Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Gruesome Indeed

In case you haven’t been paying attention, here's a sampling.
  • Stephen Morin: 45 minutes of poking and prodding
  • Raymond Landry: Drugs squirting around the room and spraying at the witnesses
  • Stephen McCoy: heaving chest, gasping, choking, witness fainting
  • Tommie J. Smith: They called in a doctor when the "execution team" couldn't get him dead
  • Joseph Cannon: Vein collapsed; needle popped out; he lay down, closed his eyes, announced "It's come undone."
  • Bennie Demps: "They butchered me back there."
  • Jose High: They called in a doctor for him, too.
  • Joe Clark: It don’t work.  It don’t work.
  • Angel Diaz: Needle went right through the vein and sent drugs into soft tissue.  Took two does to kill him.
  • Chris Newton: Bathroom break
  • Romell Broom: The guy they couldn’t kill
  • Michael Lee Wilson:  "I feel my whole body burning"
  • Dennis McGuire:  Gasping, snorting, choking, heaving, fist clenching
  • Clayton Lockett: The other guy they couldn’t kill (unless maybe they caused the heart attack)
Of course, it's all good.  Lethal injection is, after all, the nice way to kill folks.  Medicalized. Clean. Like putting a dog to sleep.  

We got there, started doing this with the drugs because, well everything else was just too damn messy.

  • Hanging.  Too often then neck didn't snap.  Instead, dangling, slowly strangling, kicking, gasping. Or, maybe even more problematic (and certainly more bloody, decapitation.
  • Electrocution.  Instant death.  Except for those times when they have to keep shocking the guy.  And then there's the stench of burning flesh, the flames shooting from the head.  And of course Willie Francis who didn't die.  (And F.G. Bullen, who also didn't, but nobody knows about him.)
  • The Gas Chamber maybe? Choking, gasping, heaving, vomiting - and that's the witnesses too.

The problem is the goal.  And it's in two parts.

Part one is the killing.  That's the sentence.  We call it the death penalty but that's really a misnomer.  If the penalty were death . . . . Well, we all have that penalty coming. And it's not death in prison.  That, after all, is LWOP.  And it isn't untimely death.  If that were all, they wouldn't struggle to save the life of an attempted suicide so they can kill the guy or gal the next day or the next year or whenever.

No, the penalty is to be killed.  So part one is ensuring it happens.

Part two is the how.  As a species, we've tried pretty much everything you can think of.  Boiling in oil? Drowning?  Death of a thousand cuts?  Crucifixion?  Stoning?  Burnt at the stake?  Stoned to death? Drawn and quartered? Thrown to the lions?  Been there.  Done that.  Got the souvenir t-shirt.

But we're better than that (or so we proclaim ourselves), better than the people we will kill.  Our punishment of killing is retribution (we say), not equivalence.  So we won't torture.  We won't inflict more pain than we must.  We won't have spectacles.  

The days of hanging in the town square with hundreds, maybe thousands, attending, having picnics, tailgating, crowds filled with pickpockets.  They're over.  Too unseemly for the solemn business of killing.  

Austin Sarat explains in his important new book Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty.
Even as capital punishment seeks to do justice and/or satisfy the public desire for vengeance, the state has countervailing concerns.  It must distinguish execution from the acts to which it is a supposedly just response.  The state must also find ways of killing in a manner that does not allow the condemned to become an object of pity, or to appropriate the status of the victim.  But despite the determined claims to the contrary, capital death never simply means death.  Rather, since its inception, it has been inextricably tied to the instruments used to carry it out.  The legitimacy of state killing depends largely on execution method.  Technology mediates between the state and death by masking physical pain and allowing citizens to imagine that execution is clean, efficient and painless.
And, as we've seen, it's a difficult task.  

What Sarat (theWilliam Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science and Associate Dean of the Faculty at Amherst College, as his bio on the back flap says, in collaboration with four students: Katherine Blumstein, Aubrey Jones, Heather Richard, and Madeline Sprung-Keyser) has done is to examine every legal execution in the U.S. between 1890 and 2010 and catalogue all the ones that have gone wrong. 

The catalogue is the appendix, a chronological list, with names, dates, states, killing technology, and a brief description of 276 cock-ups, times things didn't go quite as planned.   The list is sobering.  But  the heart of the book is the chapters devoted to the technologies and their failures.  One chapter each for hanging, electrocution, the gas chamber, and lethal injection.

Each of those chapters gives an overview of how the technology developed, how it was adopted as something better, cleaner, purer if you will, than what came before.  And then each describes a few specific instances, in varying detail, of just how badly things have gone wrong.

Sarat isn't whitewashing here.  Along with the details of the execution we learn of the crimes, the trials, the appeals.  But it's the executions, the killings, that are (as the title of the book makes clear) the focus.

So, to pick one pretty much at random, there's Allen Foster.  North Carolina had been using the electric chair, but it was fucking up too often.  So they built the first gas chamber east of the Mississippi. Cyanide gas, they'd concluded, was so deadly it would kill instantly.  There would be no suffering.  So they said.  Foster, a young black, was first up.

He had a history of juvenile crime.  By the age of 13 he was locked up, but not so well that he couldn't escape.  Eventually the kid made his way to the Hoke County Civilian Conservation Corps on the Fort Bragg Reservation where on September 28, 1935, "he strayed from his work assignment."  He made his way to a farmhouse where he watched Mrs. Ernest Capps working in her potato garden.  He followed her inside.  He planned to rob her.  There was a struggle.  He hit her int he head with a bottle. He demanded money.  Bleeding, she gave him what she had.  Then he raped her at knife point.  

Young white woman.  Black rapist and robber.  North Carolina.  1935.  No shock that he was found guilty.  No shock that he was sentenced to be killed.  No shock that the sentence was carried out.

January 24, 1936.  Foster ir strapped into a "high-backed oak chair at the center of the room."  The witnesses watched as
Grayish fumes rose from beneath the chair.  As the fumes surrounded him, Foser watched themm intently, wide-eyed, until they reached about nostril-high.  Then he took a deep breath -- meant to be his last -- and "exhaled the greyish vapor as if it had been cigarette smoke." One newspaper acount read: "'Good-bye.' The Negro's lips framed the words so clearly that no man in the witness room could doubt what he had said. As he said it, he winked and then forced a smile at the witnesses peering in at him. Then he began to suffer. No man could look squarely into his eyes and fail to perceive that hey were registering pain."
As the gas continued to rise, Foster seemed to "fight against breathing. He threw his head back inhaling desperately and deeply.  He coughed and twisted. His chest heaved." Foster's "small but powerfully built torso" began to "retch and jerk, throwing his head forward where witnesses could see his eyes slowly glaze." The "torturous, convulsive retching continued spasmodically for several minutes." Several more minutes passed until Foster finally lost consciousness and the prison physician signaled that his heart had stopped.  It was another twenty-four minutes before the chamber and observation room could be cleared. Witnesses sat in silence as undertakers removed Foster's body from the high-backed chair.
Sarat goes on to describe the responses.  W.T. Bost, a well-known reporter who'd covered "electrocutions, hangings, and lynchings," wrote 
I think it was an awful butchery. . . I am opposed to capital punishment, but if we've got to have it, there are ways and ways of killing a man, and almost any way is better than this
But Gruesome Spectacles is more than a collection of horror stories.  Sarat's larger point - one I've made repeatedly in this blog and dramatically demonstrated this year with the bungling, botched, horrific deaths of Dennis McGuire in Ohio and Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma - is that it's about impossible to kill people in ways that are both reliably smooth and painless and that will not unduly upset the witnesses or those who are paid to kill.  Debby Denno, a law prof who's studied these things carefully and for years says that the firing squad is probably the fastest, surest, least painful way of killing.  But there's a broad-based feeling that it's somehow unfit, too barbaric, too militarized, too involved with bullets and with blood for us to go there.

And so, if we want to kill but kill nicely, we've got a real problem.

But that brings us to Sarat's larger point.  Nobody much cares.

Why, Sarat asks, doesn't this history of screw ups and disgust, of gruesome spectacles, make us rethink capital punishment?  He blames it in large part on the media which even when it doesn't downplay the ugliness, still temporizes.
Oh, it was terrible.  But look what he did.
Oh, it looked terrible.  But the governor says, trust us, it didn't hurt a bit. 
Of course, if you read the on-line comments to those temporized media stories, you meet the folks who make Bill Otis look like the voice of restraint
So he suffered horribly for a few minutes or an hour or so.  He should have been buried alive, then dug up, chopped up, forced to watch as his body parts are fed one at a time to lions, then slowly burned to death on a rotating spit.
Sarat's is an important book, a serious contribution to a grotesque business.  And as the state's struggle, bringing back the chair, the chamber, the noose, it's a timely reminder that none of it's any good.  If we're better than the guys we're killing, if we want to avoid the gruesome spectacles, well, science won't save us.  Only stopping the killing will do that. 

1 comment:

  1. Well now, would you look at this.

    Debby Denno, a law prof who's studied these things carefully and for years says that the firing squad is probably the fastest, surest, least painful way of killing.

    Ha! Ha!
    Boy howdy, do I feel vindicated. See this post: The Death Penalty and Vindication.

    Firing squad. It's quick, fun and easy. Minimal equipment required, tried and true, consumer tested through two world wars. And I'm willing to bet that if you go down to Hee-Haw Hell on Saturday night you can recruit six squads of volunteers before the first cultural event of the evening starts.