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Lisa N Guenther
Vanderbilt University, Department of Philosophy
Recent Activity
Thanks for posting this! The first comment actually raises a question that I get a lot in public lectures: Why not just OD them on barbituates (or whatever)? Louisiana is considering nitrous oxide (which my dentist called "happy nose" to kill people in gas chambers again - The TN Attorney General was asked for his opinion on the bill to make electrocution the default method of execution if lethal injection drugs are factually unavailable. This is what he wrote: Even though he claims that the bill is defensible, the last paragraph acknowledges that at least one state has found electrocution to be unconstitutional: “More recently, the Nebraska Supreme Court held that electrocution was unconstitutional under its state constitution, whose cruel-and-unusual-punishment language mirrors that of the federal and Tennessee Constitutions. See State v. Mata, 275 Neb. 1, 745 N.W.2d 229 (2008). The court noted that it had upheld electrocution as constitutional as recently as 2000 but stated that its previous decision had not relied on a factual record “showing electrocution’s physiological effects on a prisoner.” The court also noted that Nebraska was the only state imposing electrocution as its sole method of execution. Mata, 275 Neb. at 32, 745 N.W.2d at 256-57.” Even if electrocution is not found to be unconstitutional as such, in TN or in the US, this “backwards” move has given people on death row a whole new set of issues to litigate!
Tennessee Students and Educators for Social Justice has launched a blog series on issues raised by mass incarceration and the death penalty. This week's post is by Kelly Oliver, W. Alton Jones Chair of Philosophy, Vanderbilt University. Oliver describes the "war of currents" between Edison and Westinhouse that led to... Continue reading
Very interesting post -- thank you for this analysis!
Wow, thanks for the constructive feedback.
Yesterday, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill to bring back the electric chair as the default method of execution, should lethal injection drugs become unavailable or unconstitutional. While the first version of the bill restricted its application to death sentences issued after July 2014, a last-minute amendment lifted this... Continue reading
Tuesday’s execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma has many people wondering just how far the state is willing to go to kill its own citizens. I think @gideonstrumpet said it best: It’s tempting to understand the torture of Clayton Lockett as a “botched” execution, an unfortunate exception to the rule.... Continue reading
A petition is circulating online asking Gov. Bill Haslam to veto SB 1391. The bill would modify the Tennessee criminal code to allow for criminal assault charges to be brought against women who use illegal narcotics while pregnant, should their drug use lead to harm or death for the fetus... Continue reading
Last summer, thousands of prisoners in California launched a 60-day hunger strike to protest and transform oppressive policies in the California Department of Corrections. One member of the organizing team called their strike action a “multi-racial, multi–regional Human Rights Movement to challenge torture.” This weekend, another prisoner-led human rights movement... Continue reading
Last week, I suggested that there was no meaningful difference between a “botched” execution and a “proper” one. Today, I will develop this claim and offer some phenomenological support for it. The analysis that follows is rooted in my present geopolitical context – Tennessee – but the issues apply to... Continue reading
Last week's botched execution in Ohio has raised questions for many people about the ethics of experimenting with untested lethal injection protocols. But it’s not clear that the standard drug protocol is any less cruel, even if it is less unusual. On Thursday, January 16, Dennis McGuire was injected with... Continue reading
Yes, this is a very serious problem. Some people call it "secondary trauma": There's a great interview with the former executioner in Texas in Herzog's Into the Abyss (it's one of the only scenes in that film that I really liked). The ex-executioner of Virginia is also pretty awesome: There's also the issue of trauma for family members of the executed, and for members of the community more generally. I will write about this more in the weeks to come, but here's a statement by a community member in Nashville FYI:
Medical doctors don't generally participate in executions in the US! The AMA issued a statement against the participation of physicians in any part of the execution process: But the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled against the NC Medical Board's ban on physician participation in executions in 2009: (They still haven't managed to execute anyone because of legal challenges to the execution protocol, etc.) Execution drugs are usually administered by a correctional officer -- yet another reason why the whole process is so problematic.
Last week, I wrote about Tennessee's unprecedented push to execute 10 prisoners, beginning on January 15, 2014. Today, I'm happy to report that the January 15 execution of Billy Ray Irick has been postponed to October 7, 2014. Why? Because of legal challenges to Tennessee's new lethal injection protocol. Next... Continue reading
Wow, what an amazing story -- thank you for sharing this. Yes, I agree that jury selection is a huge issue, and so is prosecutorial misconduct. This four-part series on prosecutorial misconduct in Arizona found that it played a role in 50% of all capital cases. That's above and beyond the perfectly legal power of prosecutors to exclude someone from the jury because they were rude enough to correct the prosecutor when he is actively misleading the jurors!
I think it's important to engage with the views of people who have actually lost a loved one to murder, many of whom have found no solace in the execution of the convicted murderer and a complicated sense of pain that only compounds their loss. See, for example:,,,
This is a fair point. But I think it also raises philosophical and political questions about the sense in which state execution *is* brought about by a human agent or agents. On one hand, a small group of human agents plan, prepare, and carry out executions. These include the executioner(s), the warden, the correctional officers who supervise death watch and bring the prisoner to the gurney or the chair. They also include, less directly, the attorney general who requests an execution date, the judge who grants it, the prosecutor who asked for the death penalty, the jury who sentenced the prisoners, the voters who support capital punishment, the "tough on crime" candidates who endorse them, and most broadly, the public that may or may not vote, but that implicitly supports the death penalty by not opposing it. Lots of human agents there, very few (if any) of whom would regard them as the agent of a homicide. Because one of the conditions under which "good" people support capital punishment is by displacing their own individual agency onto "the state," understood not as a human agent but as an impersonal dispenser of justice. By not recognizing their own role as agents of legalized homicide, they can maintain an absolute distinction between murder and execution. This is a distinction that, while fueled by intense emotions (as we can see from the comments above), falls apart under closer scrutiny. Who exactly commits the act of homicide? Is it the executioner? No, they're just performing a service to the state. That's one of the reasons why those who are directly involved in carrying out an execution are guaranteed anonymity; they are not supposed to be acting on their own behalf as individual agents, but rather on behalf of the state. Who is the state? Is it you and me, understood as individual human agents? No, we're just innocent, law-abiding citizens. *We* don't kill people, *they* do! The violence of execution as an act of homicide is effaced by this ambiguity of agency, but a trace of this violence remains on the death certificate that baldly states: homicide.
Today, The Tennessean newspaper reported that the state plans to execute 10 people beginning in the new year ("TN makes unprecedented push to execute 10 killers"). This is almost double the number of people executed in Tennessee over the past 40 years. While it may seem hyperbolic to describe these... Continue reading
Earlier this week, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton E. Henderson ruled that prisoners on hunger strike in California may be force-fed, even if they have signed an advance directive to refuse medical resuscitation. Joyce Hayhoe, a spokesperson for California Correctional Health Care Services, commented on the decision: “It's better to... Continue reading
Today was a big day for criminal justice in the US. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a ""Smart On Crime" plan which includes asking prosecutors to remain silent on the amount of drugs involved in non-violent, low-level drug offenses in order to avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences: "For example, in... Continue reading
What do fast food workers and prisoners at Pelican Bay share in common? I don’t mean: How are they similar, or how can they be reduced to the same thing? I mean: What are their common interests, common struggles, common insights, and common strategies? And how does the sharing of... Continue reading
Yes, this is a great point. It makes me think of a film that John Protevi recommended months ago, Bastards of the Party, which is about the criminalization of organizations like the Black Panthers through COINTELPRO, etc., and the emergence of the Bloods and the Crips in the wake of what I think we could call a counter-insurgency against black radical politics. No surprise that gangs should re-politicize themselves as street organizations and reclaim this history, as well as creating new forms of political action.
On July 8, over 30,000 prisoners across California launched the largest hunger strike in state history. Now, three weeks later, over 600 prisoners continue to refuse meals, in spite of direct acts of retaliation by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Hunger strikers report being locked in their... Continue reading
Statements and pictures from inside Pelican Bay and Corcoran, posted at Solitary Watch:
On July 8, 30,000 people joined together across racial lines to participate in the largest hunger strike in California history. These people are prisoners at Pelican Bay, Corcoran, and other California prisons. Their current strike action renews a two-year peaceful protest against conditions of extreme isolation, arbitrary punishment, Kafka-esque policies,... Continue reading