Wednesday, January 18, 2006

If at first...
Remember that old story about how, if the hangman’s rope breaks, the prisoner is allowed to go free. The idea was that a failed execution amounted to a pardon from God or that it was just unsportsmanlike to keep trying. Well, the wall of separation of Church and State is alive and well in our prison systems and sportsmanship is dead and buried. It was always a myth and the United States never did that. In our prisons, the executioner's motto is "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again."
In the end, California's oldest condemned inmate did not seem quite as feeble as his attorneys made him out to be in their efforts to save his life.

With the help of four big prison guards, Clarence Ray Allen shuffled from his wheelchair to a gurney inside San Quentin's death chamber early Tuesday, a day after his 76th birthday.

Though legally blind, Allen raised his head to search among execution witnesses for relatives he had invited.

"Hoka hey, it's a good day to die," Allen said in a nod to his Choctaw Indian heritage. "Thank you very much, I love you all. Goodbye."


But the barrel-chested prisoner's heart was strong to the end: Doctors had to administer a second shot of potassium chloride to stop it.

Although lethal injection looks relatively painless, it is not.
People who have watched someone being killed by lethal injection have observed that those being sent on their way appear as tranquil as those in a hospital room whose lives are being preserved by the most modern techniques known to civilized people. That is in part because one part of the cocktail that is administered to the soon to be departed is a chemical, pancuronium bromide, known by the trade name, Pavulon.

Pavulon paralyzes the skeletal muscles but not the brain or nerves. Thus, people receiving it cannot move or speak, nor can they let onlookers know that contrary to appearances, what is happening is no fun at all. A Tennessee judge, Ellen Hobbs Lyle, commenting on the use of the drug in an appeal brought by someone on death row in that state, said Pavulon has no "legitimate purposes." She wrote about the drug's use: "The subject gives all the appearances of a serene expiration when actually the subject is feeling and perceiving the excruciatingly painful ordeal of death by lethal injection. The Pavulon gives a false impression of serenity to viewers, making punishment by death more palatable and acceptable to society."

Sherwin B. Nuland, a professor in the Yale School of Medicine, when told of use of the drug, expressed surprise. He said: "It strikes me that it makes no sense to use a muscle relaxant in executing people. Complete muscle paralysis does not mean loss of pain sensation." He said, in effect, that there were other ways of humanely killing people. I'm sure he's right, but there are 28 states that use the same cocktail in the execution chamber as Tennessee. The first drug administered is sodium thiopental, used to induce anesthesia for a short period. It is followed by pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the patient, and finally potassium chloride, which stops the heart and is said to cause excruciating pain if the victim is conscious.

What this means in Allen's case is that he was first given a drug, pancuronium bromide, to paralyze him. The primary purpose of this is to create an orderly execution for the peace of mind of the onlookers, though if given enough time, the paralysis alone will kill the prisoner whose paralyzed chest is no longer breathing. Next he was given a drug, potassium chloride, to induce a heart attack. Both the progressive suffocation and heart attack are very painful. When the heart attack wasn't fatal. The Prison officials let him lay there while they prepared a second dose of potassium chloride and induced a second heart attack. It took nineteen minutes to kill him. The American Veterinary Medical Association no longer allows this method to be used for killing animals because it too cruel.

In Allen's case, the two induced heart attacks had and extra element of cruelty because he was still recovering from a nearly fatal heart attack last fall.
Having suffered a heart attack back in September, Allen had asked prison authorities to let him die if he went into cardiac arrest before his execution, a request prison officials said they would not honor.

"At no point are we not going to value the sanctity of life," said prison spokesman Vernell Crittendon. "We would resuscitate him," then execute him.

Mr. Crittendon must have had his sense of irony surgically removed before taking up his duties as a spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

Allen's two-tries execution was not a rare thing. In fact, one of the primary reasons that all of the states that kill use lethal injection for their killing is the false impression of humaneness created by the pancuronium bromide paralysis. When executions by other means go bad, they create horrific images that might cause people to doubt the desirability of further executions.
October 17, 1990. Virginia. Wilbert Lee Evans. Electrocution. When Evans was hit with the first burst of electricity, blood spewed from the right side of the mask on Evans's face, drenching Evans's shirt with blood and causing a sizzling sound as blood dripped from his lips. Evans continued to moan before a second jolt of electricity was applied.

April 6, 1992. Arizona. Donald Eugene Harding. Asphyxiation. Death was not pronounced until 10 1/2 minutes after the cyanide tablets were dropped.23 During the execution, Harding thrashed and struggled violently against the restraining straps. A television journalist who witnessed the execution, Cameron Harper, said that Harding's spasms and jerks lasted 6 minutes and 37 seconds. "Obviously, this man was suffering. This was a violent death .. . an ugly event. We put animals to death more humanely."

March 25, 1997. Florida. Pedro Medina. Electrocution. A crown of foot-high flames shot from the headpiece during the execution, filling the execution chamber with a stench of thick smoke and gagging the two dozen official witnesses. An official then threw a switch to manually cut off the power and prematurely end the two-minute cycle of 2,000 volts. Medina's chest continued to heave until the flames stopped and death came.

Of course some people find a violent and horrible death comforting:
July 8, 1999. Florida. Allen Lee Davis. "Before he was pronounced dead ... the blood from his mouth had poured onto the collar of his white shirt, and the blood on his chest had spread to about the size of a dinner plate, even oozing through the buckle holes on the leather chest strap holding him to the chair." His execution was the first in Florida's new electric chair, built especially so it could accommodate a man Davis's size (approximately 350 pounds). Later, when another Florida death row inmate challenged the constitutionality of the electric chair, Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw commented that "the color photos of Davis depict a man who -- for all appearances -- was brutally tortured to death by the citizens of Florida." Justice Shaw also described the botched executions of Jesse Tafero and Pedro Medina (q.v.), calling the three executions "barbaric spectacles" and "acts more befitting a violent murderer than a civilized state." Justice Shaw included pictures of Davis's dead body in his opinion. The execution was witnessed by a Florida State Senator, Ginny Brown-Waite, who at first was "shocked" to see the blood, until she realized that the blood was forming the shape of a cross and that it was a message from God saying he supported the execution.

Sometimes I think, executions should be as gruesome and horrible as possible, not because I think it has a deterrent effect on crime--it doesn't--but because the killings are done in the name of all the people of the state. We should be aware of our handiwork. The state isn't a separate entity from the people. The state is the collectivity of the people. When the state kills, I kill and you kill. When you support the death penalty, you are not saying, "That person does not deserve life. The government should execute him." You are saying, "That person does not deserve life. I will kill him."

Some times I think, people are basically decent; if they had to face the fact that they are the killers, they would turn away from executions and end this barbarous act. But then I realize that I'm being naive. More exposure to death will just make people immune to the horror and make it easier to kill. After all, for centuries we had public executions and lynchings that people took their children to. They didn't grow up with a horror of killing. They thought it perfectly natural and had no problem sending people to the scaffolding and even occasionally demanded that more people go to the scaffolding.

The people who murdered their neighbors in Bosnia and Rwanda weren't monsters from the beginning. They merely found themselves in the right conditions for the monster that lurked within to escape. We are no different than the people of Bosnia and Rwanda. The same eager killer exists within us all. At most, the monster is kept on looser leash in some people than in others. And, there will always be people like Ginny Brown-Waite who fill find some way to justify even the most horrible killings done in their name.

Maybe it's best that we keep our easy executions hidden, so we can maintain our shockability when the next execution goes wrong.

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