It’s not especially pleasing to write about death in the first column of the New Year, but there’s a lot of it about.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein has been executed. In Libya, five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor have been sentenced to death on charges of infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV. In the United States, many death-row inmates are wondering if they will escape execution, as courts agonize over whether or not execution by lethal injection is humane. And in Japan, 21 people — including Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara — have had their death sentences finalized for this year.

Execution is a personal matter. If you believe in it, or not, depends on your own feelings about crime and punishment. Given that it is a personal matter, you may be wondering what place a discussion of execution has in a science column. The answer is that, in one way or another, science impacts on the death penalty in all four of the cases mentioned above.

In Iraq, technology has dramatically changed the way news of an execution is transmitted. Without cellphones or YouTube, Saddam’s execution, exceptional though it was, being that of a deposed head of state, would not have had the same worldwide impact. With ghoulish curiosity — and, I told myself, journalistic investigative duty — I watched the cellphone footage, saw the former dictator led to the platform, saw the noose placed over his head, and listened uncomprehendingly to the Arabic taunts of the guards.

In the clip, Saddam wears no hood. He mumbles words of his own, words I later read were prayers. You know what’s coming, the tension is immediate and horrific, even in a little YouTube clip. Mid-sentence, the trapdoor opens and Saddam plummets down. It’s obvious why it is so horrific: It’s a snuff movie.

Some American newspapers saw it differently. The headline on the Philadelphia Daily News was: “Yo, Saddam! Say Hi to Hitler.”

Once the gung-ho reaction had died down, many politicians, and even many newspapers, realized the YouTube clip marked a watershed moment in journalism — namely that the news had been made without newspapers or television.

As always, the English biologist Richard Dawkins had an interesting perspective. In the Los Angeles Times, he wrote that Saddam should have been kept alive so that scientists could study him. Was it something in his childhood that turned him into a murderous dictator, he asked. “Could the danger have been nipped in the bud by an alert psychiatrist? How would Hitler or Hussein have responded to a different style of education? We don’t have a clear answer to these questions. We need to do the research.”

If science and technology has been instrumental in bringing the death penalty up close and personal, then so too has science been critical in the Libyan death-penalty case that has made the news recently. But there, with potentially tragic consequences, the science has been ignored.

The Libyan government’s charge is that, in 1998, six health professionals deliberately infected more than 400 children with HIV.

Court ignored evidence

However, the court ignored scientific evidence demonstrating that the infections occurred because contaminated material was used in the hospital in Benghazi before the accused even started working there. Scientists all over the world have protested at the judgment, though sadly, the Libyan government has resisted the pressure.

In the United States, concerns about the death penalty are being raised more vocally than in many a year. The reason is because of claims that the most common method of execution used, lethal injection using a three-drug cocktail, violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Lethal injection is used in 37 of the 38 states with capital punishment. It is popular precisely because it is the least uncomfortable for the public. It is almost medical in procedure, with the inmate being gently “put to sleep” with one drug before his (it is usually a he) heart is stopped with another.

The public tend to like this method, in contrast to, say, electrocution, which has had some unfortunate publicity in recent years. (Sometimes the conducting sponge under the electrocution helmet is improperly placed, and inmates’ heads catch fire so that they literally fry to death. Nebraska is the only state to use electrocution as the sole means of execution). Gas-chamber execution also makes the viewing public uncomfortable, because they have to see the inmate gasping for air as he dies. Execution by firing squad — used twice in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 — is obviously messy.

But now, many states have suspended executions by lethal injection, because medical opinion suggests that inmates do in fact suffer when the drugs are administered. This violates the U.S. Constitution. This was forcefully shown in a lethal-injection case last month in Miami, when murderer Angel Nieves Diaz took more than twice the usual length of time to die. The needles carrying the toxic cocktail were pushed into the tissue in the man’s arms, rather than his veins.

It is horribly ironic, by the way, that the American Veterinary Medical Association does not allow the drug cocktail used to execute humans to be used when putting down injured or sick animals. The reason? It says the cocktail is inhumane — as it may mask pain felt by the animals.

And so to Asahara, and Japan. The former Aum guru will probably be sent to the gallows this year, though in common with all death-row inmates in Japan, he won’t know when. It could be tomorrow, it could be at the end of the year. This, say Japan’s prison service, is to reduce the stress of the inmate. How considerate. I’ll stick my neck out and hazard a supposition that trying to sleep knowing that the next morning might be your last is undoubtedly rather stressful.

A scientific assessment of inmate stress would probably come to the same conclusion. So, also, I’d suppose that a proper understanding of the way execution by lethal injection works would show that it can sometimes cause serious suffering to the condemned.

Video and YouTube

In the Libyan case, moreover, science has already shown that it would be making a mistake if it executed the medics it has erroneously found guilty.

And science and technology — in the form of cellphone video and YouTube — has recently, and dramatically, shown the world the inhuman nature of execution. You can’t make a scientific decision on whether it is right or wrong to execute people, but my conclusion — based on how science illuminates the issue of capital punishment — is that it is utterly inhumane.