‘Death Row: The Last 24 Hours’ is the title of a Discovery Channel programme about the last 24 hours of condemned individuals in the United States – for the most part concerning theHuntsville Unit in Texas. It was harrowing to watch, and it’s hard to find an appropriate adjective for the emotions it aroused; but because I cannot condone the death penalty I felt compelled to watch it and learn; and learn I did.
I firmly believe that no human being has the right to kill another human being; and that two wrongs do not make a right: end of story, I thought. But it isn’t, because I think that what I know now is not just about what goes on in death row – it’s about all of us.
At the start of the programme, a warden explains that the last 24 hours ‘do not always go to plan, but it’s routine for us’. The electric chair was invented in 1890, but not used until 1924 when 5 condemned men were electrocuted. Since a Florida chair set fire to the hair and lower legs of a man, synthetic non-flammable sponge has replaced sea sponge to pad the leather ‘head-cap’ and the lower legs are shaved. A 40s Delaware hanging went wrong when the rope stretched; so today all the ropes are tested for strength and stretched to their limit. One prisoner ordered four BLT sandwiches for his last meal, ate them, and then swallowed a number of pills in an attempt to commit suicide. When he was found to be comatose, he was, and again I quote…’brought back to life for the execution’.
The death row inmate who decides to appeal his case spends, on average, 15 years there. When an appeal fails, an executive order for the execution to take place is given, and within 10 days the warrant of execution will be signed by a State Governor, and then everybody concerned gets to decide in which room at Huntsville the execution will take place – the route the prisoner will take to that room – and the time of the execution. The last 24 hours is mapped almost minute by minute, beginning with a comprehensive search of the prisoner and his or her confines. For example, the phone in the execution room is checked to make sure it is working properly, in case there might be a last minute stay of execution; because even during the last day, lawyers will be working to obtain one. A ‘stay’ might last one hour, one day, or a month. In Texas 140 condemned individuals have been acquitted.
Each State has its own rules about the last meal. Florida sets a cost limit of $40; Oklahoma sets it at $15. The Huntsville chef was proud to have prepared 189 last meals, but made it clear that nobody gets to eat lobster. After eating, the prisoner is watched throughout the night prior to the execution, and in the morning, oddly, he is searched. It is 45 miles from the Corrections Unit to the Huntsville Unit, but, we are told, nobody has ever escaped, and ‘the majority offer no resistance’.
34 states have the death penalty and of these, 14 states allow the condemned to choose how they will die. The methods are: hanging, firing squad, electrocution, gassing, and lethal injection. The last is the most popular, we are told. One man in a firing squad of 5 will have a blank round, so that nobody knows who actually did the killing. For gassing, hydrogen cyanide is used. For the injection, a needle is inserted into the arm and a barbiturate is given, to sedate the condemned prisoner, after which they can make a final statement. Individual states have varying rules about how long this final statement can be, if permitted. Then the syringe is filled with a mixture of cyanide and sulphuric acid is administered. The only person in the death chamber besides the prisoner and the executioner is a Chaplain – if requested.
The Huntsville Unit in Texas executed 89 people in the 7 years before the documentary was made. Kentucky’s last execution, after 10 thousand of them, took place in 1936. Doctors are discouraged from taking part in executions. In Florida, a ‘civilian’ does the executing and is paid $150 for his services. Each State has its own rules pertaining to witnesses to executions.
A retired Huntsville executioner named Green, smiles into the camera, and says that he executed 102 people during his tour of duty. A Reverend in a dog collar says that he has attended 95 executions and that the emotion most common for the condemned is ‘fear’ – but assures us that he does ‘listen to them’ if they want to talk.
Since 1973, in 26 states, 140 people have been released from death row upon new evidence of their innocence. In total, 10 executions took place against strong evidence of innocence. Across the states, lawyers work pro-bono for the National Justice Project, an organisation that works to free wrongfully convicted people. A Discovery Channel programme and CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360° regularly feature wrongful imprisonment and the efforts of lawyers to free people from death row who are there on the flimsiest of evidence.
On the 24th August 2012 one David Wiggins was released from death row when new DNA evidence proved that he did not rape a woman in 1989. An innocent man, he spent 24 years in jail. He had been convicted because despite the lack of very much other evidence, the victim identified him as her attacker. Now that DNA testing is available, and forensic investigation improves rapidly, we should see fewer such cases.
The lawyer and writer, John Grisham wrote The Chamber in 1996; a powerful novel about a young lawyer who risks a high-profile career to appeal the conviction of a man on death row. John Grisham is interesting insofar as he claims to be ‘on the fence’ where the death penalty is concerned. On his visit to a Mississippi corrections unit looking for background material for one of his books, he expressed his doubt to a prison guard. Grisham said he was a practising Southern Baptist, and he didn’t think that Jesus would condone the death penalty. He was thrown when the guard asked him then, which he had faith in – Jesus or Mississippi; meaning the state’s laws.
Now the warden quoted near the top of the page said that the last 24 hours ‘do not always go to plan, but it’s routine for us’. Consider the words ‘plan’ and ‘routine’. Consider the many hours, days, weeks, months, and years that go towards planning how to legally kill people.
The last 24 hours is mapped out almost minute by minute. Hearing the Huntsville chef explain what might constitute a ‘last meal’ a picture popped into my head of a committee of 12 sitting around a board-room table with coffee and biscuits: ordinary men and women – perhaps a lawyer, a doctor and the warden, a social worker and prison chaplain, a chef and a purchasing officer – all calmly discussing what a condemned man might be permitted to request as a last meal – and how much it might reasonably cost. That is bizarre. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine myself being a part of such a conversation.
Now imagine them calmly discussing the method of death which they will condone: arguing the relative advantages and disadvantages between a lethal injection, a firing squad, gassing, electrocution, and hanging. That is macabre.
Certainly my imagination fails me when I try to conjure up the conversation that must have taken place when the prison personnel found the man who tried to kill himself, in a comatose state. The best I can come up with is Monty-Pythonesque – “Quick! Bring him back to life! He has to be killed in the morning!” Grotesque? Well, something like that has to have been said. It becomes even more grotesque when one realises that it would have been medical personnel who would have revived him.
Of course, my committee is fictional, but it is certainly representative of how normal logistics are worked out in other board-rooms around the world, so I don’t think my death-dealing committee’s methods would be very much different. Those people decide every event that will happen to another human being throughout that person’s last 24 hours, in careful detail.
I have tried to imagine myself at that fictional committee meeting. Present would be my doctor and dentist, my lawyer, bank manager, and a number of professional friends – all highly qualified and intelligent people – sitting at a board-room table discussing those events. I cannot imagine them doing it. It fills me with horror.
Because the death penalty is controversial, there will be those reading this who will say that the condemned man was tried by judge and jury, got his just desserts, and that’s the law. There is always the worn-out ‘somebody has to do it’ excuse, to which the obvious answer is…‘who says’? Or – that it all boils down to a rotten administration. Or – you can’t buck the system. Or – that’s just how it is. Remind those people that human beings are fallible – that the guilty often go free and the innocent often end up on death row and the reply could well be – that’s the luck of the draw.
But are those people living in countries where the death penalty is enforced really content to permit their governments to condone killings on their behalf? Isn’t there enough killing in the world?
“All I can tell you is that when it came to the point whether I could take my head out of the noose and put another man’s head into it, I could not do it.”
George Bernard Shaw – The Devil’s Disciple.