Bizarro World Ethics: Saving the Prisoner to Kill Him

Lawrence Reynolds, an Ohio Death Row inmate, was supposed to to be executed by lethal injection this week. Instead, he is in a Youngstown hospital after an apparent suicide attempt late Sunday night. Having rescued him from death by his own hand, Ohio will now pay for Reynolds’ medical treatment until he is healthy enough to be sent to the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville, where executions take place.

Then they’ll kill him.

Puzzled Ohioans are asking, understandably, “What sense does this make? Why should we have to pay for his care and execution, when the prisoner was already on the way to dying on the cheap?” The answer is that in the Bizarro World ethics of capital punishment, this was the only ethical course of action possible:

  • Suicide is a crime, and the state is obligated to obey the law. It cannot ethically aide and abet a crime, which is what letting Reynolds die would be.
  • Capital punishment includes the condemned prisoner’s awareness of it. He will not have paid his legal penalty if he is executed while incapacitated, unconscious, or otherwise dying.
  • If the logic of allowing condemned men to kill themselves were adopted, then there would be no reason not to encourage them to kill themselves, to save the state as much money and trouble as possible. Just fill their cells with sharp objects, poison, nooses and hooks to hang them on. Give them suicide pep talks. Force them to watch “The Conqueror,” “Ishtar,” or “Gigli” until they can’t stand it any more.
  • And why stop at the condemned? Lifers also could help balance the budget if they shook off those imprisoned mortal coils to see the green, green grass of home.
  • Finally, and more reasonably, Ohio cannot assume that there won’t be a last minute reprieve for a prisoner like Reynolds until he’s executed at the prescribed time. The Governor might issue a last minute pardon; new evidence might be discovered; a prosecutor might admit that she hid exculpatory evidence; there might be a stay of execution; or the Supreme Court might issue a ban on all capital punishment. Reynolds has a guaranteed right to his life while he is in the State’s custody until his execution, whether he wants to exercise that right or not.

The short answer is that executing Reynolds is legal, but letting him kill himself is not, leading to the strangely impractical but ethical result of Ohio saving his life now for the purpose of killing him later.

Reynolds is condemned for the Jan. 11, 1994, murder of Loretta Foster, his neighbor in Akron. Reynolds attempted to rape her, and when she resisted, strangled her and beat her to death with a tent pole. Then he took friends back to the house so they could admire his handiwork.

2 thoughts on “Bizarro World Ethics: Saving the Prisoner to Kill Him

  1. Another reason that you didn’t cite:

    * The conditions and indeed the *culture* inside a prison of any sort is, by necessity, that THE STATE IS IN CONTROL. No prison can ever willingly give an inch in ceding complete control over anything that happens inside, because it could not function. It would not be safe for those who work there (and it often isn’t, precisely because of inmates’ continuous attempts to “get away with” something). Allowing a death-row inmate to change the time and date of his death (or any of the other exaggerated examples you give) amounts to the prison giving up control of the situation. That can NEVER be allowed to happen.


    P.S. No, I’ve never been imprisoned…. My father, however, worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons for his entire career.

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