The following essay on capital punishment and the imminent execution of Troy Davis was penned by former CL senior editor John F. Sugg.
"Let's do it."
— Gary Gilmore's last words to a Utah firing squad, January 17, 1977
Precisely, how shall we do it? How do we dispatch thee? Let me count the ways.
We have stoned. We have pushed from cliffs. We have speared and knifed and hacked with whatever bloody instrument is handy.
We have applied a thousand tiny cuts over days, weeks, months and sometimes more than a year; the odious screams were so melodious. In some Eastern rituals, we have allowed the recipient of our affections to select the succession of limbs and appendages to be detached. Our more eccentric rites have sanctioned carving out hearts and feasting on the still-beating organs.
We have had our trained elephants use their massive feet to squish heads, and our lions, tigers and other fierce critters apply their sharp canines to rip bodies to shreds.
We have crushed with club blows to the head. We have "pressed" by slowly piling on heavy stones over many days. We have strapped our fellows to cartwheels and then swung iron bars to break, quite indelicately, every bone in the body. We have stretched on the "rack," dislocating every joint before either a confession, true or not, won a quick death or the body was pulled to pieces.
We have drowned, sometimes preceded by romantically walking the plank. Also with a nautical air, we have keelhauled and applied death's measure of lashes with a cat-o-nine-tails.
We have tossed into quagmires, a nice, tidy, cheap, low-tech option. As well, we have frugally starved, often placing the reluctant dieter in public cages so that the populace could be enriched by studying his wasting.
Our churchmen have, with great piety and ambition, burned thousands; ah, the fragrant smell of barbequed heretics and political dissidents. To speed the flames, executioners liberally applied tar to some clients before chaining them to the stake. Our genteel British associates preferred the auto-de-fe for ladies because, as opposed to the disrobing required for dismemberment, the fire preserved the ill-fated damsels' modesty.
In a particularly cathartic exercise, we have inserted the greased sharpened point of an upright stake into the rectum and allowed the honoree, by his or her own wild wiggling, to force himself or herself slowly, ever so slowly, down the pole until it pierced the heart.
Please, I'm only getting started. Humanity's imagination knows few bounds, after all.
We have placed spikes facing outward on a large wheel, tied the cringing culprit to the circular affair and rolled it down a hill, thump, thump, thump. The condemned often got the point, so to speak, via ingenious devices such as the "iron maiden." We have bent four strong saplings toward each other, attaching them by ropes to the arms and legs of our unbeloved, then cut loose the trees, twannnng, allowing them to rip the human limbs asunder, a simply delightful spectacle.
We have boiled. Oh, yes, we have exquisitely boiled — al dente in water and extra crispy in oil. We've also slow roasted. Why, we've even tossed some lucky souls into volcanoes. And, we have artistically flayed the skin; it has been recorded that a hapless human can live an entire day, occasionally more, once all of the skin has been stripped from the body.
Most certainly, the neck has a time-honored role in state-assisted oblivion. We have beheaded with sword, ax and the marvelous mechanical invention of a French doctor named Joseph Ignace Guillotin. We have garroted — occasionally as a form of mercy before we burned the miscreant at the stake.
And we have hung, by rope, chain and wire, from the gallows, gibbet, yardarm and, when hurried, the nearest tree. We have hauled the unlucky ones up slowly, enjoying their dances in the air and allowing them to strangle for as much as a half hour, sometimes more. With somewhat more kindness, we have sought to break the neck during hanging, launching the condemned into nothingness off the backs of horses, nudging them from the tops of stools and scaffolds, and decisively plunging them through trap doors. Occasionally, we've misjudged the weights of our friends and their heads have popped off, but hell, everyone makes mistakes.
Faced with the dilemma of what ministration was appropriate, we have oft creatively used several. Thus, our most thoroughly civilized English cousins first hoisted knaves by their necks, allowing them to gurgle and flop around a bit. Before unconsciousness descended, they were cut down. Then, executioners would slice open the sad fellows' bellies, and slowly draw out the intestines. These entrails were then burned in front of the still-awake victims, who of course were generally not at all amused at the proceedings. Still, the crowds loved it. Finally, the star performers' heads were lopped from their bodies, and the carcasses were cut into pieces and hung in prominent spots around London. The detached heads were parboiled in salt and cumin seed — for preservation, to deter feasting by birds, and according to some accounts, to restore an attractive blush to the cheeks. The heads were then decorously spiked at high-traffic spots to remind citizens of their rulers' benevolence and wisdom. Least you think this was an ancient punishment, it wasn't — this drama, dubbed "drawing and quartering," continued well into the 19th Century. It was deemed to be a "deterrent," a fancifully quaint concept we'll return to shortly.
The advance of civilization has little diminished our judicial savagery. However, we have been provided wonderful new technologies for our gory repertoire of butchery.
Picture, if you will, the firing squad, complete with the swaggering last puff on a cigarette, the disdainful refusal of the blindfold, the hearty shout of "ready, aim, fire!" and the merciful coup de grace.
Efficiency-minded Russian colleagues, eschewing style, merely shoved revolvers to the back of heads and spattered brains on dungeon walls. Our Chinese brethren, in a new twist of the "from each according to his ability to each according to his need" credo, invoiced the condemned's family for the bullet.
The German fascists, not to be outdone by commie trash, would line up four, five and even more victims and see how many heads could be pierced by a single bullet. And, of course, it was the Nazis who did so much to advance the techniques of gassing, an option also adopted by many American states — although it should be noted that the Germans favored crowd events while we Yanks have usually fumigated the condemned one at a time.
I'm troubled. I know I've forgotten something. Oh, yes, two devices, one ancient, the other a gift of the industrial age: The cross and the electric chair. Both barbarous. Both capable of imparting great agony. Both wielded by empires as intimidating symbols of raw, unvarnished power rather than as emblems of justice. Both used almost exclusively against the poor, the powerless and the unpopular.
If Jesus had arrived on earth just a split second later by God's galactic clock, we'd all be wearing little gold replicas of "Old Sparky" around our necks, rather than stylized knock-offs of the old rugged cross.
Finally, because of unseemly and gruesome events at the hands of “Old Sparky,” we now use deadly chemical concoctions that are pumped into the veins of our death row superstars. We call it lethal injection. However, Socrates, prior to imbibing hemlock with the toast "I die and you live; which is better, only God knows," would have called it by a less bureaucratic name: poisoning. Poisoning, eh, I mean “lethal injection,” has the celebrant hoisted onto a gurney with arms extended in such a wonderful way to evoke the “cross.” Thus, this is proper for Georgia’s man of the hour, Troy Davis, now dead with modernity’s form of crucifixion, ostensibly more comfortable than old Rome’s version, and much more calming for society’s executioners — which includes all of us. But equally deadly, praise the Lord!
These methods, then, are how we answer Gary Gilmore's command, "Let's do it." The forms of slaughter we now use are hardly more civilized than when, five millennia ago, nomads picked up stones and gave the ultimate snub to a wrongdoer. We've varied the means by which we commit legal, violent homicide. The end result remains deadly certain.
Why we do it is a more perplexing question. Do we execute because it is a just penalty, perhaps the only just penalty for some crimes? Do we do it to bring relief to victims' families and friends? Is it a cost-effective means of disposing with those we really, really don't like? Do we kill because it is a deterrent to killing? Has our justice system evolved to such a level that we can say with deadly conviction — and no chance of screwing up — that the men and women we kill deserve such a fate?
For many, the temporal issues are secondary. They phrase the question: Are we obeying a God who has commanded we slay evildoers?
Then there are the annoying skeptics. They ponder: Do we have motives that no just Deity would sanction? Do we commit violent, state homicide to exact vengeance, in defiance of God? Is execution merely the government's way of reminding us of its awesome, brutal, inhuman power? Or, do we kill for the basest of all reasons — because it is a darn fine way for grandstanding politicians to win a few votes from a populace fearful of crime?
* * *
"People write of capital punishment as if they were whispering. … But it is my intention to talk about it crudely. … If people are shown the machine, made to touch the wood and steel and to hear the sound of a head falling, then public imagination, suddenly awakened, will repudiate … the penalty."
— Albert Camus, "Reflections on the Guillotine"
On July 8, 1999, I took Camus' advice and watched the head fall. Or, rather, since that event happened in Florida not France, I watched Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis' head cook and heard him bellow twice in agony as he died. I sat stunned as blood oozed from under the leather mask that choked and partially asphyxiated the condemned man, and I saw more blood erupt on his chest after 2,300 volts began sizzling through his twitching body. I recoiled in nausea and horror as he continued to breathe for several minutes after the current was turned off.
My only regret at the time was that Davis' final act wasn't televised — the carnage that took place in the death chamber at Florida State Prison was, after all, done on behalf of every citizen.
The killing I witnessed was another in a long succession of "oops" for Florida prison guards, a.k.a. death's bumbling henchmen. Some of the jailers, as recent news reports have detailed, also rate the accolade of "sadistic thugs." The horror stories that have been flowing out of the state prison system over the summer — inmates kicked to death, others brutalized with beatings, deaths occurring from medical neglect, prisoners tortured by tiny, mentally debilitating isolation cells — reinforce the image of our jails as little better than medieval dungeons.
When people thought of Florida, they think of beaches, Disney World and flaming executions. Lethal injection has diminished Florida’s image on the last point.
The man I saw die, Davis, had viciously killed a Jacksonville mother and her two young daughters in 1982. There was no doubt as to Davis' guilt. He never expressed remorse. I felt disgust for the 350-pound Davis as I watched him strapped into "Sparky" at Florida State Prison. But that doesn't equate to a desire to kill him.
I had this thought at the time: Davis committed his hideous crime in a rampage of lust and fury. That's no excuse. It's wrong to call murderers "animals" because we don't hold beasts morally responsible for their actions. Davis was a human, not a very good example of a man, but one nonetheless. He was fully and totally responsible for his actions.
Still, it's unlikely he spent much time deliberating his crime. On the other hand, we — as a people, as a culture, as a legal system — spent 17 years premeditating Davis' murder. Our ruthless and bloodthirsty revenge was very, very calculated. When we finally killed Davis, we did so with savagery, brutality and, so it looked to me, a fair measure of sadism — that's the ritual at Raiford.
Ultimately, I thought while sitting in the death house watching Davis die, we've traded places with him. We've become the madmen, the killers.
* * *
"If one innocent person is executed along the way, then we can no longer justify capital punishment."
— Gerald Kogan, former chief justice of Florida's Supreme Court.
"I don't want to live long. I would rather get the death penalty than spend the rest of my life in prison"
— Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber"
By some accounts, the first man executed in colonial America was Captain George Kendall, hung by Virginia in 1608 for stealing. Other records indicate that the first hanging occurred 14 years later, when Daniell Frank was executed for stealing a calf.
Since then, about 18,000 people have been legally executed; some researchers feel the actual number may be as high as 23,000.
We have also have had freelance executions — the lynchings that are part of Southern folklore. In the 1890s, the number of lynchings peaked at about 1,540, far more than the 442 legal executions during the same period.
The U.S. Supreme Court temporarily halted the death penalty in 1972, when in a Georgia case the justices ruled that executions were administered in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner. As we ponder Troy Davis’ fate, “arbitrary and capricious” remain the guideline for Georgia. In 1976, in another Georgia case, the court ruled that capital punishment was not necessarily unconstitutional, and states rushed to enact new death penalty laws.
Gary Gilmore, who fought to be executed, was the first person killed after the 1976 decision — he was agreeably shot by a Utah firing squad. In 1979, Florida fired up "Old Sparky," killing John Spenkelink, the first man executed against his will after the death penalty hiatus.
Out of about 17,000 murders each year, far fewer than 100 people are executed annually, a declining number that may put the executioners on the unemployment line in some states. Put another way, most estimates are that 0.7 percent of people who commit homicide will be executed.
There have been about 700,000 homicides in the United States since 1976. Yet, only about 100,000 of the murders are in jail or dead — meaning 80 percent have been released or never went to jail. They remain your neighbors.
In order to help out our state legislators who are eager to kill but are vague on their reason, here are the major arguments for the death penalty.
Myth: The argument is that by killing killers, others will be frightened away from committing capital crimes. Lord George Sevile Halifax, a 17th Century British diplomat, summed up this position: "Men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen."
Reality: There has never been the slightest whiff of evidence that executions decrease the murder rate. A survey conducted in England a century ago showed that of 250 prisoners who were hanged, 170 had previously attended a public execution. Modern statistics are just as damning to the deterrence theory. The South accounts for 80 percent of the executions in the United States — yet it has the highest murder rate of any region in the nation (8.4 per 100,000 population compared to a national average of 6.8).
There are a number death penalty states — 16 by last count — and many are adjacent to states with no capital punishment — Missouri/Iowa, Connecticut/Massachusetts, Illinois/Wisconsin, Virginia/West Virginia. In each of those cases, the capital punishment state has a higher murder rate than its neighbor. A California study showed the average annual increase in homicide was twice as high in years in which executions occurred compared to years when the death penalty wasn't used. The United States has a murder rate 5 to 20 times greater than industrialized nations that have abolished capital punishment.
A 1995 poll of U.S. police chiefs found that they ranked the death penalty dead last as a means of deterring crime. The law enforcement officers felt drug treatment programs, employment opportunities, longer prison sentences and reducing the availability of firearms were better means of combating crime.
Anecdotal evidence also attests to the myth of deterrence. Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber” killer, would rather die than rot in jail. Gary Gilmore fought to be executed. He's not alone — nine of the executions this year have involved "volunteers." And, of course, many criminals choose to die rather than be arrested and incarcerated — Hank Earl Carr comes to mind.
Many scholars also see no deterrent effect of the death penalty — including 80 percent of the members of the American Society of Criminology, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences and the Law and Society Association.
Here's a final thought on deterrence. If killing criminals decreases crime, then more executions, as well as more brutal and horrible means of execution, coupled with the public's viewing of the death penalty, would be a far more effective deterrent than sanitized lethal injections concealed behind prison walls.
But, of course, that's ridiculous. More than 20,000 people in 1936 attended the last public hanging in the United States (in Kentucky). There was no resulting decrease in crime or murders. Henry VIII executed 72,000 people during his reign — usually by hideously horrible means such as drawing and quartering. Crime remained rampant in Henry's kingdom.
Myth: The death penalty can be fairly applied.
Reality: An authoritative study released last year of capital cases in Philadelphia showed that the odds of receiving the death penalty were 3.9 times greater if the defendant was black.
Examinations of the relationship between race and the death penalty have been conducted in every state that uses executions. In 96 percent of the reviews, there was a pattern of either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination. George is guilty on both counts — to wit, Troy Davis.
Blacks make up 13 percent of the population, yet account for 41 percent of those on death row. In some Southern states, 60 percent of the murder victims are black, yet 80 percent of the death sentences are handed down for killing whites.
According to Craig Aaron, of the Institute for Public Affairs in Chicago, at one time all 39 people on Kentucky's death row were there for killing a white person, even though a thousand blacks had been killed in the state during the same period.
Of the roughly 18,000 executions in American history, only 30 have been for a white killing a black.
And 98 percent of the district attorneys in death penalty jurisdictions are white. Blacks, who are much more likely to oppose the death penalty than whites, are routinely excluded from juries.
Race is not the only measure of gross unfairness in the application of the death penalty. About 90 percent of death row inmates were financially unable to hire their own attorneys. As Lehigh professor Steffen observes: "I am unaware of any who would be considered wealthy."
And, although women commit 20 percent of the homicides, they account for only less than one percent of the executions.
In short, almost all condemned prisoners share some or all of these characteristics: Poor, black, male, undereducated, and represented by inexperienced and/or court-appointed lawyers. In addition, they are likely to have serious mental disease or be of substandard intelligence.
Myth: Society shouldn't have to pay to keep murderers alive.
Reality: The death penalty is grotesquely more expensive than sentencing someone to life imprisonment with no hope of parole. Capital punishment is, indeed, a luxury for cash-strapped governments.
From the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, we learn that a Texas execution costs about $2.3 million, roughly three times the cost of imprisoning someone for 40 years. In Florida, The Miami Herald has determined executing someone costs $3.2 million, six times the cost of life imprisonment. A California report estimated the state could save more than $100 million a year by ending capital punishment.
Myth: Relatives of victims deserve justice that can only be obtained through executions.
Reality: If this logic were true, then consider the many, many families of victims whose killers weren't executed. Remember, there are about 18,000 homicides each year and far fewer executions. Are these thousands of families not avenged?
Moreover, the desires of victims' relatives — often fueled, understandably, by anger and anguish — can't be the basis for determining a just response to crime, however sympathetic society may be. What these relatives really need is psychological, emotional and, often, financial support. But that would call for unheard-of compassion and creativity by our legislators.
Finally, many, many victims' relatives have called for mercy for killers.
Justice, Part I
Myth: The only just response to a crime such as aggravated murder is the death penalty.
Reality: The "eye for an eye" argument is largely a theological one. But, from a legal standpoint, it’s silly. We don't exact the mirror image of crime for virtually any other felony. We don't rape rapists. We don't tell lies to perjurers. We don't burn arsonists' homes. We create a standard, usually measured in years of incarceration or financial penalties, that we equate to a criminal's actions. For murder, the forfeiture of freedom for the rest of the killer's life is a terrible but just sentence — and society is spared moral onus of shedding blood. Indeed, for many, the prospect of life in prison is a much worse than quick death.
Justice, Part II
Myth: Justice would be better served if we reduced the 11 years the average condemned prisoner spends on death row — in other words, kill them faster.
Reality: At first blush, if we accept capital punishment, it would appear that speeding the process would serve justice. Michael Rushford, president of the pro-execution Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in California, decries the delays caused by appeals as "frivolous and are only designed to thwart justice…. (they) cost the states and taxpayers millions."
Here's the problem with that argument. Even with the long period of appeals, we've condemned many, many innocent people. Since 1973, 138 death row inmates have proven their innocence and been freed from death row. That means for every nine people who have left death row in a hearse, one has walk away after proving the judicial system wrong.
* * *
"Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and slew him. … And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken unto him sevenfold."
— Genesis 4: 8 and 15
In the end, we all find God. The photogenic pin-up girl of death row, Karla Faye Tucker certainly found Him, proclaiming, "I am going to be face to face with Jesus now," shortly before Texas officials pumped her full of lethal chemicals in 1998.
The dispute is over whether the Deity needs a helping hand when it comes to dispensing final justice.
There's no doubt that the Old Testament prescribes capital punishment. The books of Moses named 19 capital offences, including murder, fornication, witchcraft and cursing a parent. The Christian Right, with convoluted reasoning, interprets one New Testament verse, Romans 13:4 — which merely asserts that the state has the right to enforce laws — to justify the application of Moses' death penalty today. The verse doesn't mention capital punishment, and no other New Testament scripture comes close to okaying executions.
One school of thought is that Moses was right. There's a very scary — but influential — brand of fundamentalism called Christian Reconstruction, headed by theologian R.J. Rushdoony, now thankfully dead. One of the two national centers for the cult is in Powder Springs, in the heart of Cobb County.
The Reason Foundation, a Libertarian think tank, commented last year: "Reconstructionists provide the most enthusiastic constituency for stoning since the Taliban seized Kabul." Reason reported that among the evildoers Reconstructionists would punish by death, preferably stoning, are "blasphemers, heretics, apostate Christians, people who cursed or struck their parents, females guilty of 'unchastity before marriage,' 'incorrigible' juvenile delinquents, adulterers, and (probably) telephone psychics. And that's to say nothing of murderers and those guilty of raping married women or 'betrothed virgins.'"
I spoke to one of Rushdoony’s fellow travelers a few years ago, the Rev. Don Boys, who heads something called Common Sense for Today near Rome, Georgia. "It (capital punishment for the above-named offenses) only seems extreme if you are in opposition to God's law," he said. "We haven't really tried it (the wholesale execution of large numbers of criminals). Yes, there will be some mistakes.
"Rushdoony is a sharp person,” Boys added. “What he is saying is that we should obey God."
Maybe I’ve been reading a different Bible than the one Rushdoony and Boys thump.
First, in one of the few examples of God, not the state, punishing a murderer, Cain was banished not executed. Some Jewish religious scholars feel this was because Cain repented — thus illustrating that God can show mercy even to major league sinners.
I also found an interesting bit of Christian history. The Roman Emperor Julian (4th Century) would not appoint Christians to official posts because they wouldn't enforce the death penalty. Thus, we can conclude that the early Christians abhorred state murder for the first 400 years or so after Christ. It wasn't until the church needed to enforce political power and orthodoxy that it embraced capital punishment.
Still, parsing ancient history doesn't resolve the God question. But Jesus, in his own words, does. "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone." (John 8:7) Only those who are perfectly innocent are eligible to condemn someone. I don't think we'll find many such saints among our judges and legislators.
The blade falls, the current surges, the rope jerks taut. It's not because of justice, deterrence or God's will. Considering the racist and class bias inherent in our picking who will die, one explanation for the death penalty is that the state uses it to intimidate minorities and the poor. Considering the political posturing, another explanation is that legislators and judges hope to win votes by backing executions — even though capital punishment wastes precious resources that could be used to decrease crime.
And, finally, the only other explanation is vengeance. Hateful, violent retribution. And what did God say about that? Romans 12:19 seems pretty clear: "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord."
John F. Sugg was the group senior editor for Creative Loafing.
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