This has been a big week in the death house in Texas. The state executioner was assigned to dispatch not one, but two, evildoers. He could put away his needle with the satisfaction of a job well done. Five more executions are scheduled before summer.
Texas is No. 1 in the business, having dispatched 513 men and women (nearly all men) since the states were freed by the U.S. Supreme Court to resume state-sanctioned killing in 1976. Virginia and Oklahoma are second, each with 110 executions (so far), but measured by executions per capita, Oklahoma, which competes with Texas to be No. 1 in so many things, is No. 1.
Opinions on capital punishment are sharply divided and passionately held, but the stereotype that executions are favorites of conservatives is slowly dissolving. Young conservatives seem particularly willing to take another look at the death business.
Roy Brown, the former majority leader of the Montana House of Representatives, founded an organization called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, and he travels the country spreading the word. He led a forum, in partnership with the Young Americans for Liberty, last month at Georgetown University. Marc Hayden, the group’s national coordinator, says he finds conservatives deciding the death penalty is “wasteful, unfair, error-prone and out of step with conservative values.”
No one, liberal or conservative, disputes the fact that it’s a grisly business, once universally endorsed by both church and state. There’s the story that an ancient mariner, cast ashore when his ship foundered on the rocks, looked up to see a gallows outlined against a gray, wintry sky. “Thank God!” he cried out. “I’ve landed in a Christian country.” The hangman once presided over a thriving business.
Now, not so much. Only 32 states retain the death penalty and it has been abolished in many places overseas. The preferred chemicals used in executions are no longer manufactured in the United States, and European manufacturers will no longer sell to the states for executions. But capital punishment is still popular in many places, particularly in the South.
Bill Clinton famously interrupted his first presidential campaign in 1994 to return to Arkansas to preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally retarded black man. When it was time to walk the last mile, Rector carefully put aside a piece of pecan pie, saved from his last meal, to enjoy “later.”
Capital punishment is nowhere as popular as in Texas, where swift and harsh justice is prized. The late Joe Frank Cannon, a Houston lawyer known as “greased lightning,” was appointed to represent poor defendants so many times that 10 of his clients were executed. Greased lightning or not, Joe Frank often went to sleep during trials, twice when his clients were sentenced to death.
This was regarded by the courts merely as an impediment to the rocket dockets much loved by judges, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held that “the Constitution requires a defendant to be represented by a lawyer; it doesn’t say the lawyer has to be awake.” A federal appeals court disagreed, but only after asking whether the lawyer had slept through “important parts” of the trial.
Executions can be badly botched. Witnesses to a Mississippi execution had to be banished when they were overcome after the prisoner started banging his head on a steel pole in the chamber, apparently to hasten death. The executioner was drunk.
The electric chair, largely abandoned because lethal injections are less expensive, is particularly “problematic.” Prisoners occasionally catch fire, and the sight and scent overcomes everyone watching.
DNA has rescued some innocent prisoners from death row, but states are always loath to admit mistakes. No one should confuse the law with justice. One governor of Illinois, deeply troubled when new evidence freed an innocent man two days before his scheduled execution, commuted to life the death sentences of 167 others awaiting execution because he did not think the death penalty could be administered fairly.
Prisoners on death row are nearly all bad men (and women), who deserve no mercy on their own merits. But killing them does not deter others; first-degree murder is by definition a crime of unthinking passion. Death removes evildoers from society, but at the price of coarsening and making cheap that society.
No one feels better after the state commits premeditated murder in the name of the law. Society keeps trying new methods of execution, eager to relieve pangs of conscience. But conscience is a stubborn overseer, and won’t be satisfied until death gets no sanction and the executioner is banished for once and all.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.