Thursday, October 17, 2013

If At First You Don't Succeed, Kill Kill Again

Part I

It's an oddity of prisons that, at least in some states, the prisoners who get the best medical care are the ones on death row.  Don't get me wrong.  It's not like any of the prison medical care is outstanding, but it's often better for the condemned than for the ordinary prisoner whether doing a term or doing life.

As I say, it's an oddity.  But one reason (not one the powers that be will acknowledge, but one reason) is that it's necessary, insofar as possible and despite the irony, to keep the condemned folks alive until they can be killed.  That's not out of any altruistic concern for their welfare.  It's because the whole point of a death sentence is that it ends with a killing.  That's why when someone on death row dies, whether of natural causes or suicide, we speak of cheating the hangman.  And why, in the perverse world of death penalty lawyers, we can see it as a win.
The state didn't get to kill him.
it's not that we're callous about the death.  It can be devastating to the lawyers who've struggled to save a life, who've developed a strong relationship with their client.  It leaves families and friends bereft, lost.  But damn, we wanted the state not to get its pound of flesh, and they didn't. 

But that's us.  From the state's point of view, for a death row inmate to die by something other than execution is an injustice.  The sentence wasn't to die; that will happen to all of us.  It specifically wasn't death in prison; that's LWOP.  He didn't get his comeuppance.  He was supposed to be killed.  
How dare he die on his own.

So when they catch it in time, they'll patch the person up in time to kill him.  Last minute suicide attempts aren't even all that infrequent, and sometimes (think Billy Slagle) they aren't just attempts.

But when they are just attempts, just as when the dread disease comes along, well, then it's time to save the life.  So it can be taken.

Part II

When I speak about the death penalty to high school students, there's one question I'm always asked.  
If he doesn't die, can they try to kill him again?
My answer was always, 
Sure.  The sentence was death, not attempt to kill.  So they get to keep trying.
And then I'd tell about William Kemmler, the first electric chair execution.  He didn't die right away, so they turned the chair on again.
Finally, everything was in order. The dynamo in the machine shop was running at a steady speed and the meter on the wall read a little more than 1,000 volts. His task completed, Warden Durston stepped back from the chair. Turning to the witnesses, the warden asked, "Is all ready?" No one said a word. Kemmler raised his eyes and turned his head just enough to feel the warm sunlight on his face. Then Warden Durston gave the signal. "Good-bye, William." George Irish, a New York state government clerk who "had always been good at that kind of work," is thought to have pulled the lever. Later at the Osborne House, he bragged about having thrown the switch
A click was heard and Kemmler's body strained against the leather straps, every muscle in full extension. Kemmler's eyes bulged but did not otherwise move. His body remained rigid except for the right index finger, which contracted, curling so tightly that it dug into the flesh of the first joint, causing blood to trickle onto the arm of the chair. 

Next, the condemned man's complexion turned ashen. "Death spots" appeared on his skin. After seventeen seconds, Dr. Spitzka shook his head and declared, "He is dead." Warden Durston gave the signal to stop the flow of electricity. Dr. Alfred P. Southwick, a Buffalo dentist who was an early proponent of the electric chair, solemnly declared the first execution by electricity a grand success, saying, "There is the culmination of ten years' work and study. We live in a higher civilization from this day." The witnesses, who had averted their eyes, now turned back toward the chair. But their sighs of relief turned to gasps of horror as they faced Kemmler's still-twitching body. "Great God! He is alive!" yelled one. "Turn on the current," screamed another. "See, he breathes," hollered a third. "For God's sake, kill him and have it over," shouted a newspaperman, who then fainted. District Attorney Quinby clutched his stomach and ran for the door; once outside, he fainted.

Drs. Spitzka and MacDonald calmly stepped forward to examine the body. Warden Durston began to unscrew the electrode attached to the skullcap. Spittle dripped from Kemmler's mouth as the condemned man continued to breathe, his chest rising and falling convulsively. The medical men, present to pronounce death, listened for a heartbeat and, finding one, signaled Durston to reconnect the electrode on Kemmler's head. Turning toward the warden, Dr. Spitzka shouted, "Have the current turned on again, quick—no delay." Warden Durston ran to the door and sounded the bell twice, which was the signal to the men in the machine shop room to turn the current on again. Once more the click, and again Kemmler's body, like a toy soldier, snapped to attention. The scene grew more gruesome as the dynamo, now running at top speed, sent 2,000 volts through Kemmler's body. On the other side of the prison, in the dynamo room, convicts were pressed into service, holding the new leather belt on the dynamo; it hadn't been stretched properly before the execution, and it almost fell off several times. Froth oozed out of Kemmler's strapped mouth. The small blood vessels under his skin began to rupture. Blood trickled down his face and arms. Twice Kemmler's body twitched as the current was switched on and off. The awful smell of burning flesh filled the death chamber. Kemmler's body first smoldered and then caught fire.

When the current was finally turned off, Kemmler's body went limp. This time he was dead—there could be no doubt of that. From the moment he first sat down on the chair until the electricity was shut off the second time, eight minutes had elapsed. Kemmler's blackened, smoldering body was left strapped to the chair as the horror-stricken witnesses were marched out of the death chamber into the stone corridors of the prison. A "pungent and sickening odor" followed them. 
Or I'd talk about Willie Francis. The first attempt to kill him in the chair didn't take.  He spent the next year litigating whether they could take a second shot at him.  Eventually, the Supreme Court said they could.  And they did.

But then along came Romell Broom.  Minions of the State of Ohio tried for two hours to kill him before the governor called a temporary halt.  That was three years ago, and temporary hasn't begun to run out.  Ohio still wants to kill Broom, but there's nothing much happening on that front at the moment and your guess is as good as mine about whether they'll ultimately be allowed to try again.

Part III

The good news is that we're a seriously decent country, humane, wholsome.  Unlike those countries of, say, what Shrub referred to as The Axis of Evil.  Places like, say Iran.  From where we learn about Alireza M.
The 37-year-old man named as Alireza M was 'put to death' in the Islamic regime's Bojnourd prison last Wednesday for drugs offences.

After 12 minutes, he was certified as dead and taken to the prison morgue.

But when his family went to collect his body the following day, they noticed he was still breathing and rushed him to hospital.
. . .

Once officials were told Alireza M had survived, they put him under armed guard at the hospital to await a second execution.

A judiciary official told the state media: 'The verdict was the death sentence, and it will be carried out once the man gets well again.'
Boy, I'm sure glad we wouldn't do that sort of thing here.

1 comment:

  1. One prisoner on death row in Texas characterizes the "natural" deaths he's seen on the row as "denial of healthcare."