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The Execution of John Allen Muhammad

So John Allen Muhammad is being forcibly removed from existence tonight. Strapped to a gurney in the Greensville Correctional Centre, intravenous needles in both arms, he will be killed in a premeditated manner by Virginia's correctional authorities.

Muhammad, a vile creature if there ever was one, will become the 44th man executed in the United States this year (condemned prisoners are almost always men).

There are two medical views on how he will leave this world. One school holds that he will first be rendered unconscious by sodium thipentol, a super-fast-acting barbiturate. Then a shot of pancuronium bromide, a powerful muscle relaxant, will paralyze him, and stop his breathing. Finally, potassium chloride will stop his heart.

It will all look pretty peaceful to the witnesses. Perhaps too peaceful for some of them. I covered an execution in North Carolina 25 years ago, and heard a police officer complain that there should have been more suffering.

Anyway, the thing is, a whole other body of medical opinion says the procedure is barbaric; that the first drug sometimes doesn't knock out the condemned, who then basically suffocates while paralyzed and conscious.

There are also the regular botchings that take place, as prison staff with no medical training (doctors and nurses are forbidden by their oaths to take part) struggle to find a vein, jabbing and missing and re-jabbing, while nasty chemicals leach into unanesthetized muscles, and the condemned howls with pain.

Scenes like those, and the questions about the effectiveness of the three drugs, have led to moratoria in some states. The Supreme Court has ruled on the matter, declaring there is no constitutional right to a pain-free execution, but some states remain squeamish about staging ugly, protracted official killings, with witnesses in attendance.

But there's a bigger issue that's gradually eliminating executions here. Since 1973, 139 condemned prisoners have been released on evidence of innocence, a lot of it DNA. Meaning that almost certainly, innocent people have been put to death in this country. And because minorities are put to death in hugely disproportionate numbers, chances are that innocent person was black.

Juries know that, judges know it, and so do prosecutors. So executions have been declining since a peak of nearly 100 in 1999 to 43 so far this year (44 including Muhammad). There are also far fewer death sentences. Virginia, where Muhammad had the misfortune to be tried, is known for its "rocket docket" and enthusiasm for executing people.

But no Virginia jury has handed down a death sentence in a year and a half.

The exception to this trend is Texas. That state kills about one person a week, by far the most executions anywhere in the union. Texas even posts prisoners' last words on the website of its correctional service.

"They are fixing to pump my veins with a lethal drug the American Veterinary Association won't even allow to be used on dogs," proclaimed Reginald Blanton before he died last month in the Hunstville, Texas death chamber. (He was quite correct. Veterinarians use a massive dose of barbituates, which for some reason states refuse to even consider for human executions).

But back to Muhammad. This is a man who, with his teenaged accomplice, randomly hunted innocent human beings with a sniper rifle for three weeks in October 2002. He is a predator of the first order, a man who cold-bloodedly shot people as they vacuumed their cars, or pumped gas, or loaded groceries, or just sat on a park bench.

It is hard to argue American society is better off with John Allen Muhammad in it. Even people who oppose the death penalty are wasting no tears.

But still. Waiting for the state to kill someone is just plain creepy. And of all the countries in the Western world, it only happens in America.
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