EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Law & Crit, Take 5: Sharon Stone's "Last Dance" & Oregon's Death Penalty Moratorium

In today's post in her ongoing Pop Culture and the Death Penalty project, Alyssa Rosenberg addresses Sharon Stone's "Last Dance." According to Rosenberg,

it’s a pretty terrible movie, chock-full of sassy black death row inmates who call Stone’s sweet former-addict killer "girl" a lot, a weak-sauce and sentimental discussion of racial and economic disparities in the death penalty, and a lot of thick-accented callous Southern stereotypes. But it does a couple of things that I think are interesting, even if I don’t think it does them particularly well.

First is the way it addresses lingering discomfort with executing women. Sam, the head of the appeals office...;

Second, there’s the question of how race and class interact in the death penalty...;

the ridiculousness and cruelty of our last-minute appeals process.

Conversely, one of the things that the movie gets (very) wrong is that its primary focus is not on Stone's character but on the spiritual journey taken by her attorney (who comes off as the idiot younger brother of Frank Galvin from "The Verdict"), a journey that ends with "an Annie Lennox-scored trip to the Taj Mahal in her memory...." As Anthony Paul Farley wrote in Amusing Monsters, 23 Cardozo L. Rev. 1493 (2002),

In Last Dance, the conflict within the heart of the condemned murderer, played by Sharon Stone, has been resolved long before the narrative begins. The observer, a wealthy white man played by Rob Morrow, appears as a suitor in need of a philosopher, and he finds her in Stone. His desperate attempts to save her from the Leviathan's lethal injection, which she is as willing to receive as was Socrates to receive the hemlock prescribed him by his fellow Athenians, fail. In his failure, however, he succeeds in making peace with himself and, as we are led to imagine, his own struggle on behalf of forgiveness and against vengeance. Our own role, Leviathan's role, in producing the conditions that lead to the body of the death that occasioned the making of the film and our own entry into the dark of the cathedral, the theatre, is never seriously addressed.

So, why does this make me think about Governor John Kitzhaber's decision to place a moratorium on the death penalty in Oregon

Well, as noted in the New York Times article on the decision,

Oregon, which uses lethal injection, has executed just two people since its voters approved the death penalty in 1984, and both of those inmates waived certain rights to appeal, making them so-called volunteers. The state, which has 37 inmates on death row, last executed someone in 1997. It has been one of at least seven states that allow the death penalty but have not used it in more than a decade, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

So, here's my question: Even if you're anti-death penalty, are you anti-voluntary death penalty? I am anti-death penalty. I don't see how the State has the power to kill someone who no longer poses a threat to society and can be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. I don't see how we can force prosecutors to argue that a (wo)man no longer deserves to live. I don't see how we can force jurors to decide whether a (wo)man should live or die. I don't see how we can force doctors to inject a lethal cocktail of drugs into the arm of the condemned. (And this doesn't even get into race/class issues as well as the number of wrongful convictions that have been exposed through DNA and other evidence).

But I do believe that that a terminally ill person should be able to end his own life with dignity, and I do believe that a willing doctor should be able to provide assistance to such a terminally ill person. In other words, I support physician-assisted suicide, but I disagree with the death penalty, and I argued as much in my first law review article, A Death by Any Other Name: The Federal Government's Inconsistent Treatment of Drugs Used in Lethal Injections and Physician-Assisted Suicide, 17 J.L. & Health 217 (2002-2003).

I think that the involuntary killing of a person who doesn't want to die fundamentally goes against the fundamental tenents of civilized society and the Hippocractic Oath. On the other hand, I think that the voluntary killing of a terminally ill person who wants to die is consistent with a compassionate society as well as the spirit, if not the letter, of the Hippocractic Oath.

But take the following example. Defendant is charged with murder(s). He confesses to the crime(s) and is convicted of murder(s). In Jurisdiction, the death penalty can only be imposed if a defendant admits his guilt and asks that the death penalty be imposed because he believes that he deserves to die based upon the acts that he committed. In other words, what if we have a true volunteer and not merely a so-called "volunteer." If the jury grants the defendant's wish and sentences him to die, and if the doctor complies with the defendant's wish and injects him with a lethal dose of drugs, would you be satisfied with the outcome even if you are against the death penalty as a general proposition? My honest answer is that I don't know.



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