VOLUNTARY EXECUTION:
BETTER THAN CAPITAL PUNISHMENT?


SYNOPSIS:

    Capital punishment has problems.
When we think of the death-penalty, we remember first the prisoners
who were executed who later turned out to be innocent.
We think also of the possible disparities of race
in imposing the punishment of death.

    Should we abolish all imposed executions
and make voluntary execution an option?
Any prisoner who admits his or her guilt
could choose to be executed at any time
rather than spending the rest of his or her life in prison.
If we replace the death penalty with voluntary execution,
would most of the problems of capital punishment disappear?

OUTLINE:

1.  THE EXACT MEANING OF VOLUNTARY EXECUTION.

2.  THE PRISONER WOULD SELECT THE DATE OF EXECUTION.

3.  TWELVE REQUESTS FOR VOLUNTARY EXECUTION.


4.  TEN OTHER SAFEGUARDS USED FOR ORDINARY LIFE-ENDING DECISIONS.


5.  THE HIGH COST OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT.


6.  PRISONERS MUST CONFESS THEIR CRIMES, REMOVING ANY DOUBT.





VOLUNTARY EXECUTION:
BETTER THAN CAPITAL PUNISHMENT?

by James Leonard Park


1.  THE EXACT MEANING OF VOLUNTARY EXECUTION.

    State and national laws everywhere on the planet Earth
could be changed so that the death-penalty would be abolished
and possibly replaced by the option of voluntary execution.

    Voluntary execution brings the prisoner's life to a decisive end.
The executing authority takes full responsibility for this death.
It would only be called an "execution" if the death-penalty is carried out
by the government authority responsible for imposing punishments.
But in this case, the specific punishment would be chosen by the prisoner.
The convicted criminal would not be sentenced to die.
Rather, the prisoner would be allowed to select a voluntary execution
instead of spending the rest of his or her life in prison.

    Most prisoners offered this option of voluntary execution
would be persons convicted of murder in the first degree.
They would be given the option of selecting a voluntary execution
instead of waiting for natural death in prison.

    Another class of prisoners offered the option of voluntary execution
might be prisoners serving terms of imprisonment
that would be so long that they are very likely to die in prison.
If the prisoner foresees nothing but more years in prison,
ended only by natural death,
he or she might be given the option of voluntary execution
on a specific date of his or her own choosing.




2.  THE PRISONER WOULD SELECT THE DATE OF EXECUTION.

    Because voluntary execution is a free choice of the prisoner,
the date of execution would be chosen by that prisoner.
This differs from the customary practice of capital punishment,
in which the execution is carried out after all of the appeals are finished.
Historically, the executing authority has set the date of execution.

    It is quite possible under any new policy of voluntary execution
for a convicted prisoner to live for several years in prison
before deciding to choose a voluntary execution.

    Safeguards would be created to make sure that the prisoner
has had ample opportunity to adjust to life behind bars.
Perhaps life in prison will not be so bad after all.
Only those who have given prison-life a fair try
will know just what living in prison feels like to them.
Some who initially thought they would rather be dead might later decide
that they would prefer to live in prison for the rest of their lives.

    Or they might decide to live most of their remaining years in prison,
followed by a voluntary execution when they near the end of their natural lives.
Voluntary execution means that the prisoner can select any date of execution
between two years after sentence up to the day of natural death.

    The fact that the prisoner chooses the date of execution
would be dramatic proof that death is a free choice made by the prisoner.




3.  TWELVE REQUESTS FOR VOLUNTARY EXECUTION.


    The most basic safeguard against abuses of voluntary execution
would be letters voluntarily written by the prisoner
who is choosing such an unusual way to die.

    These letters would be sent in several copies to trusted persons
outside the prison system and who can be called upon to testify
if there is ever any question of the authenticity of the letters.
Copies should be preserved by family members and others
just in case there might be some question of falsification.

    We will question letters from prisoners in less developed countries.
Their governments might have officially abandoned capital punishment,
but the practice within the prison system might still be directed toward
an early death for all prisoners who committed murder.

    Perhaps there will be an organization against capital punishment
which will receive copies of such letters requesting voluntary execution.
And if they suspect any coercion or manipulation of the prisoner
who allegedly wrote the letters,
this agency would be empowered to meet face-to-face with the prisoner
to see if he or she freely wrote the letters and if this is really a free choice
to die by means of voluntary execution
rather than 'living in a box' until natural death.

    Of course, copies of these freely-written letters
would also go to the prison authorities responsible for executions.
And if anyone in that office suspects that guards or others
are putting pressure on the prisoner to request 'voluntary execution',
that office could also investigate further to determine the current thinking
of the prisoner who seems to be requesting death.

    Prisoners who have previously requested voluntary execution
would always be free to change their minds.
This is one reason for requiring at least two years for them to decide.
Something about their lives in prison might change,
so that they decide that they can tolerate life-imprisonment after all.
Something in their own thinking or feeling might have changed,
so that they are no longer want voluntary execution.
Some prisoners will have religious conversions in prison,
which might change their minds about voluntary execution.
Of course, religious conversion might lead in the opposite direction:
Prisoners might decide to donate their organs after execution
as a means of finally doing something that saves other lives
rather than kills other people.

    Up until the very last moment of consciousness before execution,
the prisoner would have the right to change his or her mind
and return to the prison cell.
Reliable witnesses would have to be present
to make certain that the execution is truly voluntary.
Does the prisoner freely want to die at this time?

    Witnesses should verify that the written requests for death were voluntary.
This would make certain that the choice of voluntary execution
was thoughtful and consistent,
giving the prisoner plenty of time to re-think the choice of voluntary execution.
Witnesses should verify that each letter was a freely-written document,
not something required by the prison authorities.
And all forms of subtle, psychological manipulation should also be ruled out.

    No prisoner would be required to apply for voluntary execution.

    Many other reasonable safeguards might be used.
But some unreasonable safeguards will also be proposed,
which are really disguised efforts to prevent all executions.
The claim that it is inherently impossible for a prisoner to make a free choice
could be overcome by safeguards which empower prisoners
freely to say "yes" or "no" to voluntary execution.

    Any system of voluntary execution would need
ways to overcome the inherent difficulties imposed by the prison environment.
What further proofs would be helpful to establish
that every decision for a voluntary execution is a truly free choice?

 
   This question is explored in more detail in the following on-line essay:
"Can a Prisoner Ever Make a Free Choice?"
https://s3.amazonaws.com/aws-website-jamesleonardpark---freelibrary-3puxk/FREE-PRI.html
This essay offers 11 safeguards to make sure that the choice is voluntary.




4.  TEN OTHER SAFEGUARDS
            USED FOR ORDINARY LIFE-ENDING DECISIONS.


    Several safeguards have been proposed for the purpose of making certain
that all decisions likely to lead to death are wise and compassionate:
26 RECOMMENDED SAFEGUARDS (A-Z).
Each of these could be adapted to the situation of voluntary execution.
And some would usually not be relevant,
such as the safeguards for determining the terminal illness of the patient.
But if the prisoner convicted of a capital crime is also terminally ill,
that could be a relevant fact in exploring the option of voluntary execution.

    Some of these additional safeguards
call for the opinions of others
such as family members.
If there are any family members still concerned about the prisoner,
their opinions might be relevant.

    Here are the 10 safeguards most applicable to voluntary execution.
The complete explanation of each safeguard will appear
if you click the blue name of that safeguard.
The safeguards retain their letters from the original list.

C. REQUESTS FOR DEATH FROM THE PATIENT

    The prisoner makes repeated, confirmed requests for voluntary execution,
extending over a period of at least one year.
The other safeguards below will confirm
that the prisoner is really making a voluntary request for death.

D. THE PATIENT IS MENTALLY CAPABLE OF MAKING A LIFE-ENDING DECISION

    If there is any doubt about the prisoner's mental powers,
a professional evaluation would be in order.
Is the prisoner still able to make a wise decision for voluntary execution?
If the prisoner has become incompetent (or never was competent),
then there can be no voluntary execution.
An exception to this rule would be a prisoner who applied for execution
before losing the mental powers needed for re-affirming this choice.
In that case, proxies for the prisoner could take responsibility
for carrying forward the plan for voluntary execution.

I.  UNBEARABLE PSYCHOLOGICAL SUFFERING

    In the case of a prisoner condemned to life in prison,
the main psychological suffering might be due to incarceration.
Might there be other kinds of psychological suffering worth considering?
The prisoner evaluates the quality of his or her suffering
and compares it with the option of voluntary execution:
Which would be better for me?
Would I prefer to spend the rest of my life in prison
or to choose a voluntary execution on a specific date in the future?

K. INFORMED CONSENT FROM THE PATIENT

    The practice of obtaining informed consent from a medical patient
could be extended to the option of voluntary execution.
Others would make certain that the prisoner really knows
that he or she is choosing to be put to death.
Voluntary execution is not a 'time-out from life'.
Execution means the prisoner's life is over forever.
Everyone involved must be convinced
that the prisoner really understands the request for voluntary execution.

L. REQUESTS FOR DEATH FROM THE PROXIES

    If the prisoner has appointed proxies to make medical decisions,
these same proxies might be called upon
to evaluate the prisoner's decision to choose a voluntary execution
rather than die a natural death in prison.
Proxies could carry forward the decision for voluntary execution
if the prisoner becomes incompetent at any time
between the final decision for death and the chosen date of execution.

O. STATEMENTS FROM FAMILY MEMBERS
            AFFIRMING OR QUESTIONING CHOOSING DEATH

    Likewise, statements from family members of the prisoner
will either affirm or question the choice of voluntary execution.
Some might doubt that the prisoner is really making a voluntary choice.
In that case, deeper investigation would be required.
All open-minded observers must be convinced by the fulfilled safeguards
that the choice of voluntary execution is truly free.

P. A MEMBER OF THE CLERGY APPROVES OR QUESTIONS CHOOSING DEATH

    The prisoner might have developed a relationship with the prison chaplain.
In this case, they might have discussed the option of voluntary execution.
And this member of the clergy could add his or her statement
to the collection of safeguards intended to prevent a premature death.
If a member of the clergy approves the voluntary execution,
this should help to convince more distant doubters
that voluntary execution really is the best option for all concerned.

S. STATEMENTS FROM ADVOCATES FOR DISADVANTAGED GROUPS
            IF INVITED BY THE PATIENT AND/OR THE PROXIES

    If the prisoner identifies with a group sometimes disadvantaged,
then a representative of that group might be asked
to review the decision for voluntary execution.
This outside observer would look for any signs of coercion.
If NO undue pressure or manipulation is found,
then all people who might have raised that kind of doubt
can be assured that the prisoner
was not suffering discrimination because of group identity:
Even a representative of the prisoner's identity-group
has verified that the decision for voluntary execution is a free choice.

U. WAITING PERIODS FOR REFLECTION

    In the situation of considering voluntary execution,
the waiting periods would already be specified in law.
A period of 12 months or more is suggested in this proposal.
Every caution would be exercised to make certain
that the prisoner has consistently requested voluntary execution
over a period of time allowing many opportunities for change of mind.

V. OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE PATIENT
            TO RESCIND OR POSTPONE ANY LIFE-ENDING DECISIONS

    And the prisoner who is choosing voluntary execution
should be given explicit opportunities to change this plan for death.
Just because the process has been started
does not mean that the voluntary execution must be carried forward.
At any time, while still capable to making meaningful decisions,
the prisoner could reverse the decision for a voluntary execution
or postpone the chosen date of death.

    Other workable safeguards might be suggested,
which can be added to this list.
What additional safeguards would allow open-minded people
to conclude that this prisoner has freely chosen a voluntary execution?

    The reason for the odd lettering system above
is that the letters are retained from the complete list of
26 recommended safeguards for life-ending decisions.




5.  THE HIGH COST OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT.

    In the United States, executions cost more than $3 million each.
This money actually goes to lawyers who are hired to defend the prisoner
and to other lawyers who must argue the other side of the case.
Prisoners on death-row do not usually want to die.
So they keep filing appeals
because each legal delay adds a few months of life.

    If capital punishment were abolished,
with all of its elaborate appeals and other legal process,
then almost all of these costs would disappear.
Instead of spending millions of dollars trying to be fair to the convict,
the same public money could be spent in more meaningful ways.

    If involuntary executions were abolished,
then there would be no further need to review the cases.
No prisoners would be kept on death-row.
All prisoners would live within the same prison population.
Only criminals who freely confess to their crimes
will be allowed to consider the option of voluntary execution.




6.  PRISONERS MUST CONFESS THEIR CRIMES,
            REMOVING ANY DOUBT.


    If capital punishment is abolished
and perhaps replaced by the option of voluntary execution,
then one major problem with the death-penalty will disappear:
Was the person put to death really guilty of the crime?

    False confessions must always be ruled out.
The prisoners who apply for voluntary execution
must agree that the trial and conviction were fair and just.
Evidence beyond their own confessions must be provided.

    This safeguard rules out the vast majority of people on death-row.
Almost all claim that they did not do the crime.
And as long as they maintain their innocence,
they will not be eligible for voluntary execution.
There is always the possibility that new evidence will come in
(such as evidence pointing to someone else as the killer
or a death-bed confession by the real murderer).

    Because we have heard so much about mistakes of the legal system,
it might be difficult for us to get our minds around the possibility
that there are actually people on death-row
who did the crimes for which they were convicted
and who have been justly sentenced as punishment for those crimes.

    Without making any estimates of the number of guilty versus innocent,
the requirements of any new laws permitting voluntary execution
must make clear that the prisoners who are applying for voluntary execution
have publicly admitted that they did the crimes
for which they are now being punished. 
All who still claim to be innocent do not qualify for voluntary execution.
They will stay in prison until they die
or are exonerated and released.

    And prisoners who previously claimed to be innocent
can change their public stance to admitting that they are guilty
of the crimes for which they were fairly convicted and sentenced.
This change of claim about the crimes
might take place several years after the events.
Even someone who maintained for many years in prison
that he or she did not commit the crimes
might later decide to confess.
In order to prevent any mistaken executions,
only confessed criminals will be considered for voluntary execution.

    Lawyers against the death-penalty would not be relevant:
The prisoners will not cooperate in any further defense
because they are now agreeing that they did commit the murders, etc.

    The facts of harmful behavior have been publicly acknowledged.
Then the opponents of wrongful conviction
can focus on other prisoners, who might actually be innocent.

 
   For more discussion of confessing the crime,
see the open letter to family and friends linked below.



Created May 31, 2009; Revised 6-4-2009; 6-6-2009; 6-11-2009; 10-7-2009;
1-22-2010; 3-19-2010; 2-5-2011; 5-29-2011; 11-11-2011; 11-24-2011;
2-29-2012; 9-27-2012; 10-3-2012; 3-24-2013; 9-6-2013; 10-3-2013;
1-1-2014; 9-29-2014; 4-19-2015; 10-14-2015; 9-1-2016; 1-31-2019;



Did this chapter change your mind about
exchanging the death-penalty for voluntary execution?


    This essay had an extremely difficult task to achieve:
Most people had never before considered the possibility
that murderers could choose whether or not to be executed.
Does this seem wise to offer this option to prisoners with life-sentences?
Can safeguards be created to prevent abuses of 'voluntary execution'?
How many inmates on death-row
would prefer death now rather than death later?
How many inmates sentenced to life-imprisonment
or to terms in prison so long that they will probably die in jail
would like the option of choosing a voluntary execution
at some convenient date in the future?




AUTHOR: 

    James Leonard Park is an independent philosopher,
living and writing in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
Much more about him will be discovered on his website:
James Leonard Park—Free Library

    See closely related essays:

Can a Prisoner Ever Make a Free Choice?

Voluntary Execution Followed by Organ Donation

Organ Donation After Voluntary Death

If I Get Alzheimer's, Donate My Organs




OPEN LETTER TO THE FAMILY AND FRIENDS
OF A CONDEMNED PRISONER
WILLING TO DONATE ORGANS AFTER EXECUTION




ORGANS FROM THE EXECUTED
This is the first essay (drafted in 2001) by James Park
about organ-donations from death-row.



ORGAN DONATION AFTER EXECUTION
This is a portal linking to many other resources on the Internet.



A Facebook Page has been created:
Prisoner Organ Donation.
This group welcomes participation by anyone interested in organ donation from prisoners:
prisoners who have Internet access, family members, friends,
lawyers, prison authorities, transplant surgeons, medical ethicists, journalists, & students.

The above essay suggesting replacing capital punishment with voluntary execution
has now become Chapter 1 of Organ Donation After Execution
.
This Internet Book has been presented chapter-by-chapter
on this Facebook Page in 2014.



Go to the Medical Ethics index page.


Go to other on-line essays by James Park,
organized into 10 subject-areas.



Go to the beginning of this website
James Leonard Park—Free Library