The case of Sandra Bland has raised anger and suspicions nationwide since she was found dead in a jail cell in Hempstead, Texas, two weeks ago. Bland’s family and supporters have rejected the medical examiner’s finding of suicide, and the criminal district attorney for Waller County, Texas, says he’s recruited two outside lawyers to assist in the investigation of her death. The local investigation has been reviewed by the FBI, and local prosecutors have pledged to bring the case to a grand jury next month.
If it turns out Bland did commit suicide, experts in jail mortality say it wouldn’t be as surprising as her family believes. The grim reality is that jails have high suicide rates — higher than prisons. Part of the reason, says corrections expert and consultant Steve J. Martin, is what he calls the “shock of confinement.” Jails often house people who’ve never been in serious legal trouble before, and it can have a traumatic effect on them.
“It overtakes your being in the sense that normalcy is gone,” Martin says.
Martin has worked in corrections for decades, and he’s the court-appointed monitor for New York’s reform effort at Rikers Island. He says jail can be especially traumatic for someone who’s usually a straight arrow. He imagines what would be running through the mind of his daughter, a high-achieving college student, if she were locked up.
” ‘Oh my heavens. My life is going to end right now with this experience. Everything I’ve worked for, the way people view me, the way my parents view me’ — all that stuff is suddenly and dramatically in jeopardy,” he says.
About 1,000 people die in American jails every year and about a third of those are suicides. Martin says prison administrators have the advantage of getting detailed information about the inmates they receive. But jails do not.
“When you come right off the street, there is a world of difference in the risk of harm that relates to that person about whom you literally know little or nothing,” he says.
So jails screen new arrivals for depression; it’s often a questionnaire, the kind that was administered to Sandra Bland twice in Waller County. But even when mental illness is obvious, jailers sometimes seem dangerously indifferent.
This spring, Fred Farris’ son, Keaton, was in a jail in Island County, Wash.
“They were fully aware of his mental situation,” Farris says. Keaton was bipolar and acting out. At one point he stuffed his pillow into the toilet. So the jailers turned off the water to his cell and kept their distance, and they apparently missed the fact that he was starving himself and dying of dehydration. He died alone in his cell, and his father can’t understand how it happened.
“Are they trained to deal directly with somebody that reaches a state of psychosis? You would like to think they are,” he says.
And in fact, horror stories aside, American jails have become better at handling mental illness. A generation ago, the suicide rate was a lot higher.
“If you went into Waller County jail 20 years ago, they wouldn’t have any intake screening. They might ask about ‘Do you have any medical issues right now?’ and that would be about it. They never would have asked any questions about suicide or mental illness and such,” says Lindsay Hayes with the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. He has spent his career on this issue.
Mental health screening is a given these days, even in tiny jails. But he says jailers can’t rely just on those questionnaires. Too often, when a new inmate answers the question about feeling suicidal with a “No,” Hayes says the jailers figure they can stop paying attention to his mental health.
“Simply because someone answers ‘No’ right now doesn’t mean in the next five minutes, if they don’t get through to their loved one or if their loved one doesn’t come out and bail them out, that answer might change. And if you ask me that again 15 minutes after my phone call, I might become suicidal,” he says.
Even though the suicide rate inside jails has improved a lot, he says people should still keep in mind that it’s still three times worse than on the outside.
HARRISON COUNTY — The execution of Richard Gerald Jordan, Mississippi’s longest-serving death row inmate, is being held up over a lawsuit. Jordan filed suit to stop the state from using a lethal cocktail he says is experimental and could cause him great pain before he dies.
Jordan exhausted all of his appeals before the U.S. Supreme Court at the end of June, paving the way for Attorney General Jim Hood to request an execution date of the high court.
In other such cases from as far back as April 1989, the Attorney General’s Office has filed for an execution date within a day or two of the exhaustion of an inmate’s final appeal.
Attorney General Jim Hood’s office said Jordan’s litigation has held up the request to set an execution date because the Mississippi Department of Corrections “can no longer obtain (the anesthetic) pentobarbital and thus will have to obtain another drug in (its) place.”
“That change has not been made as of yet and we have informed the federal court we will not request an execution date prior to that change,” Hood’s office said.
MDOC did not wish to comment, citing the pending litigation.
The state adopted the latest lethal-injection protocol in 2011 after European manufacturers of the previous execution drug ceased its distribution to prisons in the United States because it did not want them used in executions.
Jordan’s lawsuit, filed by the Solange MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans, requested an injunction to stop the use of the current execution protocol.
In the suit, lawyer Jim Craig said Mississippi is one of the last states in the nation to use a compounded form of pentobarbital before injecting a paralytic drug and potassium chloride to execute a condemned person.
He questioned whether the state could mix a safe and effective form of pentobarbital as an anesthetic.
Even if it did, Craig said, it could act more slowly than the previous drugs used, resulting in a person remaining conscious and aware he is suffocating when the par
alytic drug is administered prior to potassium chloride to stop the heart.
“… The untried and untested drugs …” the suit says, result in a substantial risk for the condemned to face a “torturous death by live suffocation and cardiac arrest.”
Jordan is suing based on his right to not suffer cruel and unusual punishment.
Family wants justice
That means little to the family members of Jordan’s victim, Edwina Marter, who have waited more than 39 years for closure.
“This has been going on for us far too long,” said Marter’s sister Mary Degruy. “When is this going to happen? Nobody is calling us.”
Edwina Marter was 37 years old when Jordan kidnapped and killed her in Harrison County on Jan. 11, 1976.
Degruy still visits her sister’s grave in New Orleans often, leaving flowers and maintaining its surroundings in her memory.
Marter and her husband, Charles, had been together for years and had two sons.
“She was very good-hearted and she loved her kids,” Degruy said. “She did charity and they were well known in Mississippi. She would always come and stay with us for a week or two when the kids weren’t in school. We did everything together when we could.”
Charles Marter over the years has often spoken out about his wife’s killing and the delay in justice, but now in his 70s, he no longer wants to discuss it, his son Eric Marter said.
Eric Marter said he was 11 years old when his mother was murdered.
“She was a stay-at-home mom and she took care of us,” he said. “She was always there for us. But ours wasn’t a normal childhood with a mom and dad because of this.”
As for Jordan, he said, “He should have been executed a long time ago.”
The murder plot
Jordan killed Edwina Marter execution-style shortly after he arrived in South Mississippi on Jan. 11, 1976, and spotted Gulf National Bank at U.S. 90 and U.S. 49 in Gulfport. He called and asked for the name of the senior commercial loan officer and was told it was Charles Marter, who was also vice president of the bank.
Jordan went through a Gulfport city directory, which at that time listed occupations, to find Marter’s home address.
Jordan went to the home, posing as an electrical repairman to check the breaker boxes, and Edwina Marter let him in.
He grabbed her as her 3-year-old son slept in a bedroom and forced her into a car. He drove to De Soto National Forest, where he let her out and killed her.
After the killing, Jordan called Charles Marter demanding a $25,000 ransom in exchange for his wife’s safe return. He told Marter to wrap the ransom up in a brown paper bag and drop it off at a location on U.S. 49. Marter gathered up the money, but also alerted authorities.
Twice Marter tried to deliver the ransom to Jordan, but Jordan saw law enforcement officers as Marter was making his way to the drop-off point. He left both times. He contacted Marter a third time, telling him to leave the money under a jacket on Interstate 10 near the Canal Road exit.
Marter left the money, but neither he nor Jordan knew authorities were watching.
When Jordan picked up the money, authorities chased him, but he eluded them. He drove to a discount pharmacy to buy new clothes, then called a taxi. He was in a taxi when authorities arrested him in a roadblock.
Jordan confessed to killing Edwina Marter and told authorities where to find her body. Her family said she’d been shot and tied to a tree.
“He took my sister away and we’re still dealing with it,” Degruy said. “I think he’s been living long enough. It’s not fair to us. You know, you don’t like people to die, but he deserves it.”
WASHINGTON — Dylann Roof, the man suspected of killing nine people at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., last month was indicted on Wednesday on federal hate crime and other charges, including some that carry the federal death penalty, two law enforcement officials said on Wednesday.
Mr. Roof, 21, already faces nine counts of murder in state court and could face the death penalty there. But Justice Department and F.B.I. officialshave said the Charleston shooting was so horrific and racially motivated that the federal government must address it.
He was also charged with killing someone while obstructing religious freedom, which is eligible for the death penalty.
South Carolina does not have a hate crimes law, and federal officials have said they believe that a murder case alone would leave the racial component of the crime unaddressed.
A grand jury was expected to return a federal indictment on Wednesday afternoon. It was not immediately clear how that indictment would affect the state prosecution. The Justice Department has the option to delay its case and wait to see how the state case ends before deciding whether to proceed with a second trial. Under federal law, a hate crime does not, by itself, carry a possible death sentence.
Authorities have linked Mr. Roof to a racist Internet manifesto and said he was in contact with white supremacist groups before his attack on the Emanuel A.M.E. Church. He was photographed holding a Confederate flag and a handgun.
“I have no choice,” the manifesto reads. “I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the Internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
Survivors said that Mr. Roof arrived at the church as worshipers gathered for a Wednesday night Bible study group. “You are raping our women and taking over our country,” Mr. Roof said to the victims, all of them black, before killing them, witnesses told the police.
The shooting sparked fresh national debate over the symbolism of the Confederate flag. South Carolina lawmakers responded by removing the flag from the State House grounds.
WASHINGTON — Before he was exonerated of murder and released in 2010,Anthony Gravesspent 18 years locked up in a Texas prison, 16 of them all alone in a tiny cell.
Actually, he does not count it that way. He counts his time in solitary confinement as “60 square feet, 24 hours a day, 6,640 days.” The purpose, Mr. Graves came to conclude, was simple. “It is designed to break a man’s will to live,” he said in an interview.
An estimated 75,000 state and federal prisoners are held in solitary confinement in the United States, and for the first time in generations, leaders are rethinking the practice.President Obamalast week ordered a Justice Department review of solitary confinement while Congress and more than a dozen states consider limits on it. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in a Supreme Court ruling last month, all but invited a constitutional challenge.
“Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time?” Mr. Obama asked in aspeech at a convention of the N.A.A.C.P.in Philadelphia, where he called for an overhaul of the criminal justice system. “That is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It’s not smart.”
While other changes to the justice system would require Congress to act, this is one area where the president has at least some latitude, although it is uncertain how much. Either way, it could be a test of his drive in his final 18 months in office to remake America’s prisons. In his N.A.A.C.P. speech and during a visit to a federal prison, the first by a sitting president, Mr. Obama expressed a concern for the lives of prisoners that few, if any, of his predecessors have shown.
“No president has ever suggested that there’s anything problematic about solitary confinement, that we should be studying it or that it’s overused,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’sNational Prison Project. “I feel like that has got to be some sort of a tipping point.”
The Rev. Ron Stief, executive director of theNational Religious Campaign Against Torture, called the moment “a game changer.” He said: “We’ve been saying for decades, ‘It’s time,’ and it really feels now like it is time. The silence has been broken.”
Studies have found that solitary confinement exacerbates mental illness and that even stable people held in isolation report experiencing psychiatric symptoms, including anxiety, depression, anger, self-cutting or other acts of self-harm, or compulsive actions like pacing or cleaning a cell over and over.
“When they get out, they are broken,” said Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist in California who consults on prison conditions and mental health programs. “This is permanent damage.”
Cornell William Brooks, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said prolonged solitary confinement amounted to torture. “Putting someone in solitary confinement does horrible things to a person’s personality, their psyche, their character,” he said. “It might be said that condemning a person to solitary confinement treats a person as an animal. And so that they emerge from such treatment exhibiting animalistic behavior can’t be surprising.”
Many corrections officials, even those who believe that solitary confinement is overused, caution that in some situations, it may be unavoidable.
“If someone has committed a violent assault, whether it be a staff member or another inmate, until you can somehow solve that problem, that person is going to need to be isolated,” saidRick Raemisch, executive director of Colorado’s corrections department. He pointed to an inmate who said he would kill someone if he were allowed out of solitary, a threat mental health professionals considered credible.
Mr. Raemisch has worked to substantially reduce the use of solitary confinement in Colorado but said groups that opposed it altogether should help develop other ways to handle inmates who pose a danger of violence. “There are those that say this is bad,” he said, “but when you look around for an alternative, people have left the room.”
The modern American death penalty has few advocates as aggressive and outspoken as Dale Cox. He is the acting district attorney of Caddo Parish, La., a poor region in one of the nation’s poorest states. From 2010 to 2014, prosecutors in Caddo Parish won more death sentences per capita than anywhere else in the country.
In March Mr. Cox drew national news coverage for his response to a former colleague’s public apology for putting a man on death row who later turned out to be innocent. “I think we need to kill more people,” Mr. Cox said.
The purpose of the death penalty, he has said repeatedly, is not to deter crime but to exact revenge. “Retribution is a valid societal interest,” he told The New York Times.
He has denied that the death penalty is racist or arbitrary, even though Caddo Parish, like most places in the country, applies it disproportionately in cases involving black defendants.
His concern about the method of execution is whether it inflicts enough pain. In a recent case of a man sentenced to death for suffocating his 1-year-old son, Mr. Cox was upset that lethal injection would be used. The convict, he said, “deserves as much physical suffering as it is humanly possible to endure before he dies
His reasoning? Beyond the usual comment that the media attention was a distraction, he said, “I have come to believe that my position on the death penalty is a minority position among the members of this community.”
It was an interesting admission for several reasons, not least of which is that Mr. Cox himself used to be opposed to capital punishment. Raised Catholic and educated in a Jesuit school, he left an earlier job in the district attorney’s office because of his discomfort with such cases, according to a New Yorker profile of Mr. Cox published this month.
Over the years he changed his mind, he explained, in reaction to the cases of unspeakable brutality that he was exposed to as a prosecutor. “The nature of the work is so serious that there’d be something wrong if it didn’t change you,” Mr. Cox told The Times, saying also that he now takes medicine for depression.
It is easy to caricature Mr. Cox as little more than the angry, unrepentant face of vengeance behind America’s ever-narrowing campaign of state-sponsored killing. But it is important to listen closely to what he is saying about his job, which subjects those who do it to daily trauma and cruelty on a level most people never experience.
And that is another reason the death penalty must end: It dehumanizes not just those put to death, but everyone involved in the process — from the prosecutors who seek it to the juries who impose it and the executioners who carry it out.
Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik has won a place to study political science at Oslo’s university.
The 36 year old admitted killing 77 people when he bombed central Oslo and then went on a shooting spree at a youth camp on a nearby island in 2011.
Breivik has been studying certain course modules since first applying to the University of Oslo in 2013, but he will now be taught as a full student.
He will have no contact with staff or students as he studies from his cell.
In 2012, he was sentenced to the maximum 21 years in prison for carrying out Norway’s worst massacre since World War Two.
This jail term can be extended if he is deemed to remain a danger to society.
The university’s rector, Ole Petter Ottersen, said that Norwegian inmates “have a right to pursue higher education in Norway if they meet the admission requirements and are successful in competition with other applicants.”
The rector added that the university had students whose family members had been killed by Breivik. However, he said that the university would abide by its rules “for our own sake, not for his.”
As he studies from his prison, Breivik will be subject to strict regulations. He will be allowed no access to internet resources or receive any personal guidance from tutors. All communication with the university will take place via “a contact person in prison”.
Breivik first applied to study in 2013 but did not meet entry requirements as he had never completed secondary school. Instead, he was allowed to study certain political science modules.
A corrections officer escorting an inmate to his cell was beaten to death Wednesday at a far northeast Texas prison, Department of Criminal Justice officials said.
The officer was escorting the inmate from a dayroom at the Telford Unit when he was attacked with an object, prison agency spokesman Jason Clark said. Officials did not immediately identify the weapon.
“It’s still under investigation,” Clark said.
The officer, Timothy Davison, 47, was taken to a hospital in Texarkana, about 20 miles east of the prison, where he died, Clark said. Davison, who lived near the prison, had been with the agency since December.
“Our hearts are deeply saddened by this tragic loss of life,” Brad Livingston, executive director of the prison system, said. “This dedicated correctional officer came to work each day determined to make Texas a safe place to live.”
The inmate involved was identified as Billy Joel Tracy, 37.
Prison records show he has at least seven convictions dating back to 1995 and is serving a life sentence for robbery and aggravated assault from Rockwall County, a suburban county east of Dallas. He has other convictions from Tarrant and Potter counties, including possession of a deadly weapon while in prison. At least three convictions are for assaults on corrections officers.
“We will see that the offender who is responsible for this murder will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Oliver Bell, chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, said.
Clark said the Telford Unit was properly staffed and had not been the scene of recent serious security problems.
“Of course, any time there’s a serious incident like this, there will be a review,” he said. “That’s standard procedure.”
Investigators from the agency’s Office of Inspector General were at the prison and “processing the crime scene,” Clark said.
It’s the first slaying of a Texas corrections officer since 2007, when 59-year-old Susan Canfield suffered fatal head injuries during the chaos and gunfire as two inmates broke away from a work detail outside a Huntsville-area prison. Both inmates were recaptured. One of them convicted of her death has since been executed.
The Telford Unit in Bowie County can hold nearly 2,900 inmates.
As the judge began reading the verdicts — guilty, guilty, guilty — repeated 165 times over an entire hour, for each count of murder and attempted murder, the families sobbed quietly, clutched one another’s shoulders and nodded along to a recitation of guilt that many had been waiting nearly three years to hear.
Sandy Phillips wrapped herself tightly in the green scarf that her slain daughter, Jessica Ghawi, had loved. A father whose son was killed patted the arm of Joshua Nowlan, who was wounded and now walks with a cane.As each name of the 12 people killed and 70 wounded was read, and read again — prosecutors filed two charges per victim — the families looked to the corner of the public gallery and gave one another a quiet nod or an arm squeeze.
After an emotional 10-week trial, one of the longest and most complex in this state’s history, it took a jury of nine women and three men about 12 hours of deliberation over two days to convict Mr. Holmes on all counts. He now faces a lengthy sentencing process in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
The jury’s verdict roundly rejected arguments from his defense lawyers that he had had a psychotic break and was legally insane when he carried out the massacre inside the Century 16 theater in suburban Aurora, Colo., on July 20, 2012. His lawyers argued he was not in control of his thoughts or actions, but prosecutors said Mr. Holmes, despite being mentally ill, had plotted the shootings with calculation and knew what he wanted to accomplish when he started firing into the crowd.
As Judge Carlos Samour Jr. read the 165 counts against Mr. Holmes, the defendant stood silently between his lawyers, staring straight ahead, with his hands tucked into the pockets of a pair of khaki-colored pants. He did not glance at his parents sitting two rows behind. When the hourlong recitation of the verdicts was done, he sat down and lightly swiveled in his chair.
Coming within days of the Aurora shooting’s third anniversary, the guilty verdict ends one phase of a grueling legal saga, but another one is set to begin.
As the district attorney in suburban Arapahoe County argues for the death penalty, the jury will begin weighing the toll and nature of Mr. Holmes’s actions to decide whether to send him to prison for life or to Colorado’s death row.
“Look for the defense to emphasize the fact that James Holmes truly suffers from a serious mental illness, that he is in dire need of ongoing treatment and that while incarcerated he does not pose any real threat or danger to society,” said Steven Pitt, a forensic psychiatrist in Arizona who has followed the case closely. “Look for the prosecution to try and minimize the extent of Holmes’s mental illness and instead depict him as someone who is depraved and rotten to the core.”
The district attorney, George Brauchler, has said that for Mr. Holmes, “justice is death.”
Prosecutors argued that Mr. Holmes plotted the shootings for several weeks, deliberately and meticulously, because he had lost his first and only girlfriend, had dropped out of his graduate program and had generally lost his purpose in life.
To that end, prosecutors brought in professors and classmates who described Mr. Holmes’s struggles as a first-year graduate student in the neuroscience program at the Anschutz Medical Campus of the University of Colorado. Mr. Holmes quit the program in June 2012, after he failed important oral exams, and declined the chance to retake them.
Prosecutors showcased pages from a spiral notebook in which Mr. Holmes inscribed murderous fantasies and nonsensical theories about life and death, and where he plotted what kind of attack to carry out, and how and where to do it.
Two psychiatrists who testified for the defense said Mr. Holmes lacked the ability to tell right from wrong or act with intent — critical elements of sanity under Colorado law.
Their testimony clashed with two court-appointed psychiatrists who said that although Mr. Holmes suffered a severe mental illness on a spectrum with schizophrenia, he was not legally insane when he walked into the theater.
Some families responded with visible relief, and public officials in Colorado — many of whom attended memorial services and have met with victims’ families — said they hoped that the verdict would bring a small measure of solace. Others were warier of a sentencing process that could lead to years of appeals if Mr. Holmes is sentenced to death.
“This has been an emotional and difficult time for the victims, their families, loved ones and friends,” Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado said in a statement. “My hope is that this step brings some peace to each of them and begins the healing process for all of Colorado.”
After the verdict was delivered, Jansen Young stood outside the courthouse in an afternoon rain and said she felt a weight lifted. When the shooting started that night, her boyfriend, Jonathan Blunk, pushed her under the seats and boxed her in, she said. He was killed, and on Thursday, his name was the first one read in the litany of murder victims.
Ms. Young said she had looked at Mr. Holmes in court and could not fathom his demeanor.
“It’s amazing to me that there is no response,” she said.
Jessica Watts, a cousin of Mr. Blunk, said the pain she experienced during the trial had gotten so bad that a month ago she stopped attending. She spent the summer going to the pool and zoo with her children — following the advice that another victim’s family member had given her, to focus on the living — but on Thursday, her phone started ringing.
She said she began shaking as the verdict was read, and tried to calm herself by thinking about the people for whom she had come to court that day. “It’s all these families that have been touched by this massive tragedy,” Ms. Watts said. “Win, lose, whatever, there’s 12 people that are never coming back.”
The death penalty is often justified on the grounds that it brings peace to the families of victims; that the act of ending a life may mark an end to their pain. But for those who impose the death penalty, the truth about the emotional trauma of killing another human being belies this logic.
“You can’t tell me I can take the life of people and go home and be normal. If I had known what I’d have to go through as an executioner, I wouldn’t have done it. It took a lot out of me to do it.”
These are the words of Jerry Givens, former state executioner for the Virginia Department of Corrections. Givens executed 62 people over 17 years in a state that ranks third in the nation for number of executions. The emotional toll of his former job is something he can’t escape. “You have to transform yourself into that person that will take a life. Every time an execution was announced, it meant that I had to prepare myself mentally to kill.”
Confessions of an Executioner
It’s rare to find a former executioner willing to speak openly about their experiences. The nature of the job causes many to conceal their real occupation like a shameful secret. But Givens is one of the few executioners who speaks candidly about his past career, and he provides a unique insight into a world that few people ever venture into.
It’s clear from speaking to Givens that he is a compassionate man. He talks often of being able to look past the crime to see the human being underneath. “We degrade people and call them animals,” he told ThinkProgress. “But when I worked on death row, I didn’t see that animal. I saw a human being. When you call people an animal and treat them like that, that’s the behavior they’ll show you. But they can also show you that they’re not like that; that everybody can change.”
An executioner seems a curious job for a person to whom empathy comes easily. How did this compassionate man become an enforcer of the death penalty? What did it take for him to kill another human being? For Givens, it was a steadfast faith in the justice system. This faith meant that doubts were suppressed and fears were tolerated. Any gnawing unease was overpowered by the notion that it must be the right thing to do – it was state-certified, after all.
“I always ask myself, would I have agreed to participate in executions if I knew then what I do now?” Steve J. Martin, an execution witness for the Texas Department of Corrections, told ThinkProgress. “We do these things that we would normally never be involved in because they’re sanctioned by the government. And then we start walking through them in a mechanical fashion. We become detached. We lose our humanity.”
Givens agrees. “The people who pass these bills, they don’t have to do it. The people who do the executions, they’re the ones who suffer through it,” he said.
Deliberately killing another human being goes against all normal societal standards, and many individuals must go to unusual and harmful measures to accomplish such an act. A 2005 Stanford University psychology study by Michael Osofsky highlighted the tactics employed by prison staff to absolve themselves from feelings of guilt and despondency.
“Individuals must morally disengage in order to perform actions and behaviors that run opposite to individual values and personal moral standards,” Osofsky explained in the study. “Capital punishment is an example of this type of moral dilemma, where everyday people are forced to perform the legal and state-sanctioned action of ending the life of another human being, which poses an inherent moral conflict to human values.”
For many people involved in enforcing the death penalty, the subsequent trauma would never dissipate. California Governor Edmund Brown was responsible for deciding whether death sentences would ensue or be commuted to life without parole. Though he granted clemency to 23 out of his 59 cases, the weight of these decisions still overwhelms him.
“The longer I live, the larger loom those 59 decisions about justice and mercy that I had to make as governor,” Brown said. “It was an ultimate power over the lives of others that no person or government should have. And looking back over their names and files now, I realize that each decision took something out of me that nothing – not family or work or hope for the future – has ever been able to replace.”
Needless to say, the enforcers of the death penalty aren’t the only ones to suffer. Fully accepting the imminent end to your life, against your will and at the hands of another is a bizarre reality that many prisoners just couldn’t face, as Givens recounts.
“This one guy…was sort of moderately retarded. He’d ordered McDonald’s and a chocolate nut sundae for his last meal. But he couldn’t swallow it. So he said to me, ‘I can’t finish it so I’ll put it in the fridge for tomorrow.’ Here he is, three hours away for being executed and he’s thinking about putting his sundae away for tomorrow. But there was no tomorrow for him. He hadn’t realized this was his last day.”
Givens’ experiences in the death chamber have led him to campaign for the abolition of capital punishment, even driving him to write a book, Confessions of an Executioner. His motivation is deep-seated. “There are things I want the public to know that they don’t. I need to expose things that should be exposed. I don’t want to leave anyone in the dark, because America is still putting innocent people on death row. And people don’t know about it. People don’t understand.”
A Lethal Dose
The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma last year is one example of the realities of the death penalty, which Givens believes all people should know about. “He strained and struggled violently, his body twisting, his head reaching up from the gurney,” journalist Katie Fretland wrote. “Sixteen minutes after the execution began, Lockett said “Man,” and the blinds were lowered… It would be a full 43 minutes after the drug was administered before Lockett died – and only after he had thrashed on the gurney, writhing and groaning.”
Lockett was killed using a new combination of experimental drugs and the consequences were nightmarish. The doctor was sprayed with blood when an artery was hit; Lockett was in “some pain” as he was pricked at least 16 times in the attempts to find a vein; the scene was described by prison wardens as “a bloody mess” and the prisoner’s multiple attempts to talk like something from “a horror movie.”
The emotional repercussions of this blood-splattered scene were harrowing. Witnesses to the execution spoke of their distress and recounted not being able to sleep for days after. It is the quiet nature of lethal injections that is their selling point, after all –- state-sanctioned homicides veiled with a clinical serenity. As Givens knows all too well, no one wants to see actual blood spilled, or face the unwelcome reminder that, murderer or not, there is a human being dying in front of them.
After Europe blocked sales of the lethal drug sodium thiopental to the United States, the Department of Corrections were forced to look elsewhere for such a powerful anaesthetic. But global pharmaceutical companies didn’t like the idea of their drugs being used to kill people, and so drugs were sourced, purchased, but then again quickly blocked. Soon, the departments of corrections hit a wall. There were simply no anaesthetics strong enough.
But there were other drugs. Not anaesthetics, but sedatives like midazolam, usually administered in conjunction with an anaesthetic to relax a patient. Despite the warnings that midazolam is simply not powerful enough to produce the same coma-like state as sodium thiopental – a state absolutely necessary to ensure the subject feels no pain and the execution is ‘humane’ – midazolam became the drug of choice and the fatal experimentations began.
This unyielding desire to purchase and use barely-tested lethal drugs on prisoners doesn’t surprise Givens. “The criminal justice system is corrupted and we don’t want to own up to it. They think they can get any drugs they want. Where they got so much power from, I don’t know. The drugs should be disclosed to the lawyer and to the condemned – he should know what he’s going to die from.”
As many expected, the first midazolam executions were riddled with red flags. Pastor Laurence Hummer’s account of the execution of Dennis McGuire is just one of them: “His stomach swelled up in an unusual way. He struggled and gasped audibly for air. I was aghast. Over 11 minutes or more he was gasping for breath, his fists clenched the entire time. His gasps could be heard through the glass wall that separated us. There is no question in my mind that Dennis McGuire suffered greatly over many minutes. I consider that inhumane.”
Despite these reports, midazolam was recommended for use by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, and correctional facilities across the country jumped aboard. Last week, despite significant condemnation the
<href=”#ixzz3edvb5k66″>Supreme Court rejected the idea that midazolam is a cruel and unusual punishment and sanctioned its use, clearing the way for deferred executions to ensue.
“The drugs they’re using, who approved it? What doctor approved it?” asks Givens. “You can’t judge pain. You can’t measure the pain that a person is going through, physical or psychological. The guy receiving the drug can’t tell you, because he’s gone. You’ve never died before, so you can’t say. Even myself, I don’t know. I can’t tell you what a guy on the other end is feeling when I’m pushing drugs into his body.”
The Baseline of Morality
The botched executions didn’t end in Oklahoma. Sentenced to death in Arizona for a 1989 double murder, in July 2014 Joseph Wood took two hours to die. Journalist Mauricio Marin had never witnessed an execution before; prison staff had told him the process “lasts about 10 minutes” and would be “very clinical”. Instead:
“I saw a man who was supposed to be dead, coughing – or choking, possibly even gasping for air. What seemed like an eternity passed… Finally, the warden pronounced the killer dead, at 3:49 pm, one hour and 57 minutes after the execution began. I thought: Is this how long it’s supposed to take a man to die?”
Republican Senator John McCain was outspoken in terming Wood’s protracted execution as“torture”, but the governor of Arizona Jan Brewer disagreed. “Wood died in a lawful manner and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer,” she said. “This is in stark comparison to the gruesome, vicious suffering that he inflicted on his two victims.”
The argument that a convict’s crime was so heinous that it negates any qualms about their execution is popular with death penalty supporters. The incongruity of using the actions of a convicted killer to determine the baseline for what’s morally acceptable is not lost on Givens, who views this as a dire expression of our most base and ugly thirst for revenge.
“It is revenge – you can’t put it any other way,” he said. “We want revenge and we want it right away. Death is going to occur anyway, but we’re so impatient we have to execute someone. That’s the mentality people have. America was built on killing and there’s hatred in our hearts. But it shouldn’t be that way.”
While most supporters of the death penalty refute the idea that it’s about revenge, District Attorney Dale Cox -– responsible for one third of the death sentences in Louisiana since 2011 -– readily agrees. “I’m a believer that the death penalty serves society’s interest in revenge. I know it’s a hard word to say and people run from it, but I don’t run from it because I think there is a very strong societal interest,” Cox recently told a local reporter. “I think we need to kill more people.”
A death sentence is also no quick way to closure, as Bill and Denise Richard, parents of the 8-year-old boy killed in the Boston Marathon bombings took pains to point out. Publishing a personal appeal in the Boston Globe titled ‘To end the anguish, drop the death penalty,’ the Richards implored prosecutors to sentence Dzhokhar Tsaernev to life without parole instead of death.
“The continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives,” they wrote. “We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.”
The Richards are not alone. Marietta Jaeger, whose seven-year-old daughter was kidnapped and murdered by a mentally ill man, requested that prosecutors seek a mandatory life sentence instead of the death penalty. Jaeger has been vocal in her opposition to capital punishment,asserting that in reality, the death penalty only creates more grieving families and turns the victims into that which they deplore – people who kill people:
“To say that the death of another person would be just retribution is to insult the immeasurable worth of our loved ones. That kind of justice would only dehumanize and degrade us because it legitimates an animal instinct for gut-level, blood-thirsty revenge. My daughter was such a gift that to kill someone in her name would have been to violate the goodness of her life; the idea is offensive and repulsive to me.”
Givens recalled the case of Earl Washington Jr., a 22-year-old black man wrongfully convicted of rape and murder, as one example that made him lose faith in the justice system. Washington’s execution was stayed nine days before Givens was scheduled to kill him. Years later, new DNA evidence led Virginia’s governor to pardon Washington, who was released in 2001.
“I knew the system was corrupted when we exonerated Earl Washington Jr. from death row. Days later, I would have executed him,” Givens said. “You have two types of people on death row: the guilty and the innocent. And when you have the guilty and the innocent, you shouldn’t have death row.”
But even if the law has not yet caught up, attitudes are starting to change on the death penalty. Support for the death penalty is at historic lows, and abolitionists remain optimistic even after the most recent Supreme Court ruling.
“We have to look at the big picture,” Givens explained. “Everyone on Earth has a death day: you, me, everyone. We can’t stop death, but we can stop killing…We have to think about the generation that’s coming up. We can’t let them go through what we had to go through. We tried it; we tried it, and it didn’t work. Now let’s get them going in a different direction from us.”