More Experimentation, Less Reporting, More Dead People

After a high-profile botched execution, as well as numerous others nationwide, Oklahoma is finally doing something to change capital punishment, but what they are doing is the wrong thing.  Many of the problems are due to experimentation with various drugs and their dosages after access to traditional execution drugs has been cut off.  Unfortunately, instead of banning the death penalty, or even putting it on hold until a more humane method can be found (though I would argue that no execution can be humane), the experimentation will continue, but with more drugs and less transparency.

As The Oklahoman reports:

The April 29 execution of Clayton Derrell Lockett lasted 43 minutes and sparked an Oklahoma Public Safety Department investigation, which included recommended changes to protocol.

Lockett was killed with a three-drug cocktail never before used in the United States, and the new protocol allows the state to continue using the most controversial of the drugs, midazolam. It also allows the state to continue using a single IV in the femoral vein, a procedure the state Public Safety Department investigation found to be central to problems that occurred during the procedure. Media witnesses for executions have been cut by more than half, from 12 to five.

Midazolam also was used in two recent problematic executions, one in Ohio and another in Arizona. The new protocol increases the amount of the drug by five times. It also requires the medical professional inserting a single vein IV be trained to perform the procedure. Traditional lethal injections in Oklahoma utilize two IVs, one in each arm.

So, a drug that has been problematic in numerous cases will continue to be used, just in greater doses.  And, just in case things continue to go wrong, fewer than half as many journalists will be allowed to witness the procedure.

Both these developments are troubling.  The drug involved, midazolam, has not been proven to work properly.  So, increasing the dosage, even by five times, does not guarantee that it will now work the way they hope it will.  This means that the next person executed in Oklahoma by this method will be nothing more than a lab rat, as they tweak the procedure to try to find the best way to end a human life.

And, while I suspect no member of the media enjoys watching a person being executed, their role in the process is vital.  It is essential that the state be accountable for how they carry out the sentence they have imposed.  They must answer for mistakes they make, not try to cover them up.  Especially now, when scrutiny is high, they should be making efforts to be more transparent, not less.  Limiting media access shows they are trying to hide something.

The best possible solution to the difficulties in executing people would be to just stop executing people.  But, short of that, it must be done in the most humane way possible, with full transparency and accountability.  And, citizens must be sure their state knows what it is doing.  These new measures prove that they do not.


Let’s Kill the Death Penalty

In what has become too common a story of late, there was a botched execution this week.  In their eagerness to end a man’s life, and in the absence of the drugs historically used for executions (due to objections by the makers of those drugs that their product was being used to kill people), officials in Arizona used a mysterious and unproven cocktail of drugs to torture a man to death.  Of course, death penalty supporters, including Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, claim that Joseph Rudolph Wood did not suffer.  But, torture is the only word to describe an execution that consisted of a man gasping for air for nearly two hours before finally dying.

My intention is not to defend Wood.  He was convicted of shooting and killing a woman and her father in 1989.  There were no appeals claiming he was wrongly convicted.  The only attempts to prevent his execution came on the grounds that the drugs used and their source should be disclosed before the execution could take place.  This appeal was denied by the Supreme Court, allowing the execution to go forward as planned.

Of course, it did not go as planned.  Nor did two other executions this year where the drug Midazolam was used in place of drugs that are no longer available.  But, it was so important to the people of Arizona that Wood be killed that they were willing to use a drug that had twice before had disastrous results.  Of course, these results were not disastrous if the only intention is to kill someone.  In that case, all three uses were successful, eventually.  But, the use of the death penalty, legally anyway, hinges on it being carried out in a way that does not violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  To many, these recent executions do not meet that standard.

But, some would argue that all executions, regardless of the method or duration, are cruel and unusual.  A statement from Amnesty International takes this position:

The prolonged execution of a prisoner in Arizona yesterday represents another wake-up call for authorities in the USA to abolish the death penalty, said Amnesty International.

“How many more times do officials need to be reminded of the myth of the ‘humane execution’ before they give up on their experiment with judicial killing?” asked Rob Freer, Amnesty International Researcher on the USA.

At least three executions have not gone according to plan in the USA this year alone.

Amnesty International does not believe that there is any such thing as a humane execution, or that the cruelty of the death penalty is confined to what goes on in the death chamber.

Holding someone under a threat of death – for years or even decades – can hardly be described as the conduct of a state adopting a progressive approach to criminal justice or human rights.

“However the state chooses to kill the prisoner – and whether the execution goes according to plan or not – does not change the fact that this is a punishment incompatible with fundamental human rights principles,” said Rob Freer.

The death penalty in the USA is riddled with arbitrariness, discrimination and error. In recent years, death penalty states in the USA have faced problems obtaining drugs for lethal injection and have resorted to questionable sources and secrecy in seeking to continue judicial killing by this method.

I agree wholeheartedly with Amnesty International’s position on capital punishment.  Carrying out executions in such a reckless manner is using people as experiment test subjects.  And, while these people are presumably bad people (or, at least people who have done very bad things), they are still human and deserving of a certain level of respect and humanity.  What does it say about us as a society that we condone this kind of treatment?

Capital punishment is not about justice.  There is no justice to be found in the taking of a human life, even if that person has himself taken the life of another.  Execution of murderers is about vengeance.  And, what is accomplished?  The victims of these crimes are not brought back.  The families of the victims are not made whole when a killer is put to death.  And, the state is not improved by executing one of its citizens.  In fact, the state, and those who act on its behalf, are now guilty of the very crime they are seeking to punish.  Ignoring this hypocrisy does not make it any more tolerable.

Even common sense would show its flaws.  It is far more expensive to execute someone than to simply sentence a convicted killer to life in prison.  People have been executed and later been proven to be innocent.  And, it doesn’t even accomplish its primary goal, as capital punishment has been shown to have zero effect as a crime deterrent.  But, executing people is not about that.  It is about blood lust.  Just like we can cheer when villages are destroyed in foreign countries, we can cheer when criminals are killed here at home.  But, is any death, even that of someone we have marked as evil, worth celebrating?  We should be mourning, if not for the criminal, then at least for our own lack of humanity.

As a country that claims to be a world leader in morality and compassion for its people, there is no way to justify the continued use of capital punishment.  And, to see it continue (and to see it even be celebrated–remember the crowds of people cheering the huge number of people who had been executed in Texas during the last presidential primary?) is sickening.  The death penalty is indefensible, both morally and legally.  Most of the rest of the world sees that:

To date, 140 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. The USA is approaching its 1400th execution since resuming judicial killing under revised capital statutes in 1977.

We should be better than that.  And, we can be.  Abolishing the death penalty is a must.

Death Penalty Killed in California

Though California rarely executes prisoners (at least compared with other states that still practice capital punishment), and have executed exactly zero since 2006, it still technically has the right to put prisoners to death.  At least, it did.  A ruling today from a federal judge has effectively ended that possibility.  And that is a great thing.

From the ruling:

“California’s death penalty system is so plagued by inordinate and unpredictable delay that the death sentence is actually carried out against only a trivial few of those sentenced to death,” [U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J.] Carney writes. “For all practical purposes then, a sentence of death in California is a sentence of life imprisonment with the remote possibility of death — a sentence no rational legislature or jury could ever impose.”

Carney continues: “Inordinate and unpredictable delay… has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional.”

Generally, what happens in California spreads across the country, whether it be medical marijuana, same-sex marriage rights (ignoring the obvious, though temporary, outrageous interruption that was Prop 8), gun control legislation, environmental regulation, or anything else.  Here’s hoping that trend continues.  Capital punishment is an antiquated and utterly ineffective way to prevent crime.  It is inhumane and cruel, exorbitantly expensive, and is more a means of vengeance than justice.

Many states (and most nations) have independently outlawed the practice of putting people to death, but this is the first time the practice has been found to be unconstitutional.  If the recent wave of same-sex marriage decisions is any indicator, this could be merely the first in a series of findings that could bring the United States in line with the rest of the civilized world.

One Day in Texas: The Worst and the Best and the Worst in American Politics

In a week that has seen President Obama’s speech on climate change, debunking of the so-called IRS “scandal,” and Supreme Court decisions on Affirmative Action, the Voting Rights Act and marriage equality, fans of politics have had a lot to talk about (and it’s only Wednesday, as of this writing).  But for all the action in Washington, the real show appeared to be in the state of Texas.

The Lone Star State was the setting for a chain of events that perfectly epitomizes the current state of American politics.  It was a roller coaster fueled by partisan debate, knee-jerk reactions, passionate citizens and a filibuster that birthed a new political celebrity.

Let’s begin with the Voting Rights Act (VRA).  Texas is among the many states and counties defined by the act as having a history of discriminatory voting laws.  It seems that prior to the Act’s passage in 1965, the state took actions that made it very difficult for minorities to register or cast their ballots.  Because of this, the VRA’s Article 5 declared that the state would have to seek approval from the federal government before enacted any new voting laws.  However, this did not keep the state, and specifically its Republican legislators, from attempting to enact strict voter ID laws that would have disenfranchised thousands of minority voters.  They also sought to alter their electoral districts in an attempt to limit the influence of those that somehow would maintain the right to vote.  However, this attempt was thwarted after State Senator Wendy Davis, whose district would have been redrawn, challenged the redistricting, saying it violated Article 5 of the VRA.

So, after Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling gutted the VRA and ended the requirement for Texas to seek approval from the Department of Justice, the state wasted no time enacting the legislation that had previously been shot down.  Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a statement a mere two hours after the ruling:

“With today’s decision, the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately.  Redistricting maps passed by the Legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government.”

This means that Davis will likely find herself without a district when the next election rolls around, and Republicans will have effectively silenced a powerful contrarian voice.  And though this is a sneaky way to limit dissent, it is not illegal.  It is just cowardly, as is the voter ID law that will keep thousands of people—mostly Democrat voters, not coincidentally—from voting.  Rather than win a rational debate on the issues, Republicans prefer to subvert the democratic process by preventing the opposition from participating.  It appears the new GOP motto should be, “If you can’t beat them, cheat them.”

Davis, however, was nowhere near done fighting.  While she may not have any control over the Voting Rights Act and its impact on her seat in the Senate, she could certainly impact their ability to push through strict abortion legislation that would have been devastating to women in Texas.  It would have closed nearly all the state’s abortion providers, leaving only five in a state with 26 million people, as well as preventing any abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

This bill was defeated in its first pass through the Texas legislature, but Republicans are a determined bunch.  Governor Rick Perry called a special session of Congress to give the abortion bill (and a few other pet issues) a second shot.  These special sessions required a lower vote threshold for approving a bill, giving them a much better chance at passage.  However, this 30-day session was nearly at an end and the time to put the abortion bill up for a vote was running out.  If no vote was held by midnight Tuesday, the bill would be defeated.

So, Davis took it upon herself to stand up for the women of Texas.  And stand she did.  She filibustered the bill in the Senate for 11 hours, speaking continuously, not allowed to eat, drink, or even lean on the podium.  If she could speak until midnight, there would be no time for a vote.

But, Republicans were not willing to concede defeat.  Because of the lower threshold, they had the votes to pass the bill, if only they could end Davis’s filibuster.  So, they repeatedly challenged her, using Texas’s very strict filibuster rules to try to trip her up.  Finally, after three dubious violations, they succeeded.  Davis was stopped, just minutes short of midnight.  She was like a marathon runner who trips and falls with the finish line in sight.  Of course, in this case, she was like a runner clubbed in the leg with a lead pipe wielded by Republicans determined not to let a woman stop them from telling the rest of the women in Texas what to do.

Yet, as remarkable as Davis’s effort had been, something even more remarkable happened next.  The assembled spectators, inspired by the filibuster, raised their own voices, creating enough noise and chaos to drown out the Republican attempts to call for a vote before the deadline.

But, Republicans are a determined lot, and there is no shortage of dirty tricks in their playbook.  They called for a vote anyway, even though it was after midnight.  But, the continued uproar from the crowd finally forced them to admit defeat.

However, the celebration by Democrats and pro-choice supporters was short-lived.  On Wednesday, Gov. Perry called for a second special session of Congress to try for a third time to pass the abortion bill.  And, because Republicans will have 30 days to call for a vote, it will almost certainly pass.  The Texas GOP will impose their will on the women of Texas, no matter what it takes.

Of course, Perry claims that he is acting on behalf of the people of Texas, saying they “want to protect women and the unborn,” though the proposed abortion bill would do exactly the opposite, depriving many women of needed health care.  It is also not what Texans want, with recent polling showing that 74 percent of registered voters saying abortion decisions should be made by women and their doctors, not by politicians.

In his statement, Perry also said that, “Texans value life.”  This is especially infuriating given something else that happened today.  For the 500th time since the state resumed using the death penalty in 1982, a Texan was executed.  The fact that the person put to death was black female, Kimberly McCarthy, only adds to the perception that the GOP is fighting a war against women and minorities.  Nearly 40 percent of all executions in the US have taken place in Texas, and Perry has presided over more executions than any governor in US history.

If this hypocrisy did not involve human lives, it would be almost humorous.  Instead, it is tragic.  While claiming to value life, he is taking lives and destroying the health care for the women of his state.

But, there is some light at the end of this tunnel of death, deception and dirty tricks.  Rick Perry will run for another term as governor next year.  And, he might see a familiar face as his opponent.  There is already talk that Wendy Davis should throw her hat in the ring.  And, after her surge in popularity after yesterday’s filibuster, she would have a surprisingly good chance in a state that is not especially friendly to Democrats.  That would be the ultimate victory for a woman who literally stands up for the people of her state.  But, it might be too late to stop the damage done by the GOP.

American Bloodlust

Next Left Notes photographer Bud Korotzer, har...

"I am Troy Davis." Frighteningly, any one of us could be.

Troy Davis is dead.

He was murdered last night, and unlike Davis, his murderers will not be charged with any crime.  According to the law, they are innocent and he is not, when the reality is exactly the opposite.  As everyone now likely knows, Troy Davis was convicted for the murder of an off-duty police officer more than twenty years ago, and last night he was executed by the State of Georgia.  The twist here, however, is that Davis was innocent.

The details of his alleged crime, trial, and numerous appeals have been documented many places (including here, in an article at Mother Jones), but here is a quick recap.  An off-duty police officer named Mark MacPhail was shot and killed after attempting to break up a fight between two men.  Davis and a friend saw the fight, and were nearby when the officer was shot.  One of the men in the fight fingered Davis for the murder, and he was arrested.  Despite no evidence linking him to the crime other than eyewitness testimony, Davis was convicted and sentenced to death.  In the ensuing years, most of the eyewitnesses recanted their testimony, alleging that they were pressured by the police into making false statements.  Many even claimed that Redd Coles, the man who originally led the police to Davis, was the actual killer.  But, despite these new developments, Davis remained on Death Row, until he was executed last night.  Crowds assembled to protest, famous voices lent their support (including the Pope and two former Presidents), and last-ditch pleas for clemency were sent to anyone who could possibly help, finally reaching the US Supreme Court.  But, it was all for naught, as Georgia officials were determined to execute Davis.  And, at 11:08pm, they got their wish.

This case has gotten a large amount of attention, especially among liberal bloggers.  Most of the attention focuses on the likelihood that Georgia has just killed a man that was not actually guilty of any crime.  This is an outrage, yes, but I would argue that any death is an outrage.  Another man, Lawrence Brewer, was executed last night, this time in Texas, and though he was undeniably guilty and showed no remorse for his crime, his death is just as heinous.  Every life taken by human hands is a tragedy, and what makes them all even more tragic is that every one of them can so easily be prevented.  There is no law that says we have to execute criminals.  This was a decision that was made by people who believe in the Old Testament justice of “an eye for an eye.”  But, is this justice?

Capital punishment is surprisingly popular, with 2 out of 3 Americans saying that they’re in favor of the death penalty.  And, don’t forget the cheers for Rick Perry at the GOP debate when he touted his record of executions in Texas (234 at the time, but now up to 236 just weeks later).  Strangely, the people who most strongly support it seem to be white Christians.  One would think that followers of a religion that preaches love, compassion, and forgiveness would be most willing to put those beliefs into practice.  And, these are also the same people who most adamantly oppose abortion, repeating their mantra that every life is sacred, and that life should be preserved at all costs.  The hypocrisy here may seem obvious, but it is lost on the true believers.  Of course, on second glance, the fact that capital punishment is disproportionately assigned to minorities may help explain why white morally-superior Christians may be in favor of it–because they don’t think that it will ever affect them directly.  It is much easier to call it justice when someone else is dying.

But, who are they to call for justice anyway?  Have these politicians and pundits been wronged?  Or are they just thirsty for blood?  One of the most vocal supporters of Troy Davis’ execution was the despicable Ann Coulter.  In addition to an article where she makes the ridiculous claim that “There is more credible evidence that space aliens have walked among us than that an innocent person has been executed in this country in the past 60 years,” she also tweeted disgusting things like, “ONE TROY DAVIS, FLAME-BROILED, PLEASE,” and “HOLD THE PICKLE, HOLD THE LETTUCE, FRYING KILLERS WON’T UPSET US.”  Aside from the tactless act of mocking a man who is about to be killed (and apparently thinking that he is going to be “flame-broiled” instead of being killed by lethal injection), she is misinformed about the alleged guilt of all the victims of the death penalty.  Perhaps she needs to be reminded of the case of Cameron Willingham, who was executed after being found guilty of burning his house down and killing his three children, only to later have it discovered that he was not responsible for starting the fire, and was in fact not guilty of anything at all.  Of course, he was not able to be acquitted of this crime, because he had already been killed.  And, it should also be noted that Rick Perry (yes, of course this happened in Texas) went to great lengths to make sure that any new evidence exonerating Willingham was never brought to light.

The fallibility of the judicial system is something that must be acknowledged.  There have been a shockingly large number of cases where a person has been found guilty and sentenced to death, only to later have that sentence overturned (this site lists 138 such cases in the United States through 2010).  In fact, these cases are so common that the state of Illinois declared a moratorium on executions more than eleven years ago, because then-Governor George H. Ryan had, “grave concerns about our state’s shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row.”  Ryan (a Republican, surprisingly) should be commended for putting politics aside and trying to protect the innocent before it’s too late, because acquittals mean little to men that have already been killed.  For people in other states with the death penalty, however, this means there remains the chance that innocent people will be executed.

One of the most popular justifications for the death penalty is the fact that it supposedly provides closure for the family and friends of murder victims.  There is a theory that by killing a killer, justice is served, and people can put the entire horrible episode behind them.  This is ludicrous.  Will the family of a murder victim miss them any less the day after the killer is executed?  Will it hurt any less to be without their loved one?  For perspective on this, we can look to a recent horrific murder in Mississippi.  James Anderson, a black man, was killed after being beaten and run over by a group of white teenagers.  Anderson’s family sent a letter to the prosecutor in the case, asking that the killers not be sentenced to death.  They cited their religious beliefs for this decision, in an interesting contradiction to the blood lust of many Conservative Christians.  But, they also gave a second reason, stating, “We also oppose the death penalty because it historically has been used in Mississippi and the South primarily against people of color for killing whites.  Executing James’ killers will not help balance the scales. But sparing them may help to spark a dialogue that one day will lead to the elimination of capital punishment.”

This, to me, reaches the true heart of the argument.  Killing killers does not balance the scales, because nothing can.  The death penalty does not bring back any victims.  It only adds to their number.  Two wrongs don’t make a right, and two tragedies don’t cancel each other out.  Capital punishment is murder, plain and simple.  And, everyone that supports it or participates in it is complicit in the death of every single person that has been executed in the name of justice.  Innocent or not, there is no justice in execution.  Capital punishment must be abolished, and it must happen now.  Troy Davis is dead, but if his death can help us to see the error of our ways, he will not have died in vain.