Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Words Matter

Marvallous Keene is now dead, as we knew he would be. He didn't ask for clemency, didn't file any last minute motions for stay. And they killed him on schedule this morning.

As I noted last night, he's the 31st person executed in Ohio since 1999 when Wilford Berry got his wish and the state helped him commit suicide. Virtually every press report about Berry, as well as numerous official sites, mentions that he was called "The Volunteer" because he asked to waive his appeals and be executed. He's not unique in that regard, of course.

You might remember Gary Gilmore, killed by a firing squad in Utah in January 1977, the first person executed after the Supreme Court declared in Gregg v. Georgia that some death penalty laws enacted in the wake of Furman v. Georgia were constitutional. He volunteered, too. And there have been many others. In Ohio, by my count (and that of the Death Penalty Information Center), 7 of the 31 people killed by the state were volunteers.

Why do they do it? Some are mentally ill and have made repeated attempts over the years to commit suicide. (Berry first tried to kill himself when he was 9 years old, and kept after it over the years.) Some are driven to it by the conditions of confinement on death row. Some probably believe it's what they deserve.

As with all things in the human heart, motivation is complex and unclear. But some things are clear, and one is that there's a difference between volunteering and refusing to beg for what you can't get.

With that background, I want to go back to the thing about the count.

Ohio's had 7 volunteeers:
  • Wilford Berry
  • Stephen Vrabel
  • Scott Mink
  • Herman Ashworth
  • Rocky Barton
  • Darrell Ferguson
  • Christopher Newton
But if you follow the stories, you'll end up reading that Keene was a volunteer, just as you'll read that Jim Filiaggi was. (In fact, you'll read it about Filiaggi the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction website and in AP reporter Andrew Welsh-Huggins's first-rate book on the death penalty in Ohio (No Winners Here Tonight: Race, Politics, and Geography in One of the Country's Busiest Death Penalty States). But neither volunteered.

It's true that both men instructed their attorneys not to advocate for clemency. It's equally true that neither of them was going to get clemency no matter what they said about it. That's not volunteering. That's recognition of the inevitable.

I'm hammering this point because I think these men deserve the dignity of their position and not some media-simplifying bit of public comfort. After all, maybe it's easier to kill those who want to die. And those men, they can go down in the books as assisted suicides.

But Filiaggi and Keene were different. Realistic enough to know what was coming. Fatalistic enough to accept. But not eager to let the state off the hook. They weren't, in any sense, helped to die. They were murdered.

The distinction, the words, the language matters.

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