Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Killing Them Not So Softly

Now what happens?

As I start to type this, the next attempt at aggravated murder (let's just call it what it is) is scheduled to occur in nine days, next Thursday morning. I don't know if it will happen. Nobody does. Nor do I know if it will succeed.

You know the backstory. On September 15, just two weeks ago, the State of Ohio tried in, er, vain to kill Romell Broom. After two hours and some 18 actual failed needle jabs, they gave up temporarily because they couldn't figure out how to gain peripheral vein access. (Details and commentary here and here and here.)

Although prison officials were "seeking advice," they apparently had no plans to discuss what happened. Nor does it appeal that there has been any review of the failure or debriefing of the team. Still they intended to do it again the next week. Terry Collins, the optimistic Director of the optimistically named Department of Rehabilitation and Correction remains confident. He told the New York Times,
“I won’t have discussions about ‘what if it doesn’t work next week’ at this point,” Mr. Collins said, “because I have confidence that my team will be able to do its job.”
He may be the only one with that confidence. Broom's lawyers obtained an agreed stay of the second try from a federal judge. Agreed is, for purposes of this discussion, the key word. It means that the Ohio Attorney General signed off on it. As in it's fine with him. As in we should take the time to investigate and work out questions while we decide how to go forward with killing Broom.

The formal order stopping Broom's execution has been extended until November 30. Even if it's lifted that day, it will almost certainly be at least several more months before the state takes another, er, stab at killing him - if it ever does. That may bring some small comfort to Romell Broom. I don't know that it does anything to make Lawrence Reynolds feel much better, though.

Yesterday, lawyers for Reynolds filed new requests for stays and for opportunities to litigate the significance of the Broom fiasco in the Ohio Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit (no free link, sorry). Broom's claim is simple, poignant, and correct: With three seriously botched efforts at obtaining veinal access in three years, Ohio has demonstrated itself singularly incapable of providing a constitutionally and legally humane death. The State has not yet responded in the Ohio Supreme Court (it has until Thursday). It has responded in the Sixth Circuit, making, in part, this fantastic claim:
[T]he postponement of Broom's execution does not suggest that there are problems with Ohio's procedures or that Reynolds' execution cannot be accomplished lawfully and humanely. Second, Broom's execution was not "botched." As explained by Appellees previously, administration of the lethal chemicals had not even begun.
Got that?

Everything was fine with Broom. Our killing system is Jim-Dandy-peachy-keen-A-OK golden. You can bet your life on it. And since the Broom killing went so well, there's certainly no reason to think there will be problems murdering Reynolds. You know, we can't have screwed up the killing because we never got to it.

Is your head spinning yet?

When the state horribly botched the killing of Chris Newton in May 2007 (113 minutes, major problems with veinal access, pretty good evidence that the drugs were leaking from the veins into the arms and, therefore, not working as they should), Ohio officials said the killing went just as it should. Assistant Prisons Director Mike Randall (quoted here) said,
It worked the way we hoped it would in this particular case.
The Governor (quoted here) took a similar line:
The procedure worked as it was intended to work.
It was nonsense then and it's nonsense now.

But what happens next isn't nonsense. Either someone (and that means either a court or the Governor) steps in and says to stop and find out why we have so damn much trouble killing people or the killing, and the screw ups, go on.

Reynolds has asked for a halt. It's clear that the next few guys up will. We'll start learning in a week or so what's going to happen.

I'm sounding like a broken record here, but someone has to tell the truth: either we need to stop the killing or we need to acknowledge that we don't care about how it's done as long as it happens.

The idea is supposed to be that we kill these folks to show that we're better than they are. The reality, of course, is that we show we're just the same.

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