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Can technology help determine whether the death penalty is fairly applied?

When hell freezes over 

Early this month, in a Greensboro city council meeting, Mayor Keith Holliday violated the highest and holiest edict of elected-official behavior. He thought out loud. Council members were discussing whether to call for a moratorium on the death penalty in North Carolina. Although the debate included plenty of pro-death penalty sentiment, comments tended to focus on whether capital punishment is fairly applied, and on statistics showing the numbers of innocent people mistakenly executed. Mayor Holliday, in an epiphanous aside, suggested that death-row inmates be cryogenically preserved. That way, the reasoning goes, mistakes could be avoided until advances in forensic science are able to offer definitive proof of guilt or innocence.

I was not in Greensboro for this meeting, but other reporters were, and pretty much before you could spit, Holliday's remarks were being broadcast on WUNC-FM radio's local news show. Maybe it was just me, but I could have sworn I heard a fizzy undercurrent of hilarity in the news announcer's otherwise silky voice.

Which is a shame. I mean, people might argue that Mayor Holliday's tongue should be cryogenically preserved until he learns better than to think out loud in a public forum, but you have to sort of feel for the guy. After all, he has his political future to think about, and when it comes to the death penalty, the winds are getting mighty tricky. On the one hand, a majority of voters in North Carolina have made it clear that they support the death penalty and, further, that they are fed up with the lengthy and costly appellate process that follows convictions.

These same voters, on the other hand, have expressed a certain queasiness about executing innocent people. Advances in DNA testing have already exonerated many innocent people--both dead and alive. They've also hinted at a day when technology will be able to solve almost any crime, thus assuring that every execution bears the seal of righteousness--and that North Carolinians can sleep easy on those dark nights when the gurney rolls out and the death chamber glows.

The question is, how can we avoid the expensive chore of incarceration while we wait for such a day?

In light of that question, the Greensboro mayor may be on to something. I once asked a death-penalty supporter if he could imagine a time when he might change his mind about the practice of state-sanctioned executions. "Yeah," he said, "when hell freezes over." We may be closer than he thinks. It is true that human beings have yet to be frozen and reanimated, and that scientists in the field have thus far succeeded only in resurrecting bits and pieces of rodents. Those are the cold hard facts. Still, research is promising, and by all accounts, cryobiology is on the verge of becoming an applied science. Why not be ready for it? Why not explore the pros and cons of Holliday's idea?

Pro: Should cryogenic preservation of death-row inmates succeed, the Byzantine appellate process that currently precedes executions would be greatly simplified. For one thing, inmates stored in liquid nitrogen would be unable to complicate things by being present at hearings, educating themselves in their prison libraries, recalling pertinent facts that verify their alibi or attracting media attention.

Also, because of the inconvenience and risks involved in reviving frozen humans, the appellate process would no longer permit lawyers to petition the courts for new trials. Instead, appeals would proceed only on specific issues of actual innocence. The discovery of exonerating evidence, or of technologies that prove an inmate's innocence, would result in state-sanctioned quick-defrost. However, those due-process claims that serve only to clog the wheels of justice, buy time for the offender and waste taxpayer money--claims such as ineffective assistance of counsel or jury tampering--would become obsolete.

Con: Because of the biological perils involved in reanimating frozen organisms, complications may arise when inmates are eventually waked up for their executions. Prison officials in North Carolina take great care to assure the sound good health of prisoners approaching their execution dates. Guards are on the alert for possible suicides, and prison medical staff carefully treat any illnesses, injury, scrape or cut. A runny nose is no fun when you're on the gurney. Because of the physical stresses of defrosting, extra care might be required to get an offender into top shape for his execution.

Pro: Pending cost analyses, cryogenic preservation might eventually find a broader application within North Carolina's corrections system. For instance, rather than limit the procedure to death-row inmates, prison technicians could flash-freeze every criminal defendant within hours of his or her conviction.

The benefits of across-the-board congealment would be enormous, affecting primarily the need for costly prison cells, food, medical care and drug-treatment programs. Inmates with shorter sentences could be defrosted directly into parole. Those with life sentences would spend their natural lives in vats of liquid refrigerant before being returned to next of kin for burial. Should families choose cremation, special freezer-to-oven plans would be provided in consolidation with local crematoriums. Should families relinquish their rights to the remains, revenue-producing programs would allow for expedient and lucrative disposal. For instance, bodies might be packaged and marketed as teaching materials to taxidermy schools, or as cooling rods in nuclear power plants.

Con: Immobilizing inmates for the duration of their prison sentences would eliminate the state's largest and most inexpensive work force. North Carolina currently pays inmates chump change to clean up roadside litter, lay asphalt and press license plates. Replacing them with minimum-wage workers would place a considerable economic burden on the state.

Pro: Because current prisons are not technologically suited for storage of frozen humans, individual municipalities could compete for the chance to build massive holding tanks or storage facilities. The idea holds special appeal in light of North Carolina's failure to live up to its part in a now-infamous regional low-level radioactive waste pact; perhaps the state could redeem itself by storing frozen inmates in a similar regional pact.

Within individual counties, the opportunities are endless. In just one example, Durham could take advantage of the soon-to-be defunct South Square Mall by converting existing retail space into cold storage.

Con: In weighing a proposal to turn South Square Mall into a large-scale storage facility for dangerous felons, careful thought must be given to the opportunities such a plan might offer terrorist groups. If successful in laying siege to the facility, massive defrosting and brainwashing by the likes of Osama bin Laden could prove disastrous. At worst, the nation's very security would be at peril; at best, onlooker delays along Chapel Hill Boulevard would paralyze traffic.

Likewise, the threat of domestic terrorism should not be overlooked. Death-penalty opponents, in their radical arguments for the sanctity of human life, would likely object to freezing criminals. Protests, vigils, marches and debates over the philosophical and theological implications of freezing inmates might degenerate into violence. Following the example of animal rights groups who "liberate" laboratory animals, death-penalty opponents might attempt similar raids on inmate storage facilities, thus freeing hardened criminals to roam the streets.

Pro: The entertainment industry could make use of the phenomenon of flash-freezing inmates. Sitcoms, political ads, video games, talk shows and made-for-TV movies could all take advantage of both the creative concept and the actual bodies, which would be available to lease from the state's Department of Correction. CBS producers, for instance, could introduce frozen inmates on future segments of Survivor, letting TV audiences see the reactions of tribe members. Disney screen writers could make a movie about a young boy who finds a misplaced frozen inmate, then undertakes the complex task of thawing him out, physically and emotionally. The inmate becomes the father the boy never had. McDonald's Happy Meal merchandise optional. Sally Jesse could have a show featuring emotionally distraught defrosted ex-cons. Country music stars will likewise have rich new fodder for lyrics. New song titles might include: "While I was in Limbo my Girl was in Laramie"; or "You Ain't Woman Enough to Melt my Man."

Cryogenically preserved inmates also present many creative possibilities in the fields of art and pop literature. Properly supervised, frozen inmates might be available, at reasonable fees to the state, as nude models, or as props in theater and modern dance performances. Avant-garde artists who specialize in unconventional materials might enjoy the possibility of working with a new medium. And in the burgeoning field of self-help books, the sky is the limit. Titles might include: When Love Cools: How to Survive with your Spouse in Cold Storage; When Warm Women Love Frigid Men and Back From the Dead: Freezer Burn and Sexual Dysfunction.

Con: Careful reflection will be necessary on the issue of visitation procedures. Current protocol for family members visiting death-row inmates allows the parties to sit on opposite sides of thick glass panes and shout at one another in a stiflingly hot hospitality chamber. Should this protocol continue, state-wide bond referendums will likely be necessary for the purchase of mops. EndBlock

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