- - Sunday, April 30, 2017


The state of Arkansas finally concluded its hangman’s festival, conducting the last of four executions over eight days. Gov. Asa Hutchinson originally set out to impose death on six men, both black and white, over eight days. He was racing the sell-by date on the state’s supply of lethal chemicals, but the courts kept getting in his way. The hangman — perhaps he should be called the “needler” since Arkansas uses drugs, not rope or electricity, to kill — can rest after the stress of imposing the largest number of executions over so short a number of days in 57 years.

Kenneth Williams, 38, who murdered a 17-year-old college cheerleader, died Thursday night, 13 minutes after a sedative, the first of three drugs, was administered. Three minutes later he began thrashing on the gurney, “lurching” 15 times over a period of 10 to 15 seconds, “coughing, convulsing, lurching, jerking with sound even with the microphone [in the execution chamber] turned off,” an Associated Press witness reported. He “lurched” five more times and continued to struggle for breath until he died seconds after that. A spokesman for the state Department of Corrections disputed The Associated Press account, conceding that “he did shake,” but only for 10 seconds.

How the condemned die is more important than the state, not only in Arkansas but in 30 other states that take a life for a life, is willing to concede. So has it always been. “When the English gave up boiling people alive they took happily to hanging,” writes John Deane Potter in “The Art of Hanging,” a history of the death penalty published in 1965. “Boiling human beings, which had come down from the savage dark places of history, was gradually superseded by hanging. This was not for any humane reason.”

Pity has never had anything to do with a humane death at the hands of the state. Boiling was inconvenient because it required a large tub and a lot of oil, which was expensive. The guillotine is efficient, quick and perhaps the most humane method, but it’s messy and the clean-up is inconvenient. A firing squad is quick and easy, but only if the marksmen are accurate. So the rope, easily available, became the favorite method of the state and persisted until someone devised the electric chair, which is often painful and not always efficient. The condemned have occasionally caught fire. Electric chairs are usually fashioned in the prison workshop and are sometimes badly made. Hence cometh the poison needle.

The usual cocktail prescribes first midazolam, a sedative, then a paralytic and finally a lethal dose of potassium chloride to stop the beating heart. No doctor, bound by his oath to “first, do no harm,” will have anything to do with the procedure, nor will the manufacturers of the drugs. The states insist that the condemned feel no pain, but so far no governor, warden or death-penalty advocate has volunteered to prove it.

What to do with the demonstrably evil among us has puzzled man since Cain slew Abel on the trailing edge of Eden. The death penalty has been supported by the priests and preachers of every religion, but the prospect of execution has rarely discouraged a killer. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of crimes in olde England, most of them as trivial as trespassing the king’s forest, decreed death for the guilty. Pickpockets were punished on the gallows in ancient England, and pickpockets were attracted by the dozens to public hangings where targets were plentiful for the picking.

Some families of the victims of a murderer say they find “closure,” an ease from unbearable pain, by watching an evil man die. They are surely entitled to such relief as they can find. But putting a human to die is deeply solemn, sordid and not very satisfying, as the wholesale death to punish evil was demonstrated last week in Arkansas. There has to be a better way to protect us from men and women who would harm us.

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