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Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and beautiful — like something any one of us might experience in our final moments.
– Alex Kozinski, Chief Judge, U.S. 9th Circuit Court, July 21, 2014
The sentence in the case has quickly become famous. It became the third botched execution in recent weeks. It was expected to last for ten minutes. But Joseph Wood struggled to breathe for an hour after lethal drugs were administered by the state of Arizona. The entire procedure took about two hours. Descriptions of the gasps and snorts are graphic. It must have been ghastly.
Joseph Wood is not an ideal poster child for abolition of capital punishment. Before committing murder, he was the classic abuser, habitually beating the girlfriend who provided financial support during his long periods of unemployment.
When she finally had enough and left him, going to live with her parents, he went into a stone cold rage. He showed up at the little auto shop where she worked for her father. He waited for the father to finish a telephone call, then smiled and shot him to death.
He walked through the shop until he found his estranged girl friend. As she pleaded for her life, he was heard explaining it all to her. “I told you I was going to do it, I have to kill you.”
Then he pulled the trigger of the gun he had pressed against her chest.
Before the execution of Joseph Wood began, he turned and smiled at the family of the two victims. His final statement was that he had found Jesus. There was no apology for the family, but the murderer hoped they would all be forgiven.
The reaction of the family is understandable. In my heart, I do believe it would be close to my reaction if I ever found myself in their place. The brother-in-law of the young woman:
This man conducted a horrifying murder and you guys are going, “let’s worry about the drugs.” Why didn’t they give him a bullet? Why didn’t we give him Drano?
Other executions, botched or otherwise, have similar stories of brutal crimes. How can some sort of retribution be far from our thoughts?
The bloodless answer Mike Dukakis gave in 1988 may have cost him an election.
“Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”
“No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.”
I think of a fictional account of a fictional President pondering whether to save a murderer slated for execution. He asks the survivor of a murder victim for his opinion. Your mother was killed in the line of duty, wasn’t she? The young aide answers yes. Would you want her killer executed? The young man says no, he would not want the killer to be executed. The fictional Commander-in-Chief nods. Then the aide continues: I’d rather kill him myself.
My own journey on the issue has been a slow one. I was swayed by a crooked governor. 13 convicted murderers on death row were exonerated by evidence discovered after their very fair trials. During that time, another 12 inmates were actually executed. Governor George Ryan (R-IL) suspended all death penalties pending a careful study. He eventually commuted all death sentences in Illinois.
The idea of executing innocent people is, and ought to be horrifying. As the possibility went to plausibility, it was enough to convince me. I could not think of a way to execute the unmistakably guilty without eventually executing innocent people.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing for the Atlantic Monthly, presents the case of the youngest person executed in the United States, George Junius Stinney. In retrospect, it is clear he was railroaded. The fact that the kid was black carried the day in 1944. Two little white girls, whose bodies were later found, had spoken with the youngster and his sister shortly before they disappeared. That was enough.
Today we can say those days are behind us. In a sense we would be right, but only in the sense that all past is the past. We face new demonstrations of bigotry, some subtle, every day. As Coates puts it:
The “Hey Guys, Let’s Not Be Racist” switch is really “Hey Guys, Let’s Pretend We Aren’t American” switch or a “Hey Guys, Let’s Pretend We Aren’t Human Beings” switch. The death penalty—like all state actions—exists within a context constructed by humans, not gods. Humans tend to have biases, and the systems we construct often reflect those biases.
The anger that reacts against injustice is often what impels us along the arc of the moral universe. It is part of what bends that arc toward justice. If not channeled, it becomes the violence itself.
So, yeah, if my family was victimized, I would want to kill those responsible. Personally. Slow, torturous death would not be a flaw, it would be a feature. I wouldn’t want to be deterred by process, or by appeals, or by the microscopic possibility that I might have the wrong guy.
I would likely be the one who wants to pull the switch. I can see myself as the one who hopes the killer suffers at least as much as his victim. Two hours to die? Good.
The same would be true if a victim of murder was from a family down the street. The same might even be true if the family was in the same courtroom while I deliberated guilt or innocence.
That rage inside of me is a large part of why I have to be against the death penalty.