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Douglas Fetherling - Some Thoughts
by Douglas Fetherling

after reading Lord High Executioner: An Unashamed Look at Hangmen, Headsmen, & Their Kind, by Howard Engel (Key Porter, $22.95)

Capital punishment is the most extreme form of censorship. I am thinking of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an African-American journalist, author and former Black Panther who was to have been put to death in Pennsylvania but still lives. His death sentence could have been commuted to life without parole. Instead, he was given an indefinite stay of execution. In showing this slender mercy, the state's governor was in some measure acknowledging the international howl of protest at the prisoner's intended fate, an outcry that included statements by the president of France and the chancellor of Germany. One saw practically nothing about the case in the Canadian press, because not much was reported in the American media.

In being sentenced to life on death row, Abu-Jamal was very lucky as such matters are gauged. I write this in December 1996, just before the U.S. releases its new year-end figures for executions, one of that nation's growth industries, and so I must rely on the numbers made public at the start of 1996, covering the preceding twelve months. These show that there were eight men in the U.S. under sentence of death from the federal government and 2,998 men (and 48 women) on the death rows of various individual states. The federal prisoners can have their sentences commuted only by the president (this has never happened) while the state-held prisoners can have theirs commuted only by their state's governors. I am slightly familiar with gubernatorial officials and believe that they are a breed of whom this generalization might be made: they have no convictions except those which are later overturned on appeal.

In 1995, no death sentences were commuted; in 1994, there was only one; in 1996, two-one of them a woman's. The total has been only 35 in the past decade. By comparison, 56 people were executed by 16 different state governments in 1995 alone: more than one a week, an 80 percent increase from 1994, a fourfold increase over 1991, indeed the largest total since 1957. That brought to 313 the number of people executed in the U.S. since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favour of a return of the death penalty (which had been declared unconstitutional in 1972).

Each year, about 260 Americans are sentenced to be killed by the government. The backlog grows. So, understandably, do pleas by the condemned to at least have the process speeded up, so that they might be dispatched quickly, instead of living the life of the living dead. Those executed in 1995 spent an average of 134 months in this limbo. A decade ago, the figure was only 71 months. Literally, the state can't kill them fast enough. Or, in the eyes of some, can't kill enough. "It's my personal belief, said New Mexico State Senator Tim Jennings during 1995, commenting on the issue of serious criminals generally, "that if they've not rehabilitated after 15 years, kill 'em."

Texas is the most prolific executioner, accounting for nearly a third of all such actions; Louisiana is second. Those put to death elsewhere in 1995 included a 41-year-old retarded man in Arkansas (where in 1994 the state-sanctioned killing reached jubilant intensity when three prisoners were executed on a single day for unrelated offences). Also given the big send-off in the last year for which figures are available was a 40-year-old Oklahoman who had to be revived from a self-administered drug overdose in time for his execution by means of lethal injection. The execution of teenagers is not unknown in the United States.

Society seems to be forgetting the old principle that it is better to let a guilty person go free than to execute an innocent one in error. In Florida, 1995 was the year the death warrant was signed for Joseph Spaziano, convicted in a killing two decades earlier, when he was a teenager in a drug-addled state, even though no physical evidence linked him to the crime. As I write, the execution is still scheduled to take place even though the only witness against him recently recanted his testimony. In a similar case in Illinois in 1994, a man was released from death row after five years when both of the witnesses against him changed their testimony and one of them actually confessed to the crime. The inmate had already given up hope, petitioning the court to expedite his execution because this was "the only way I can see to end the pain."

1995 was also the year that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld use of the death penalty in the military. What's more, it was the year that the death penalty was abolished in South Africa, whose human rights records so many Americans enjoy deploring.

Why pick on America when the People's Republic of China is doubtless the leading killer-state? Because the U.S. is freer with its statistics; this means that we can actually measure the progress of official bloodlust. Also, the U.S. has by far the greatest cultural influence on its northern neighbour, thus providing a chilling glimpse of where we ourselves might be headed if we're not vigilant in our compassion. As it is, the Reform Party has threatened that, if it ever should form a government, it will hold a binding national referendum on the return of the death penalty; there would likely be a majority in favour, given the atmosphere of bloodthirstiness being whipped up as a result of the spill-over of American culture, in terms both of crime and the response to crime. As for the Conservatives, Kim Campbell wasn't in office long enough to do much mischief, except possibly to herself, but Brian Mulroney violated the Canadian tradition that is supposed to keep us from implicating ourselves in America's state-sanctioned killings. On two occasions he ignored Canada's policy of refusing to honour extradition requests for foreign nationals from jurisdictions (Pennsylvania and California in these instances) where they would be subject to execution.

Utah is the only state that still uses a firing squad in putting to death criminals (and troublemakers-remember Joe Hill): a carry-over from the Mormon creed of "blood atonement". Gary Gilmore was executed that way in 1977, at Point of the Mountain prison. In 1996, so was one John Albert Taylor, at the same facility, after being given a choice between bullets or lethal injection. The warden, Gary Deland, explained the extra-tight security conditions in which Taylor was kept during his final days. "The last thing you want is for somebody to commit suicide before executing them," he said.

No state still employs hanging. New York, for instance, abandoned the gallows in 1890 and switched to the electric chair, the country's first, invented in 1888 (but visualized much earlier in the fiction of Jules Verne). Elaine de Kooning, the painter, once called the electric chair the only important American contribution to the history of furniture design. New York's chair was used to execute 695 people until capital punishment was abolished there in 1963. But the instrument is likely to be rejuvenated soon, given the state's return to the death penalty on September 1, 1995 (a day of infamy). Some electric chairs are preserved in prison museums; at least two of them are known by the affectionate nickname "Old Sparky".

The gas chamber was the next innovation, introduced by Nevada in 1921 but later, in retrospect, found to carry disturbing overtones of Nazism. In 1973, Governor Ronald Reagan of California became one of the first to advocate replacing gas with lethal injections-actually three shots: the first of sodium thiopental to render the victim unconscious, a second of pancuronium bromide to paralyse the muscles, a third of potassium chloride to stop the heart. This is now the standard in California, where all death row inmates (nearly 500 at present) are housed in the death-wing of San Quentin (built in 1852), which Bob Dole, the presidential candidate, stopped by to praise during last November's national election campaign. Such injections are now used in 22 of the 39 death-penalty states.

Six states allow relatives of the victims to be present at executions. Many observers believe that it's only a question of time until executions are once again public events in America. In 1994, a convict named David Lawson was denied the right to have his execution in North Carolina televised on the Phil Donahue show. Instead, he was gassed without a network audience, strapped to a chair, wearing only underpants, socks, a diaper, and a hood, yelling, "I'm human, I'm human," as the lethal mixture filled the room. The event was videotaped, but not broadcast. Maybe next time. One poll in 1994 showed that 70 per cent of the Americans asked were in favour of televised executions.

Some have said flippantly that no-one executed for committing a violent crime has ever committed another. Meanwhile, more serious Americans argue endlessly about whether the death penalty is a deterrent to others. Both sides remain pretty much deaf to the outrage and repulsion their society evinces in other parts of the world by the continuance (indeed, the renaissance) of such barbarism.

People have argued that by assuming the right to take the lives of criminals, the state is descending to the criminals' level. I would argue that the death penalty debate is merely a most urgent metaphor for the basic assumptions about the state and the individual, assumptions that need to be rethought. To give a state the option of executing people on our behalf, as though it had our blessing to do so, is to allow that states are morally sentient. No act that is illegal for individuals should be legal when committed by the untouchable but threatening hologram we call government. So ends our sermon for today.


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