Thursday, June 17, 2010

Memento Mori

Some years ago, at the end of the workday, I was walking out of the Lucas County Courthouse at the same time as a prosecutor.  He was carrying a plant, which seemed a bit odd.  I waved a hand at it, and looked curiously.  He explained, with some but not nearly enough embarrassment in his voice, that it was a gift from our elected prosecutor, a reward of sorts, for having obtained a death sentence.
Really, a plant was nothing. 
Jeffrey Gettleman gave some examples in a 2003 story in the New York Times, starting with the prosecutors in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana who wore neckties with a noose and the grim reaper during a capital trial.  The chief prosecutor found that "unprofessional."  But gifts for securing death were something else.
Until recently, lawyers noted each lethal injection by handing out plaques decorated with hypodermic needles.
Yet prosecutors in Jefferson Parish, which actually has a low murder rate, are not alone in what apparently is a relish for capital punishment. It seems to be part of prosecutorial machismo in many places, especially in the South. In East Baton Rouge, 75 miles away, the district attorney celebrates death sentences with office parties, replete with steak and Jim Beam.
In Texas, one district attorney formed a ''Silver Needle Society'' while another one hung a noose over her office door.
In Mississippi, a former assistant attorney general had a toy electric chair on his desk that buzzed.
I'm cynical about this sort of thing.  I know a judge with a mini-electric chair on the desk in his chambers, a hand-me-down from the judge he succeeded.  I know prosecutors who have tie tacks in the shape of handcuffs.  Spend enough time around the criminal justice system, especially the death penalty system, and you become inured.  After all, when Ted Bundy was killed, Time reported,
some 200 bloodthirsty revelers gathered outside the penitentiary in Starke, Fla., for a ghoulish celebration. They lit sparklers, cheered and waved signs reading BURN, BUNDY, BURN and ROAST IN PEACE.
Still, it turns out that even I retain the capacity for amazement at the depths to which officials will sink in their joy at killing.  Then  again, I've only spent a few days in Utah, and that was at an ACLU staff conference.
It turns out the Utah Department of Corrections (and for all I know Ohio and, which hates to be be outdone at the killing people business) used to give out commemorative pins to those who participated in executions.  [And to think, just this morning Scott Greenfield started us off making fun of Martindale-Hubble for trying to give away lapel pins to lawyers who get AV ratings and then shill for the company.]  But no more.  The day of the lapel ribbon, it seems, is over.  They're just so 20th Century.
Friday, when Lee Gardner is murdered by firing squad, there won't be any pins given out.  Steve Gehrke, spokesman for the DOC, explained why not to the Deseret News.
The staff preferred something a little more modern than the ribbons," Gehrke said. "Since people don't walk around displaying those anyway, we're switching to a coin."
Ah yes, commemorative coins. Because . . . .  Frankly, I don't know why.
That's not strictly true.  Richard Billings, who participated in four of Utah's executions and has the ribbons to prove it, keeps them in a box.
I've never really worn them. They're more of a memento, I think.
Really, for once I'm almost speechless.


  1. Hi
    Got onto your blog through reading Grits. I'm one of the seventeen people in Texas that are anti-death penalty, for sure as it is as a matter of practice. Maybe I could get behind an execution occasionally for someone who was guilty beyond any doubt, (not just some people's idea of "reasonable", but I doubt it. If they were defiant, non-remorseful, admitted their guilt and were proud of it, etc. etc. Those things will never happen. Anyway, comparing Ohio and Utah as to which one is "best" at the killing business. Your post on Grits indicated that you were from Texas, or at least had spent time here. Leaving Texas out of a pissing contest like that is like leaving Texas Tech out of any discussion of college football. (come to think of it, that happens a lot, too). Anyway, you know what I mean. You couldn't drive a toothpick up the butt, with a sledgehammer, of a death penalty death penalty deadender in Texas as we wait to see if that hair proves that we killed an innocent man. Supremes finally got something right.

  2. Glad you found me, Don.

    I do know that neither Ohio (nor Utah) is Texas. I can't speak to Utah which is its own strange place, but Ohio suffers from envy at the facility Texas has for killing the condemned. I didn't exactly expect that when I moved up here after 12 years in Lubbock. (I taught English at Tech, then went to law school there; I moved to Ohio after I'd been practicing for a bit.) And I know there's a lot of gap between the Lone Star and Buckeye states, but there are more similarities than you (or I before I moved) might imagine.

  3. You know, it's one thing to be able to deal with this grizzly business, it's quite another to revel in it. To be so deranged as to want a tangible memento of a death one has facilitated is just beyond words.

    A second thought, aren't these guards civilians? Since when do civilians need decoration? It's enfuriating that we tolerate a group of wannabe cops/military personnel. While executions eighty years ago may not have had the technical presence that they do now, at least they were intellectually honest. A group of citizens killed a man on the court square. There was no hiding, there was no obfuscation of the simple fact that society was killing a man. It was wrong then, and it's wrong now, but at least we knew what we were working with.

  4. Do you know about Robert Guest's blog? He is a defense lawyer in Dallas area that also went to Tech Law. His blog is He thinks a lot like us. Or we. Whatever. I have a daughter in Woodward, OK who is a lawyer. No anti-lawyer bias here. Are you a Red Raider fan?