Justice Or Vengeance
As Condemned Await Fate, Time for Remorse or Defiance
Three guys go down to Mexico one night, get drunk and wake up in jail.
Justice is incidental to law and order.
- J Edgar Hoover
by Michael Graczyk
"It's time to go to the next room," the Texas warden gently but firmly tells the condemned prisoner as the clock reaches the hour the death warrant prescribes for the lethal injection. The prisoner moves the final 12 feet from a tiny holding cell through a door to the death chamber, where aqua-painted brick walls and a gray tile floor are illuminated by a single fluorescent light fixture. Inside, a mattress-like pad tops the steel pedestal gurney bordered by leather straps and clear plastic tubes ending with two needles - one for each arm.
Assuming the courts have resolved any 11th-hour appeals, the warden's instruction culminates a routine that began about 6 hours earlier when the inmate arrived from death row. He was fingerprinted, searched and asked several questions: Are any appeals working through the courts? Do you want the last meal you requested? Are you expecting your lawyer or spiritual adviser? How do you want your body disposed of? Prison officials already know the answers, but the exchange offers a hint of the condemned inmate's demeanor. Most are cooperative.
Gary Graham was not.
Graham's claims of innocence and an unfair trial became an issue in the presidential campaign of then-Governor George W Bush. Corrections officers, working as an "extraction team," hit him with pepper spray, burning his eyes and lowering his defenses. Less than a minute later, a tiedown team secured him to the gurney. Immobilised, Graham seethed and waited to unleash a diatribe as witnesses filed into the two closet-sized viewing rooms.
Arms extended, the scene is not unlike a crucifixion, with the criminal prone rather than erect. Belts secure the inmate's wrists, ankles and legs. A diagonal belt runs across the chest, another at the waist. A belligerent prisoner is further restrained with wide strips of Velcro-like fasteners, including one that holds his head to the gurney. Then only the eyes can move. Within 3 minutes, a needle is inserted in each arm at the elbow, the IV carrying a saline solution. A suitable vein is not a certainty; technicians sometimes switch to another vein at the top of the hand, inside the leg or in the neck. The procedure complete, the officers depart, leaving the inmate with the warden standing near his head, a chaplain near his feet.
Up to 5 relatives of the murder victim and a similar number of witnesses selected by the inmate are escorted into separate viewing areas. When the steel doors clang shut behind them, a door at the front of the chamber opens and a prison administrator appears. "Warden, you may proceed," the official says.
The warden bends slightly toward the inmate. "Do you have a final statement?"
As a microphone dangles overhead, sometimes the prisoner looks at the victim's witnesses, seeking forgiveness. Sometimes he proclaims his innocence. Sometimes he turns his attention to the people he knows. He may pray or sing. Jonathan Nobles reached the the words "mother and child" in the Christmas hymn "Silent Night" before gasping as the drugs cut him off. The inmate may say something memorised or spontaneous, funny or vulgar, express love and sorrow and apologies. He may search for words that are difficult to find or fire them out in staccato fashion. "This is what happens to a black man - genocide in America!" Graham shouted. Joseph Cannon said he was sorry and closed his eyes, waiting for the kick of the $86 dosage of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. Nothing happened. A quizzical look on his face, he nodded toward the needle in his right arm. "It's come undone," he said. Drapes hurriedly closed. The needle was reinserted, the curtains opened, the drugs resumed and Cannon died.
Last year, death row inmate Ponchai Wilkerson, combative throughout his final day, saved his coup de grace for his last act on earth. Ignoring the warden and spurning a final statement, he defiantly spit out a handcuff key he had hidden in his mouth.
With tears occasionally dribbling from their eyes, prisoners have remarked briefly about tingling, experiencing a cool sensation or tasting rubber just before the normal reaction to the drugs: a gasp, a wheeze or a sputter within seconds of the end of the final statement. Once, an inmate vomited.
"You watch his eyes set and they have that blank stare," says Jim Brazzil, the Texas prison chaplain who has seen scores of executions, his right hand resting on the inmate's right leg, just above the ankle. His touch is the last contact the prisoner experiences from another human. "I feel his heart. I feel him tremble," Brazzil says. It's only a matter of seconds before obvious breathing has stopped. "When that last moment is gone, he enters in the presence of God," the chaplain says. "And to me, that is an intense moment."
The room is silent unless an inmate's relative or friend is sobbing, praying, wailing or pounding on the wall. Sometimes the inmate's eyes are open, sometimes shut. A fair-skinned inmate tends to turn red or purple. Others become gray, their lips blue. A doctor enters the chamber about 5 minutes after the start of the lethal dose. The Hippocratic oath prevents him from being present when the drugs are administered. He uses a stethoscope to listen for a heartbeat. He shines a light in the inmate's eyes. Then he looks at his watch to announce the time of death. Routinely, it's about 10 minutes since spectators entered the chamber.
As witnesses depart, Brazzil reaches over and covers the inmate's face with a white cloth. Sometimes he has to close the eyes first. "Then I go back and do a lot of writing - just for me," Brazzil says. "The main reason I do that is because I don't ever want this to become routine. If it ever becomes routine, I'll quit."
Houston correspondent Graczyk has covered executions for the Associated Press since 1983. He has witnessed more than 200 by lethal injection.
Source: The Star-Ledger (Morris County New Jersey edition) Saturday 9 June 2001
Why Killing Saddam Backfired on Bush
by Diane Christian
Dying well used to be a popular topic for discussion and a trope for art. Paintings of just men dying peacefully in bed and distraught debauched sinners mad at their final moment were exempla for everyone. Live well, die well, was the message. As you sow, so shall you reap. We'll read in your end image your whole story. Accordingly, Saddam Hussein's death disappointed many. He seemed composed and dignified, contemptuous of his angry taunting executioners. Not a satisfying picture for those who wanted to make him thoroughly monstrous, nor quite comforting either to those who think vengeance effects justice.
The US had tried to make him look bad when he was captured, showing gloved captors probing his wild hair and mouth. For those who understood the biblical myths undergirding the US invasion, this echoed the bestialised Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel, humbled by the almighty Hebrew god, a presage of how Babylon falls to Jerusalem in Revelation. But Saddam Hussein, once the grinning dealmaker with Donald Rumsfeld, managed his own image. The gun-brandisher, pseudo-Saladin gave way to the aggrieved lawyer and occasional preacher. At his end he reproached the taunting executioners that they failed to act like men. He looked better than the executers of "justice," who seemed brutal and bloodthirsty. Saddam rehabilitated his image many said bitterly. Which goes to show a certain volatility of human opinion. A few days later tapes of Saddam speaking of his calculated chemical poisoning surfaced, no doubt to shift the wind of opinion by reasserting the monster. Which goes to show not only what Krishna remarked-that no man is entirely good and no man is entirely evil-but that we're buffeted by sham morality plays and images night to morn.
On 15 January 2007, Saddam's co-defendants were also hanged. The reports said they were in orange jumpsuits and black hoods and they were trembling. The US had insisted their executions be proper, unlike Saddam's. Executioners and witnesses had to sign statements promising good behaviour. But Saddam's half-brother Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti got decapitated by the hanging. The image was macabre and was immediately guarded by the government which says it may not be publicly shown. NYTimes reporter John Burns, with a select group, viewed the videotape and attested it showed the condemned fall and have his head snap off. Burns theorised that the 8-foot drop calculation was too long, causing the mishap. Some claimed the decapitation was an act of God, others saw the viciousness or ineptness of the government. Whatever the case, al-Tikriti didn't die well image-wise and it reflected badly on the executioners. Burns also noted that both condemned were "distinctly frightened." He commented that Saddam's admired fearlessness at his death was no doubt related to his lack of conscience. Even top reporters interpret deaths and press for telling stories. Coverage paid little attention to the death prayers uttered by the condemned. If you consent to killing the wicked you have to keep asserting their wickedness over your own.
Commentators on the Iraqi condemned ... prefer the condemned be execrable in their ends or they mourn the executioners' clumsiness. Some condemn the death penalty itself, seeing in its rationale the same commitment to violence which defined the wicked.
It is not just paradoxical that these images of dying look bad. They could look good only abstractly-spun out of the images into fantasies of justice and evil. Hiding the human face is a revealing technique in torture and in execution. Saddam was smart to refuse the hood. He faced his executioners and death. President Bush who sought and applauded Saddam's execution as justice said he didn't watch the whole thing, didn't want to. He did see the internet video he said but stopped watching before the last moments. Was he signaling sensitivity to the death moment, the ugliness of bulging eyes and twisted neck, or the specific brutality of real hanging? Or was it faintheartedness, or not wanting to see Saddam look human in death. The brutal dictator whose pistol Bush displays as a war trophy in the Oval Office, whose callous cruelties he condemned, who bluffed him into war, looked good in his end and the President famously doesn't like contradictions of his evaluations.
Saddam's dying well strikes to the deeper issue of acts and ends and agency. The President who relentlessly became "a war president" embraced killing and destruction as a solution to "evil." His nemesis, Saddam Hussein, embraced killing and destruction for political power. What ends justify what means?
It is hard to make a man you kill look evil. He looks vulnerable. You look evil. Because you kill. And you don't wipe out "bad" killing with "good" killing, you echo it. Which the President and we choose not to see.
Diane Christian is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: email@example.com
Source: counterpunch.org Weekend Edition 3 - 4 February 2007
Post Knows Loss, and Tries to Stay the Hand of Vengeance
by Bob Braun
Words can haunt a life. For Lorry Post, the words are: "If I can't have her, no one can." When he recalls them, he feels terror. Post can't escape the thought that, maybe, if he had reacted differently to the words, his daughter would still be alive. "I can't help feeling responsible in some way," says Post.
Lisa was killed 12 years ago. Stabbed in the back. Her husband, Bruce Price, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and is serving 20 years in a Georgia prison. "One of the last things he said to me before - well, what he said was, 'If I can't have her, no one can.'"
Post didn't really expect Price to kill Lisa. They were just words distraught husbands say when their wives threaten to leave them. Post was in Philadelphia at the time; Lisa, 29, and her husband, in Georgia. No reason to believe the threat was real. "But he meant it," says Post, who lives in Cape May, New Jersey. "I should have done something."
Lorry Post says his daughter wouldn't have wanted a life taken in her name no matter what
Knowing about Lisa is important to understanding how Post came to head New Jerseyans for a Death Penalty Moratorium, an organisation opposed to capital punishment. This might strike some as contradictory, but the 69-year-old lawyer doesn't think so. "Sure, I wanted him dead," he said of the man who killed his daughter. "But only if they let me do it. Right after I found out."
Instead, Lorry and his wife, June, went to Georgia to ask prosecutors not to seek the death penalty in the case. "The deliberate killing of another human being is wrong. Whether it's done by someone's husband or by the state, it's wrong." Post says he is opposed to capital punishment partly because of what happened to Lisa. Or, really, because of who his daughter was. "Lisa loved life. She believed it was precious. She never would have wanted a life taken in her name, no matter what."
There's even more irony in this. Post spends a lot of time speaking against capital punishment. Critics who don't know him say things like, "Oh, yeah, and how would you feel if someone murdered your daughter?" Lorry Post knows how it feels. "But I usually don't tell them what happened," he says.
This week, Post is making many speeches against the death penalty. It's "Moratorium Week," a time, planned months ago, to lobby the Legislature to suspend executions pending a study of their effectiveness - and a review of all death row cases. "It's a movement growing throughout the nation and the state," says Post. Tonight, he's scheduled to speak at Assumption Church in Morristown. Today also was to be the day Timothy McVeigh would be executed for blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. But the week, and Post's appearance, were planned long before McVeigh's execution - now postponed - was scheduled.
Post did not get involved in campaigning against the death penalty immediately after Lisa's death. The retired legal services lawyer never supported it, but he was content not to join organisations opposed to capital punishment.
Then something happened about 10 years ago. His pastor, the Rev Kathy Stoner-LaSala, introduced him to a woman working to stop the execution of a Florida man named Pedro Medina. Both the woman and the minister believed Medina to be innocent. "My pastor was very helpful to me when Lisa died. I agreed to get involved."
They lost that battle. Medina was executed in the electric chair. He was one of the guys whose heads burst into flames when the switches were pulled.
From the unsuccessful fight to save Medina, Post went on to join other organisations. He became a leader of the movement against the death penalty. Now it's the biggest part of his life. This is true because of something he learned investigating the Medina case. He, too, believes Medina was probably innocent, that someone else murdered the woman he was charged with killing. "I read all the investigative reports and saw there were other suspects, but the police never followed up. They had someone, and that's all they cared about." The story about one of the other suspects stunned Post. Turns out the guy had been seen at the murdered woman's house shortly before she was killed. He was slamming on the door, threatening her, yelling for everyone in the neighbourhood to hear:
"If I can't have her, no one can."
Source: The Star-Ledger (Morris County New Jersey edition) Wednesday 16 May 2001; photo credit for Lorry Post: Tom Kitts
In case it isn't apparent, I strongly oppose the death penalty. My opposition is based not so much on the fact that innocent people may be executed (although that does happen from time to time), but on the fact that people can change in their lifetimes. Many people have periods when they feel murderous intent - rage and alcohol contribute hugely. If a loaded gun were handy, some people you know and like may have committed a murder in the heat of the moment at some time in their lives. The fact that they didn't is sometimes due to fate or luck, not self-control. Yet they go on to build useful productive lives.
I felt Karla Faye Tucker was a person who committed a murder through sheer bad luck and a drug-induced warping of her common sense. However, her bad luck held, clemency was denied and she was executed.
My daughter was murdered at the age of 16. Many years have now passed and the pain does numb. But even immediately afterward, I didn't feel the death of the person who shot her would bring me relief of any kind. I didn't attend the trial nor did I inquire what his sentence was. Yet I couldn't have predicted beforehand that that's the way I would react.
If murderous intent proves in many cases to be due to early child abuse, especially if that damage can later be repaired, is capital punishment justified? If so, then why wait for murder to be committed? Why not just exterminate all people with damage to the prefrontal cortex before they can kill innocent people? (You might want to see the movie Minority Report. )Of course, "innocent" is problematical to define...
Killing Him Lets Us Off the Hook
by Robert Scheer
It's difficult to get over the idea that we failed Timothy McVeigh and that his execution fails us all. How deceptive a finale it is that leaves history neatly packaged in the cemetery of our imagination, safely removed from the festering reality of life. It happened, it's over, and we can now move on when we ought not to.
By killing McVeigh, we served only the purpose of avoiding responsibility for his creation. How convenient to not have a living reminder that this callow, awkward, unformed youth was a product of mainstream American culture - varnished by the "be all you can be" Army, no less - and not some easily dismissed dropout aberration. No, he was us in our darkest moments, even as we acknowledge gratefully that he was possessed by malevolent forces that the healthy can conquer.
If he was the devil, how did he get that way, this product of a strong Catholic family that raised a son to be a patriot, a son who then suddenly took his own government to be the enemy? What did he learn from us, his neighbors, the media and the government that left him plotting in seedy motel rooms, manufacturing a weapon of mass destruction, while singing the disturbed loony tunes of the assassin?
His execution is to be denounced because it brings to an all-too-tidy conclusion a phenomenon that cries out for more complex and sustained examination. That's true in any capital case, but all the more so that 168 innocent men, women and children died at his hands, and scores of others were injured. It hardly serves their memory that McVeigh at worst will be venerated as a martyr by generations of lunatics to come and at best be dismissed as a weirdo actor in a script that is not of our hand.
We are told that the grieving relatives of those killed in the bombing need "closure," an unattainable state that has become the basic mantra of denial of harsh reality. It's a word now inevitably accompanied by the horrid phrase of "getting on" with the next phase of one's life, invoked even by McVeigh's lawyers before the execution to refer to their client's "future." But the so-called closure afforded by capital punishment, as some relatives of the dead have noted, cheapens the quest for real healing, which can never be an act of amnesia but rather requires the search for meaning in even the most dastardly of events.
For that, we needed McVeigh alive, to be tormented every day in his own mind by the enormity of his crime, to the point where that smug self-righteousness of the killer would be pierced, and he finally would have to confront the pain of mass death as something other than a clinically ordered act of ideological game playing.
But we, too, the uninvolved, needed his presence as an open wound to remind us of the pain that political madness, no matter its source, induces. In this case, the madness was, in effect, condoned when an unshaped youth was taught by his government to kill.
It should be a matter of deep national soul-searching that we as a nation sent McVeigh to roam the desert on a Bradley fighting vehicle inflicting the "collateral damage" of the Gulf War. Did his military training prepare him to differentiate between what he did as his government's agent in Iraq and his own subsequent war on civilians? The absurdly celebrated mayhem of the Gulf War was the alternative to the college experience McVeigh never had. He was at least in need of a crash course on the distinction between what he called the "collateral damage" of the Oklahoma City bombing and the morality of shooting Iraqi draftees as they fled the battle.
Unfortunately, McVeigh completed his education at desultory gun shows in which patriotism often is equated with a defiance born of personal failure, and firepower is the means to dignity and freedom. That and the literature of angry white men, who believe their skin color and a musket should be all that is needed to make them meaningful players in the computerized global marketplace.
The merchants of madness will now exploit the government's execution of McVeigh as confirmation of their paranoia. Better to have had McVeigh as an ageing reminder of how horrible the taste can be when the American brew is curdled.
Source: dailynews.yahoo.com Wednesday 13 June 2001 © Creators Syndicate Incorporated
See also: Fun Guns - particularly the final article, "Do Guns Mean Crime?"
Assembly Demands End of Death Penalty
The Council of Europe threatened to cut ties with the United States and Japan unless they stop all executions "without delay" and move to formally repeal the death penalty. The 602-member assembly passed a resolution that said the two countries would lose their observer status in Europe's 43-nation human rights organisation if they don't move toward abolishing executions by 1 January 2003.
Removing the United States and Japan as observers at the Council of Europe would have little practical effect but would be embarrassing for the United States, which was voted off the United Nations Human Rights Commission last month.
Source: USA Today Wednesday 27 June 2001
And finally, the view that we could go too far in being lenient:
Dunne Does Justice to Crimes, Trials
Jurors who are opposed to capital punishment are more likely to believe that a defendant's failure to testify is indicative of his guilt, more hostile to the insanity defense, more mistrustful of defense attorneys and less concerned about the danger of erroneous convictions.
- Thurgood Marshall
by Anne Stephenson
Book review of Justice by Dominick Dunne
Ever since I had kids of my own, I've been fascinated by people who have lost children to violence. My interest is not intrusive or unkind. It springs from a sort of desperate and bottomless admiration. They have survived what I'm afraid I could not survive, have felt a sorrow most of us dread more than any other, and yet, remarkably, they carry on.
It doesn't matter how they do it. They might become peculiar, like Macon Leary, Anne Tyler's protagonist in The Acddental Tourist, or obsessive, like John Walsh, who hunts bad guys on "America's Most Wanted." They might even seem ordinary. But the bottom line is this: they know things we don't know. And we are deeply aware of it.
Writer Dominick Dunne begins this book, a collection of his Vanity Fair pieces on high-profile crimes and trials, with the story of his daughter's murder. Dominique Dunne was 22 when her ex-boyfriend, John Sweeney, strangled her outside her Los Angeles house in 1982. Despite a history of violence, Sweeney was convicted of manslaughter and spent 2½ years in prison.
Dunne reports on Dominique's death dispassionately, perhaps because he rehashes it not for his own sake, but for ours. There is no mistaking his family's anguish, however, or the hell they quietly endured during the trial. (They attended every session after the parent of another murdered girl told Dunne that the trial would be "the last business of your daughter's life,")
With this in mind, we move on to other stories in Dunne's book and find justice skewed indeed. Witness the surreal case of Claus von Bulow, who was tried twice for attempting to kill his wealthy wife, Sunny, with a drug overdose. Claus was acquitted. Sunny is in a coma to this day. "A rich person on trial is very different from an ordinary person on trial," Dunne writes. Von Bulow's defense team so overshadowed the prosecution, he says, that the trial seemed "like a football game between the New York Jets and Providence High."
The same is true, of course, of the O J Simpson case, which accounts for 10 of the 18 stories in this book. I dreaded them, but in the end found them fascinating, eerily nostalgic and easier to read without the tension of wondering what the verdict would be.
Dunne, who is a bit of a gadfly (someone once called him "Judith Krantz in pants"), offers more than just legal details. He goes to parties. He drops names. He notes that Lyle Menendez, who with his brother was convicted of shooting their parents, wore a $2,500 toupee at his trial, and that his lawyer, Leslie Abramson, said this about the brothers: "The boys are adorable. They're like two foundlings. You want to take them home with you."
He admires the rugs in Sunny von Bulow's $8 million apartment (where Claus lived with his mistress during his second trial), describes the spectacular homes of banker Edmond safra, who died in a Monaco fire allegedly set by his nurse, and mentions the condoms in gold wrappers left on his pillow each night by the maids at his Los Angeles hotel. It was, Dunne says, "very flattering."
He ends, however, with the sad story of 15-year-old Martha Moxley, who was bludgeoned to death in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1975. The murder went unsolved for 25 years before Michael Skakel, Ethel Kennedy's nephew, was charged with [and later convicted of] the crime. The indictment came at least in part because of Dunne's efforts to publicise the long-dormant case.
He did it because he had met Martha Moxley's mother. They had talked about their girls. "Our daughters had been born a year apart," he writes, "and each had been viciously attacked, by a man she knew, on October 30, although in different years. That moment marked the beginning of our friendship."
It's the first message in this book, and the last. Behind every murder, behind every circuslike trial, you'll always find someone with a broken heart.
Source: USA Today Thursday 26 July 2001 photo credit 1993 photo by Nick Ut, Associated Press
For more articles on capital punishment, see also these pages found elsewhere in this section on prisons:
I would also like to recommend the excellent book Newjack, by Ted Conover, which details what it's like to be a prison guard. Some guards manage to hang on to their humanity but none leave the job without being profoundly affected.
For articles on white collar and petty crimes, injustice, capital punishment, race, executioners, freedom of the press, cheating, private prisons, punishment, retribution, prison
labour, appeals, instant justice, electronic tags, lepers and second chances click the "Up" button below to take you to the Index for this Prisons section.