How Premeditated Can It Get?

by Ellen Barfield
     I chatted briefly with Representative Elijah Cummings recently as I left his office after a meeting arranged by the Central Maryland Interfaith Coalition for Peace to discuss military budget cuts. I mentioned my opposition to the death penalty. Representative Cummings agreed, but he said that even the African American community is more and more pro-execution.
     As I turned to go I greeted the people waiting in the Congressman’s lobby. One of them was a relative of Tyrone X. Gilliam.
     Ever since that chance meeting I have been haunted by the terrible cruelty of a condemned criminal’s family having to scramble from office to office desperately seeking any help to save their loved one’s life from the inexorable hand of a murderous state.
     Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong? It is totally illogical behavior--if, that is, our aim is to reduce murder. State sponsored murder will not bring the first victim back; it only creates another victim. It does not even reduce the likelihood of the next random murder. Repeated studies, as reported by the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, show not only that the murder rate does not go down after an execution; it actually increases for a month or two. And NCADP also reports that, over time, death penalty states have almost twice the murder rate of non-death penalty states in the U.S.
     The families of murder victims, presumably for whom the state pursues vengeance, often report how empty and incomplete they feel after they drag through the long years of following the convoluted appeals process. Members of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, a group that works closely with the NCADP, report the relief of letting go of their hatred and vengefulness. Some reached that position early on, even pleading for the life of their loved one’s murderer during the trial. Others relate long years of being eaten up inside before they found the strength to forgive and go on. Even the Baltimore Sun related, in an editorial opposing the death penalty after Tyrone Gilliam was executed (Gee, thanks a lot), that the mother of one of the victims of John Thanos, who was executed in 1994, three years later felt unrelieved.
     Inmates of death row are grossly disproportionately poor people of color, and especially those whose victim was European American. Racism and classism rule in capital punishment cases. As the saying goes, “Them without the capital get the punishment.” The condemned also tend to have been abused or neglected as children, and many have learning problems, head injuries, emotional difficulties, drug dependencies, all of which went un-or under-treated before their crime.
     Most death penalty states now use lethal injection, which is certainly cheaper than most methods, and supposedly kinder, though the authorities rarely exhibit any desire to be kind to convicts any other time. Mostly the kinder technique seems to be for the witnesses, who avoid the flames or charring of the electric chair, or the contorted faces or gasping chests of botched gas chambers or hangings. Lethal injection has its own grotesqueries, though.
     My husband, Lawrence Egbert, has studied lethal injection and turned up some very sad tales. He is probably one of the very few people in this country to approach the death penalty issue from the neutral position of simple curiosity about “his” drugs being used in such an odd way. He is an anesthesiologist, and the lethal injection drugs are the very same ones he uses to put surgical patients to sleep. The only difference is that surgical patients’ breathing is maintained by a machine while they are paralyzed and unconscious.
     When Texas began using lethal injection, my husband used one of his research days to visit the Death Row warden to ask only about the method and dosage, carefully avoiding any statement of opinion. He still got docked two days’ pay for “politicking” on work time. Later he found out that it was a former classmate of his who wrote the original protocol for lethal injection, in Oklahoma when they did not want to pay to repair their electric chair.
     The more he learned, the more he opposed the death penalty, and now he is a recognized expert on lethal injection and a board member of the NCADP. He has uncovered horror stories of mishandled executions. Many convicts have scarred veins from injection drug use, and several have had to take the needle from the inept technician and find a vein themselves to avoid being repeatedly stuck, thereby facilitating their own death. Others have had the three drugs given in the wrong order, so that they are aware of paralysis and inability to breathe before they are unconscious.
     Premeditation is supposedly an important factor in classifying a murder as a capital crime, though as I said above, race and class are the real determinants. I cannot imagine a more premeditated act than a state execution. My colleague, Marliese Diaz of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, commented at the meeting with Rep. Cummings on the “trickle-down violence” of our culture. The increasing use of the death penalty, and increasing support for it as shown in polls, is an extreme example of the deepening viciousness of our society.
     The U.S. is alone in the so-called civilized world in retaining the death penalty. We are accompanied in this practice by Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, China, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Only the last four listed, and the U.S., still execute those who committed their crimes as juveniles.
     The possibility of appeals is being greatly reduced now. Many states have established a limit of 30 days or less for appeal or introduction of new evidence, giving someone who had bad legal representation absolutely no chance to uncover exonerating information. This guarantees that more innocent people will be executed. An NCADP fact sheet mentions that 69 people have had their capital convictions found to be totally erroneous and been released in the last 26 years. Many others have been killed even in the face of strong evidence of their total innocence. Given the harsh new laws, the killing of innocents will only increase.
     One idea often proposed to reduce support for the death penalty is life sentencing without possibility of parole. Except that the person is left alive to theoretically pursue legal remedy for false conviction (a faint hope in the real world), or to self-rehabilitate (the only rehabilitation possible given increasingly harsh prison conditions), this idea is totally bankrupt. Quite obviously the same societally despised who today get the death penalty--the poor, people of color--would be the victims of life without parole. Removing all hope from someone already grievously shortchanged by an incredibly inequitable society is debatably more cruel than death.
     ...If the state can ever be weaned from its penchant for retribution, the point of logically dealing with crime may be addressable. Surely what we all want is to find a way to prevent the next murder.
     ...If all children were guaranteed decent food, housing, education, and health care, no one would be furious at their deprivation and “act out” in an anti-social way.
     ...If nonviolent conflict resolution training were universal, people would have tools to resolve their differences peacefully.
     ...If murder victims’ families got counseling and financial assistance to deal with their loss, they would not let themselves be used as poster children for state vengeance.
     ...If national drug policy focused on treatment instead of criminalization, murder by panicked addicts desperate to get money to feed their habits would diminish.
     ...If the government did not feel justified in using or threatening armed intervention every time it disagrees with another government’s behavior, citizens would not feel that “might makes right,” and violence would not trickle down.
     ...If politicians stopped using ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric, and if voters stopped buying that rhetoric as the only answer to their fears of crime--
     ...the vicious circle of brutalizing more people in more and harsher prisons would end.

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This story was published on Dec. 2, 1998.