues like the death penalty. For example, in the impeachment battles against President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, when the Lakas party would take a party stand, you either toe the line or you’re out. The reason is simply party survival for if she were to be impeached, then all would be lost. That is the importance of the line that shouldn’t be crossed (from the configuration of the UK House of Commons where benches of Government and Opposition face each other – you cross the floor if you vote with the other side).

There was no such context in the House death penalty vote. The leadership could have left the decision to individual choice. There is simply no danger of crossing over as there is no opposition party to speak of (they haven’t even figured that out in the House). But, alas, the party in power has decided to adopt the death penalty as a matter of policy (House Bill No. 1). It became a party vote. Should you cross the line, you will get the House equivalent of the death penalty. For observers, the waiting game is on for who will be the last NO vote standing.

Not just whiffs. This time honored tradition of bargaining your conscience has long been euphemized as a perquisite of legislation. Committee chairmanships, office space, out of town trips, additional staff, additional budget – these are the wages by which power is preserved.

Perhaps someone should nudge the President to train his chivalric clean government quest on this House of the people. While the recent sacking at the National Irrigation Administration has been a box office success, it is nothing Herculean. Cleaning the House stables or, at least the Justice Department where whiffs have become gusts, would be better embraced as a mythic labor.

Killing 101. With the House vote in the bag and the Senate now a 12-12 proposition, it has become manifest that our solons have decided to kill. The follow up question, naturally, is how do they kill?

Capital is from the Latin word capitalis which meant “of the head.” Capital punishment originally referred to the severing of the head – decapitating.

In Ancient Greece (the time of solon), condemned citizens were given the privilege of choosing poison as Socrates did when he drank his hemlock. The march of progress has seen methods become more humane even as the death penalty remains in place. Now, poison is injected.

Horror roll. Our own killing experience runs the gamut from garrote to lethal injection. In between, Philippine law has provided for death by hanging, electric chair, firing squad and even the gas chamber (never implemented). No death convict has ever been decapitated in the Philippines.

Until repealed under President GMA in 2006, the official method used by the Bureau of Corrections was lethal injection, the supposed humane method.

The last seven executions from 1998 to 2006, beginning with Leo Echegaray was carried out following this general script: (1) put the condemned to sleep; (2) stop his breathing; and (3) stop his heart. To accomplish this, the Bureau of Corrections utilized the infamous three drug cocktail invented by Dr. Jay Chapman, Chief Medical Examiner of the State of Oklahoma as recipe for death. The first injection was for sodium pentothal, an anesthetic. The second injection was of pancuronium bromide, shutting down the lungs and inducing paralysis. The final injection, of potassium chloride triggers the fatal heart attack. The procedure is over in minutes, sans pain, in theory.

Nightmare scenarios. In practice, a different story emerges. An imperfectly executed execution may result in the condemned not unconscious enough and not paralyzed enough. He will be suffering the most excruciating pain and yet be helpless to do anything about it.

Accounts of botched executions are rife, readily accessible on the internet. In the US, the horror stories range from taking 2 hours to die to 660 gasps for breath to “feeling fire coursing through my veins.” Of all the methods in use, lethal injection has the highest rate of bungled implementation. To mitigate these possible tragic consequences, it is ideal  that medical expertise be available.

First, do no harm. This brings us to another conscience vote. Doctors don’t want to kill. And they shouldn’t be compelled to. The Philippine Medical Association is already on record as opposing the practice of having physicians participate in executions. Other health professionals are also balking. Even the Italian and Danish manufacturers of the anesthetics used in Injection No. 1 have stopped production of the same after its gruesome utility became its new reality.

The net result of all this is that the humaneness of injected poison has become seriously compromised. The State may be forced to use non-medical personnel and resort to untested drugs to replace the previous mainstays. It, thus, becomes just as cruel as its predecessors.

Finale. The consolidated House Bill, now No. 4727 allows death by hanging and firing squad in addition to lethal injection. For objectors, the next frontiers will be the Supreme Court and, failing the Court, the Bureau of Corrections and Department of Health as they firm up the rules and regulations for implementing the congressional mandate.

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MOHANDAS K. GANDHI
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