Might we make executions more civilized, please?
November 7, 2007
Late one hot Mississippi night in 1984, I sat drinking whisky at the kitchen table of T. Berry Bruce, trying tactfully to ask about one of his less skilled efforts on behalf of the state governor.
At the time, Bruce was Mississippi's executioner, in fact the only state executioner in the United States whose identity was a matter of public record.
In Canada, Brian Mulroney's Conservative government was considering a revival of capital punishment and I was writing about it. And T. Berry Bruce had invited me into his Belzoni, Miss. home for a few days.
A year earlier, he'd gassed Jimmy Lee Gray, a rapist and murderer, and the execution hadn't gone very well. Gray flailed and gasped for eight minutes after the cyanide pellets dropped into the bucket of acid. It created such a gruesome scene that the warden expelled all the witnesses.
Gray finally died slamming his head against the steel pole behind the chair as reporters counted his moans. T. Berry Bruce, it turned out, was drunk that night, and even in Mississippi, where inmates' rights are not a burning cause, the incident caused an uproar.
"Y'all talkin' about Jimmy Lee," drawled Bruce when I brought up the case. "Y'all know what Jimmy Lee done?"
I knew he'd killed a girl named Deressa Jean Seales.
"Sumbitch took a little three-year-old girl out into the bush and he raped her. Then he tried to shove her panties down her throat with a stick, then he pushed her head into a little crick full of running shit and then he broke her neck. So yeah, I feel real sorry for Jimmy Lee."
And there it was. Retribution. Without question, it is the single most powerful force behind the continuing popularity of the death penalty in this country.
I didn't argue with Bruce that night. Given the summary of Deressa Jean's agonies, it just didn't seem the time or place to launch into a discussion of what constitutes unnecessary suffering of a prisoner at the hands of the state.
Besides, there was a certain symmetry to the executioner's logic: The state had decided Jimmy Lee Gray should die. Killing folks is messy. So what if he suffered? He sure didn't suffer any more than his victim.
The illusion of lethal injection
Over the years, however, the courts and legislatures here have become more squeamish than T. Berry Bruce.
He was replaced as the state executioner a few years after the Jimmy Lee Gray debacle. Then Mississippi and most of the other 37 death-penalty states began shutting down their gas chambers and unplugging their electric chairs (in which prisoners had sometimes burst into flames).
Most states opted for what they claimed was the less violent procedure of lethal injection. The prisoner just appears to fall asleep and doesn't wake up.
But that appearance of calm can be illusory. It's clear that, in some cases, the initial barbiturate that causes unconsciousness wears off before the second and third chemicals, which paralyze the lungs and stop the heart, take effect. In other words, prisoners have suffocated with burning chemicals in their veins, perfectly aware of what was happening but unable to signal distress.
Jimmy Lee Gray episodes have taken place on the lethal injection gurney, too. Poorly trained death chamber officials have missed veins, mixed the wrong doses and struggled even to find the right place to insert the needle.
Faulty syringes have spouted leaks. Prisoners have taken half an hour, even an hour, to die, some grimacing and heaving for air.
The issue has now reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which has imposed a de facto moratorium on executions while it considers whether lethal injection, as currently practised, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
Be clear here: This is not a debate over whether governments have the right to kill people. In the U.S., they do. Rather, this is a uniquely American discussion: How do you kill someone with a minimum of discomfort?
For Prof. Deborah Denno of Fordham Law Faculty in New York City, though, this debate is not about discomfort. "This is about unnecessary pain and suffering," she says. "Untrained people butchering other people, which is what has been happening."
Denno, who says she is not necessarily against the death penalty, has studied lethal injection extensively. She says it is clothed in official secrecy, probably to cover up the fact that untrained prison staff administer the procedure, rather than doctors, whose oaths prevent them from taking part.
"My concern is that the people performing it are incompetent. You would not have them cook a hamburger for you."
Denno, herself, leans toward the firing squad as a solution, but that's generally considered too savage these days.
Some people here suggest abandoning the three-chemical system and using, instead, a single massive dose of barbiturate, the method used by veterinarians to euthanize a dog or cat.
That may work fine, but no state wants to be the first to try it, because no one really knows how much flailing and moaning such a procedure might produce, and that would be most unseemly, especially before a panel of official witnesses.
At the very least, the paralysis of the three-chemical system usually produces a quiet scene, whatever the suffering it might mask.
There are witnesses
The sensibility of witnesses, and by extension that of the public, is a big factor in this debate. If it weren't, the whole question could be quickly resolved by building a few guillotines. They undoubtedly deliver a quick death, but they also involve geysers of blood, which is likely to unsettle the audience after the condemned is beyond caring.
"People associate it, ironically, with barbarity," says Denno of the guillotine. "But not lethal injection," which, she says, is perhaps worse.
Most probably, the solution will be some sort of fine-tuning of lethal injection and that is why death penalty opponents are not overly excited about the Supreme Court deliberations, which are to begin in January.
Of much greater interest to opponents is the declining rate of executions. Forty-two people have been executed here so far this year, down from 53 last year, 60 in 2005 and 98 in 1999.
Legal experts say juries are increasingly reluctant to hand down death sentences and prosecutors are increasingly reluctant to seek them. The reasons are a growing awareness of incompetence on the part of defence lawyers, systemic racism (a death sentence is a much greater possibility when the victim is white), and the big one — exoneration after trial.
In the past 34 years, 115 condemned men and one condemned woman in the U.S. have been freed from death row. Fourteen were cleared by DNA evidence, some of which actually pointed to other suspects.
The import of this is not lost on judges or other participants: Incontrovertible science determined 14 people headed for death at the hands of the state were not guilty. Period.
It doesn't take a fantastic leap in logic to conclude that if at least 14 innocents have been retrieved from death row, there might be a few others among the roughly 3,000 condemned prisoners in this country.
And while justice officials here, concerned about maintaining the respect and integrity of the system, mightily resist DNA testing on prisoners already put to death, it would take a fanatic to contend that there could not have been a single innocent among the 17,000 executions recorded here since colonial times.
Eventually, at least one will come to light. And that could give even a fellow like T. Berry Bruce pause.
Sorry Neil MacDonald but I'm with T. Berry Bruce on the subject of executions. The Jimmy Lees of this world get no sympathy from me. I suspect I'm part of the vast but silent majority in this country.
If there were a referendum on the subject tomorrow I can pretty much guarantee Paul Bernardo would be heading to the gallows next week. The liberal media likes to pretend Canadians are vehemently opposed to capital punishment but it's not true. Whenever polls are conducted on the subject the vast majority of Canadians always support it.
If you ask me the primary purpose of capital punishment is to rid the world of someone who has already, through their actions, forfeited their membership in the human race. Making sure they're comfortable for the event shouldn't be a priority for anyone.
– Greg Westfall | Waterloo, Ontario
The example of T. Berry Bruce enacting 'an eye for an eye' with regards to Jimmy Lee Gray, was definitely an interesting point.
I was curious about his statement that "this is a uniquely American discussion: How do you kill someone with a minimum of discomfort?" Given the legality of euthanasia in Switzerland, I would think that this has been an issue there as well.
It may have been interesting to include a discussion on how Switzerland handles the issue. Now, of course, I can look it up myself, but I just note that it might have been a relevant addition (though perhaps it already was, but was edited out due to length).
– Erika Harrison| Montreal
Excellent piece Neil, Since the main question here is the incompetency of the executioners, and nothing else, I’d suggest they use "water boarding" for which nowadays seems there are no shortage of “competency”.
The process of execution can be outsourced to more competent agencies! and as it is perceived to be the case in most outsourcing practices, few bucks may be saved along the way.
– Saeed Arya | TorontoSaeed Arya