Living and Dying on Death Row

I admit Death Row has always been something that made me curious, as have murderers, serial killers and the justice system itself. But it goes beyond morbid fascination into my desire to understand why people do what they do; a lot of it comes down to neurology, biopsychology, as well social and cultural forces. But this post is not to argue Nature Versus Nurture. This is my ethical consideration.

Title capital punishment

Is Capital punishment ethically sound? I don’t think so; an eye for an eye or a ‘life for a life’ does not equate to justice, it is bloodlust the same as in the Middle Ages. Besides, death is a way out; life in prison is a longer punishment, protecting the general public without having to murder the convict.

I think the real reasons (or excuses) behind Capital punishment are:

1) To reduce overcrowding in prisons.

In other words to save costs and the time it would take to find alternative solutions. This is also the reason many non-capital offenders are released early; it’s not just for ‘good behaviour.’

2) Outdated primitive bloodlust, where ‘justice’ is synonymous with revenge.

You would be amazed how many people call for the torture and death of a criminal, so long as it is not blood on their hands. The executions are generally performed in white tiled rooms by stoic prison staff, legalised murder under the pretense of justice in a clinical sanitary environment. A viewing room is separated by glass so the onlookers can see every bit of gore, but remain clean and separate from any feeling of responsibility. We live in a voyeuristic culture, where we can absorb information from behind the safety of a computer monitor, television screen, windows, the glass panel separating us from the wild animals at the zoo, or a criminal about to have his or her life taken, exposed under the stark lights and glare of onlookers’ eyes.

Many murder victims’ families do not seek this level of revenge and argue: ‘”MVFR (Murder Victims Families for Retribution) knows that – in spite of that pain vengeance is not the answer. The taking of another life by state killing only continues the cycle of violence.” One member writes, “To say that the death of any other person would be just retribution is to insult the immeasurable worth of our loved ones who are victims.”

3) To deter others from committing the same crimes.

At least read this article before making up your mind. The deterrent effects of capital punishment are based on opinion only, not facts, and are therefore not a logical or actual reason to maintain this barbaric practice.

Prevention is a good idea, but this is not the way to do it. Another problem is that most murderers probably aren’t thinking about the consequences of their actions when performing them, a lot of murders are in the ‘heat of the moment’, or driven by anger. But also some are the cold, calculated decisions of psychopaths whose biological makeup disallows them from feeling compassion or guilt, no matter how long they are forced to rot on Death Row.

4) In some countries executions have resulted in nonconsensual organ ‘donation’.

The theft of the convict’s organs regardless of their consent or religious/cultural beliefs still happens today. It has been common practice in China, where they are now allegedly moving to stop transplants of organs after executions due to a global outcry, see here in NYTimes. But why was this allowed to happen in the first place?

If you want to learn more about legalised execution around the world, it is worth visiting Amnesty here. And watch this new series on 40d, where Werner Herzog meets convicted criminals on Death Row, including Hank Skinner who, guilty or not, was not given a fair trial and had to fight for pieces of evidence to be DNA tested. His execution date has been rescheduled three times, and he was even sent to the ‘Death house’ where he ate his last meal, in a cell that overlooked the room where he would meet his death, only to have the phone ring and be told that the execution date had been put off. I question whether anyone deserves to have his or her life not only ended, but also toyed with in this manner.


Mind over matter, can thinking kill you?

Brain scanning technology is quickly approachi...

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Having just read this Guardian article, ‘The nocebo effect’, I’m reminded of how powerful the human brain is. Neurology is my special interest, and the ways that our psychology can interact with our physiology. We all know that stress does not just affect our minds, the way we think or act, but can physically manifest and even shorten your life (good old telomeres!). “Chill out, you’ll live longer” springs to mind. But can a patient affect the course of their treatment just with their mind?

I’m not talking about magic or supernatural powers. I’m referring to the way emotions and attitudes can affect the chemicals released by the brain, emotions after all are just that. A person with depression can be suffering a simple chemical imbalance; perhaps they are not releasing enough serotonin and can be given a tangible remedy. But a person with a state of mind leading to physical symptoms, this is perhaps more difficult to solve, and highlights the need for positivity and better mental health care in the UK.

Take the scenario of a woman suffering a ‘phantom pregnancy’ whereby the abdomen swells, appetite increases, breasts are tender or even lactating. Or an injured solider who still feels pain or an itch which cannot be scratched in the legs he no longer has. These cases exist in no small number, and phantom symptoms are no less real to the patient than those which are visibly proven, yet they are induced solely by the power of the mind. The mind exists only in the brain, and the brain communicates all vital messages to the rest of the body, even the slightest brain damage can have a huge impact on motion, speech, and personality.

Consider what your mind can do when applied to an actual physical condition, can thinking positively really aid your recovery and is thinking negatively detrimental? I believe so to an extent. For example placebos, be they ethically sound or not, undeniably have a positive effect for some people (be it an illusion or not). Countless studies back this up. But can you create your own placebo; can you trick your body into healing faster?

A very interesting topic relating to neurology is pain, which exists in the brain (ironic considering the brain itself feels no pain!). An interesting study I read a while back by the University of Nottingham is discussed in this video: Mind tricks may help arthritic pain

Would you give change to a homeless drug-addict?

English: A homeless man in Paris Français : Un...

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There is a fine line between logic and emotion, and quite often one defies the other. Logic told me the man would use the money he collected to buy more heroin, and that therefore it was wrong, and would be enabling him. But the other part of me knew there was a very slim chance he would at least spend some of it on a hot drink, or something useful, and that I would feel guilty if I just walked past impassively. I knew he was a drug addict from his eyes, his skeletal appearance, the marks, when you’ve seen it all before you know the signs.

I’m not “soft” in a sunshine-and-rainbows, crying at rom-coms, Mother Teresa type way. But I always put myself in another person’s shoes, allowing me to empathise and weigh this with logic. I never just walk past and ignore a homeless person begging for change, or even a charity fundraiser standing neglected with their hopeful bucket, I always give change even if it’s just a little. Does this say something about what kind of a Doctor I will make? I don’t know, but it says something for the way I balance logic with emotion.

In my opinion it is wrong to assume that all homeless people begging for change are drug addicts, and therefore morally wrong to deny them change solely on that basis. Furthermore if they are a drug addict, why are they any less deserving of loose change? As distasteful as it is to enable them, or make any contribution to the grotesque drug business (where someone is always profiting, and others are always losing; their lives, their bodies, their minds or their homes), the beggar has no control over their addiction, and could die from the cold-turkey withdrawal.

Of course, giving them help would be better than giving them change; establishments exist to help drug addicts and homeless people, there are soup kitchens, shelters, Methadone programmes. But nothing is perfect, just as there is no perfect way to handle the scenario laid out in this post, do you:

– Walk past and ignore

– Give them change without knowing whether they are a drug addict or not

– Give them change knowing they are a drug addict (Are the above options doing indirect harm or good?)

– Offer friendly advice about programmes that could benefit them. (Or is this intrusive?)

– Offer to buy food for them rather than give them change (I’ve heard stories of people doing this when they suspect that the money they give would be spent on drugs, therefore this acts as a sort of test, but is this morally sound or not?)

The truth is there is no definite universally applicable right or wrong, it’s all down to the individual. But I find ethics very interesting, and the way empathetic impulses or emotions can lead to views being solidified as law, that is why the law is always changing, particularly medical laws, think about euthanasia, how new cases affect our human rights.