Death with a Snarl


Dying Marv Electrifies Toy Sales

If the Old Testament were a reliable guide in the matter of capital punishment,
half the people in the United States would have to be killed tomorrow.

- Steve Allen

This is Marv - sketch by Shawn Yu

Washington - Strapped to the electric chair and wired with electrodes, he goes to his death with a defiant snarl.  Jaws clenched, knuckles white, his body jolts under the bolt of electricity.  His eyes glow red.  "That's the best you can do, you pansies," he roars.

Meet Death Row Marv, the grey plastic figure, 15 centimetres high, a creation of Arizona firm McFarlane Toys.  For US$24 (NZ$56), batteries not included, American children, recommended age 13 and over, can experience the horrors of the death chamber in the role of executioner.  Marv, part hero, part loser, comes from the pages of cartoon strip Sin City and its gallery of freaks and weirdoes.  In the cartoon, Marv is sentenced to death for the murder of a cannibal psychopath who ate his sweetheart, a prostitute named Goldie.  The toy version of Marv is a big hit, with 65,000 sold since it went on sale in July.  "He's pretty cool.  He reminds me of Frankenstein," an 11-year-old said.

"Some parents start to get the look of horror after they let their kids play with it, but I think everyone sees it as harmless," Joel Pollack, owner of Washington toy shop Big Planet, said.  The National Organisation of Parents of Murdered Children said the toy was unacceptable.  "What will they come up with next: a rape doll, complete with bottles of blood?  How about an incest doll?"

Death Penalty Information Centre executive director Richard Dieter said Marv was "totally inappropriate.  It tends to dehumanise people, to make the taking of human life, the very value of human life, a trivial issue, an issue for game," he said. - AFP

Source: The Dominion 3 September 2000

Frankly, I don't think this toy would be popular anywhere but in the US - or maybe... Italy?

Funfair's Electric Chair Closed after Protests

An Italian funfair closed an attraction where a life-sized dummy was "executed" in an electric chair following protests by opponents of capital punishment.  The macabre exhibit at the Luna Park in northern Milan allowed visitors to insert coins and watch the dummy strapped to an electric chair go through his death throes – convulsing, smoking, and slumping from the simulated charge.

Milan's mayor, church organisations and "Hands Off Cain," a group working to abolish the death penalty worldwide, had all protested against it.  Hands Off Cain called it "a demented and culturally devastating attraction, which undoes years of work on the part of those struggling against the death penalty."  It was a way of profiting from the "base and bestial aspects of our society," it said.

The park owners said they had shut down the attraction and on Thursday it was covered with canvas.

Capital punishment is banned in Italy.

Source: 25 July 2008

The Big Secret

If it's appointed by the governor, paid for with tax dollars, and has "Texas" in its name, wouldn't most reasonable Texans assume the Board of Pardons and Paroles is a government body?  Most Texans would-but the board disagrees and the Texas Supreme Court hasn't decided.  The court has temporarily approved the board's argument that it isn't a "government body" and therefore isn't subject to the Texas Open Meetings Act.  The Board of Pardons and Paroles can continue to decide the fate of death row inmates in secret.

Perhaps this newspaper has a rather inflexible, old-fashioned view of the role of government in a democracy.  We assume the government is us.  It is ours.  Its decisions, made by the representatives we elect and the people they appoint, are our decisions.  So... we'd kind of like to know what we were thinking.

Difficult decisions, important decisions - matters of life and death as these are - are exactly those decisions that need public witness the most.

Source: The Dallas Morning News 18 December 1998

Lethal Injustice

by Alan Berlow

Under Texas law, the governor has no authority to grant clemency to a condemned murderer on his own.  He must first have a recommendation from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, whose 18 members are appointed in staggered six-year terms by the governor.  Bush uses this legalism to put some distance between himself and the executioner's needle.  Thus, he writes, "Despite the call being sounded around the country and world, I could not convert Karla Faye Tucker's sentence from death to life in prison."

Although that's technically true - without the board's recommendation, Bush can only grant a 30-day reprieve - Bush has considerable influence over the fate of the condemned if he chooses to exercise it.  At the time of Tucker's execution, two-thirds of the board members were Bush appointees.  Today, all of them are.

Bush's authority to grant a 30-day reprieve for any reason he sees fit is hardly as insignificant as the governor would like people to believe.  Although Bush never talks about it, he also has the power to order the board to conduct an investigation where there is a question of innocence, a denial of due process, or any other matter that concerns him.  He can instruct the board to hold a hearing or listen to the appeal of a death row inmate.  He can tell the board that he wants it to reconsider a negative recommendation on clemency.  Given the political makeup of the board, a 30-day reprieve under any of these circumstances could very well lead to a reversal of the panel's earlier recommendation.  As the Lucas case made clear, Bush has the power to alter a death sentence if he wants to.  When the attorney general told him the state was about to execute Lucas for a crime he didn't commit, the governor let the board know he wanted to commute, and the board delivered the recommendation.

So far, Bush's supposedly independent review of death sentences has tracked the recommendations of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles 100% of the time.  That's not entirely surprising given that members of the board are not only his appointees, but also include prominent party regulars and at least three contributors to his presidential campaign.  Bush, however, doesn't just rely on the board; he virtually abdicates to it.  "I know that I cannot possibly know all the information necessary to make good decisions about all the matters that come before different agencies, boards and commissions," Bush writes, referring to the Board of Pardons and Paroles.  "I select people who are qualified, who share my conservative philosophy and approach to government, and then I expect them to make the calls as they see them."

What exactly is this 18-member board in which the governor invests so much faith?  The transcript of a 1998 civil lawsuit, brought by Stanley Faulder, who said the Board of Pardons and Paroles had violated his due-process rights, suggests that the board is a Potemkin village, its proceedings little more than a charade.  The testimony, before US District Judge Sam Sparks in Austin, revealed that the board had never held a hearing on a death row clemency appeal nor conducted a single meeting among its members - not even a telephone conference call - nor investigated a single case.  "It is incredible testimony to me," Judge Sparks opined during the proceedings, "that in 70-plus cases [the board had considered since 1973], in an 18-member board, that no person has ever seen an application for clemency important enough to hold a hearing on or to talk with each other about."

The hearings also revealed that board members sometimes cast their votes on clemency matters without even reviewing case files, without reading correspondence the board's own procedures require its members to read (in Faulder's case, they didn't read any of the more than 4,000 letters appealing for clemency), and without providing Governor Bush any reason or explanation for denying clemency.  According to Judge Sparks, "There is nothing, absolutely nothing that the Board of Pardons and Paroles does where any member of the public, including the governor, can find out why they did this.  I find that appalling."

Bush doesn't.  He has wholeheartedly endorsed the Board of Pardons and Paroles and has opposed even the most modest reform of its procedures, such as opening board meetings to public scrutiny.  That would be unwise, Bush says, because it would only provide "a chance for people to rant and rail, a chance for people to emotionalise the process beyond the questions that need to be asked."  The questions that need to be asked in matters of life and death, for Bush, appear to be very few indeed.

Source: The American Prospect 27 March - 10 April 2000

Capital Punishment in America: On Death Row

Who Owns Death?  Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of the Death Penalty by Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell

It is quite possible that, by the end of the year, the state of Texas will have put to death 40 convicted criminals, which is likely to be the highest annual number of executions carried out by a state in the history of America.  And, in the last days of his administration, President Clinton must decide whether to permit the first federal execution in 37 years or leave the choice to his successor.

The execution rate has soared in the United States over the past decade.  In reaction to this judicial hecatomb, opposition to killing by the state has also grown.  A majority of Americans still appear to favour the death penalty in principle.  But even among advocates of capital punishment, there is a growing disquiet about both the scale and fairness of its application.

Robert J Lifton is a psychiatrist who has written extensively about state violence, different attitudes to death and the psychology of survivors.  In The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (Basic Books and Macmillan, 1986), he studied how medicine was perverted to political ends.  Now, in Who Owns Death? he turns his attention to the the death penalty.

The book begins with a history of executions, the methods that have been used and the patterns of conviction.  Mr Lifton then listens to people who have administered, witnessed or faced capital punishment, hearing equally from those who justify it and those who find it barbarous.  The result is a much more subtle - and more confused - picture of American attitudes to the death penalty than is presented in standard opinion polls.  Particularly striking is the finding that those closest to its operation often show the greatest unease.

Mr Lifton's final chapter, "The End of Executions", suggests that much of what underlies unease about the legitimacy of capital punishment has to do with a lingering doubt about whether the state "owns death."  This may not be the most convincing way to argue that the death penalty, in some absolute sense, is simply wrong.

Apart from the obscurity of the book's end, Who Owns Death? is an impassioned and informative piece of writing on a melancholy subject.

Source: The Economist 16 December 2000

Beheadings are Out, But Watching Executions is in Vogue

by Bjorn Carey

From crucifixions and beheadings to firing squads and lethal injections, public executions have long been a part of the justice system.  Now, one sociologist suggests that the audience has helped shape the recent evolution of these executions.

Relatives of the victim may want a swift execution to bring closure to a tragic chapter of their lives.  Parties concerned with the convicted criminal's pain call for quick and painless executions.  In a study by University of Cincinnati sociologist Annulla Linders, evidence indicates that execution witnesses have affected the method, procedure, and publicity of executions.  "Viewed as a mirror held up to the execution, the audience is a constitutive element of the execution and, in this sense, not only carries the potential to grant (or deny) legitimacy to the execution event, but also provides capital punishment with a set of cultural meanings that reaches far beyond any particular execution," Linders writes.

Most recently, the practice of allowing the victim's family to witness the execution has resulted in the personalisation of capital punishment.  This contradicts the efforts made in the 19th century to prevent executions from becoming a public spectacle.  Early results from Linders' study suggest that there are 3large cultural issues that are currently affecting public executions - pressure from the victim's rights movement, associating the death of the convict with the worth of the victim, and modern society's general intolerance of premature and unnatural deaths.  In her paper "The Return of the Spectacle?  The Modern Execution in the United States," Linder details 4 general ways that the execution audiences have influenced contemporary executions:

bulletPain and technology - In the United States, most states have turned to more humane and painless forms of execution.  While a few states still approve of execution by hanging, the electric chair, firing squads, and gas chambers, public outrage over these methods of execution has made lethal injection - by comparison quicker and less painful - the most common form of execution today.
bulletWitness and psychological closure - Involving relatives of the victim to witness the execution is relatively new - it began in the 1990's.  Linders writes that the call for emotional closure has influenced the execution to be quick and efficient.
bulletPublicity and public Access - Although public viewings of executions came to an end in the 19th Century, demand for publicized executions is on the rise.  Linders says this issue has cropped up several times over the last few decades, particularly when high publicity convicts - such as Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for the Oklahoma City bombing - are put to death.
bulletProcedures and professionals - Involving an audience and meeting the emotional demands of victim family members has complicated the precision and efficiency of executions that prison officials prefer.

Linders presented her reserach at the 100th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Philadelphia.

Source: 15 August 2005

US Governor Spares 156 Death Row Inmates

Chicago - Denouncing the death penalty system as broken, a US governor has commuted the sentences of all death row inmates in the state of Illinois, granting clemency to more than 150 people in a dramatic move likely to fuel the national debate about capital punishment.  Governor George Ryan - a Republican who leaves office Monday after one term - reduced the prisoners' sentences to a maximum of life in prison without parole.  Three will receive shorter sentences, meaning they could some day be released.  "How many more cases of wrongful convictions have to occur before we can all agree that this system in Illinois is broken?"  Ryan told a cheering audience at Northwestern University Law School that included several wrongfully convicted former death row inmates.  "I realise that my decision will draw ridicule, scorn and anger from many who oppose this decision," he said, acknowledging the feelings of relatives of crime victims, many of whom fought clemency.  "I'm going to sleep well tonight, knowing that I made the right decision," he said.

The move follows an examination of the state's capital punishment system ordered nearly three years ago after investigations found 13 prisoners on death row were innocent.  There are 156 inmates on death row, and another person has been sentenced to death but is not yet in state custody.  Ryan said he was a staunch supporter of the death penalty when he took office four years ago, but began to change his mind after watching a wrongfully convicted man walk free - only 48 hours before he was scheduled to be executed.  In a speech quoting Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi, Ryan called fixing the death penalty "one of the great civil rights struggles of our time" and lashed out at the state legislature for failing to pass reforms.

Democrat Rod Blagojevich, who takes over as governor on Monday, criticised Ryan's decision.  "A blanket anything is usually wrong," he said.  "There is no one-size-fits-all approach.  We're talking about people who committed murder."

On Friday Ryan pardoned four men convicted of murder, saying confessions were tortured out of them by Chicago police.  One of the four used a paper clip to scratch professions of innocence on a bench in an interrogation room even as he was being forced to admit to a crime he did not commit, Ryan said.  Leroy Orange, one of the four men pardoned, told CNN he was very grateful to Ryan, and looked forward to "having a positive influence" on his children and grandchildren after 19 years in prison.  He was convicted of fatal stabbings in 1984.  Ryan's review prompted new questions about capital punishment in other states, but none has gone as far as Illinois in re-examining the issue.

Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, called for a national review of the death penalty and a moratorium on executions.  Illinois is one of 38 states with death penalty laws.  The federal government also has reinstated the death penalty.  Human rights group Amnesty International USA said Ryan's actions may empower other states to end capital punishment.  "Governor Ryan has set an important precedent for elected officials who question the fairness of the death penalty but fear political repercussions," executive director William Schulz said in a statement.

A commission Ryan created to review the Illinois system found the poor were at a disadvantage, too many crimes drew the death penalty and police abuse and jailhouse informants too often played a role in capital convictions.

While opinion polls indicate most Americans still favour capital punishment, support has been eroding and the American Bar Association has called for a national moratorium.  The United States is the only Western democracy in which the death penalty is still used.  The punishment has been abolished by its closest neighbours and allies, who routinely denounce the practice in the United States.  From 1976 when capital punishment was reinstated through the end of 2002 there have been 820 US executions, 71 of them last year.  There are nearly 3,700 men and women under death sentence in the United States currently.

Source: The New Zealand Herald 12 January 2003 via Reuters

116 US Death Row Inmates Cleared over 28 Years

Washington - More than 100 US death row inmates have been exonerated since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, and many of the prisoners were freed thanks to the emergence DNA technology, according to a report.  "One hundred and sixteen people have been freed from death row after being cleared of their charges, including 16 people in the past 20 months," the Death Penalty Information Centre said in its report titled "Innocence and the Crisis in the American Death Penalty."

"These inmates cumulatively spent over 1,000 years awaiting their freedom," the report said.  "The pace of exonerations has sharply increased, raising doubts about the reliability of the whole system."

The states with the most exonerations were Florida, with 21, and Illinois, with 18.

The pace of exonerations has quickened thanks to the development of DNA science, which has become "the new gold standard of forensic investigation," wrote the Centre, which calls for a ban of the death penalty.  "This science, along with a vigorous re-investigation of many cases, has led to the discovery of a growing number of tragic mistakes and freed inmates," it said.  "The official government response to the crisis of errors has been tepid at best," the report said.  "Official inertia remains the biggest obstacle to change."

More than 900 people have been executed in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated 28 years ago.  In January, the Supreme Court agreed to examine the legality of executing convicted murderers who were minors at the time of the crimes.  The high court will hear the case later this year (see link below).

Source:  AFP Wednesday 15 September 2004

See also:

bulletDeath Penalty and Age: Justices Weigh Executions of Young Killers (further on in this section) - for more about this topic.

The criminal justice system isn't always about truth and should not be viewed as such. It is also about winning trials and clearing calendars and about very human cops who make mistakes - or fake evidence because they are *sure* of a person's guilt but lack sufficient proof. Prosecutors are underpaid and understaffed and most people has an unjustified belief in the veracity of eyewitness accounts. Jurors can be prejudiced - even collectively. Innocent people ARE sometimes executed. And that is murder. The execution of a guilty man doesn't render the death penalty as good, just, moral, less barbaric, infallible or a deterrent.

Source: taken from "A Most Compelling Case for Killing the Death Penalty" by Bob Braun, The Star-Ledger Wednesday 1 December 2004

Death Protects Life

by Senator Orrin Hatch

Capital punishment is our society's recognition of the sanctity of human life.

Source: Anderson Valley Advertiser 26 April 2000

If Senator Hatch means "recognition of the sanctity of some human life over others," I feel he should state that clearly.

I don't believe that one's opinion of the rightness of capital punishment is determined by what one reads.  I'm not altogether certain it's even determined by one's life experiences.  I think it may go even deeper than that.  And one's view  on the justification for taking another's life (whatever the reason) seems to be distinct from religious belief - I think religious beliefs are used to justify why we already feel the way we do about punishment, capital or otherwise.  (More on this topic can also be found in Retributive Justice, located further on in this section.)  This page is followed by five other pages on the subject of capital punishment (clicking "Next" below will page you through them); together they cover methods, victims, female murderers, race, executioners and more.

New Jersey Okays Death Penalty Moratorium

Trenton - New Jersey lawmakers voted Monday to suspend executions while a task force studies the fairness and costs of imposing the death penalty.

Paul Wolchko Sunday Jan 15
Can we fairly evaluate the cost of an execution?  I didn't know we've actually executed anyone.  If we aren't going to use the "death sentence" in the vain the name implies, why do we have one?  Good parents know it's counterproductive to threaten but not deliver.

Cooper Thursday Jan 19
I agree, Paul.  The lack of fear of consequences for our actions has driven the crime rates sky high nationwide and attributed to the spiraling decline of taking responsibility for our actions.  Everything is always somebody else's fault.  What point is our penal system in general, since most data proves a ridiculously high rate of released inmates re-offending within six months?  Why don't we add a few more amenities for the prisoners, then maybe they'd never want to leave!

Steve Tuesday Jan 24
I say keep the death penalty and start to use it.  No one ever put to death has come back to kill again.  Stop using all our tax dollars for feeding, clothing, and educating these dirt bags.  I say give them one appeal and if still found guilty execute then within 10 days.

the great white ape Friday Jan 27
I think If we brought back public hangings we would have a lot fewer problems with violent crimes all together!  Just an opinion...

Cooper Yesterday
I think chain gangs and hard manual labor should make a comeback!  Have you heard about that Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona?  He makes the inmates wear bright pink uniforms, stay outside all day under tents and if they want a "cushy" job, they "volunteer" for the chain gang.  It's not illegal if you volunteer.  They live without smoking, coffee, movies, pornographic magazines and tv.  Also, they get two meals a day.  Lunch is two bologna sandwiches and an orange!  His prison is running at a PROFIT for the state!  You should check this out: ...  All states could use this method!

Borman Yesterday
Hey, why not bring back burning at the stake!

I am a retired law enforcement officer and parent of a murdered child who thinks it is a joke to worry the death penalty in NJ.  Worry instead about the INJUSTICE SYSTEM that IS just about money... and does not work at all!  Worry about the incompetence and corruption!

M Stefano 1 hour ago
To stop all executions is wrong - especially when the death row inmate is guilty without a doubt.  Case in point: Ambrose Harris.

Source: 29 January 2006

For more articles on capital punishment, see also these pages found elsewhere in this section on prisons:

bulletMethods of Capital Punishment - How long is the interval of consciousness after the head is severed?  In France, in the days of the guillotine, some of the condemned were asked to blink their eyes if they were still conscious after the knife fell.  Reportedly, their heads blinked for up to 30 seconds after decapitation...
bulletAs Condemned Await Fate - 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...
bulletCountries Take Different Approaches to Executions - Amnesty International says Saudi Arabia carried out at least 123 executions last year, making it second only to China - which has almost 100 times more people.  Most were beheaded.  Bodies of those convicted of particularly gruesome crimes are crucified following decapitation, Amnesty says...
bulletDeath Penalty and Race - Death penalty statistics shine an ugly spotlight on racial justice in the City of Brotherly Love.  Philadelphia's death row of 135 men and women is larger than that of 42 states - 90% of Philadelphia's death row are racial or ethnic minorities.  During one recent period in the mid 1990s, 40 of 41 defendants sent to death row by Philadelphia juries (97.6%) were black or Latino...
bulletExecutioner's Song - Even the most callow executioner winds up bearing a burden that belongs, originally, to those who order the executions in the first place, namely the residents of death penalty states.  That's why we hire him.  The victims' rights crowd crows that they would gladly pull the lever themselves, and it's true that every job opening in the capital punishment industry brings on a cascade of applications.  But the reality of the job, the weight of a society's outsourced vengeance, blood lust and guilt, breaks men in half...

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 Table of Contents for this Prisons section.

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