A Missouri man who killed a couple during a robbery at their rural home more than a quarter of a century ago was put to death Tuesday, becoming just the fifth person executed in the United States this year.
Carman Deck, 56, died by injection at the state prison in Bonne Terre. He was pronounced dead at 6:10 p.m. His fate was sealed a day earlier when neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor Republican Gov. Mike Parson stepped in to halt the execution. Deck’s death sentence was overturned three times before for procedural issues.
“Mr. Deck has received due process, and three separate juries of his peers have recommended sentences of death for the brutal murders he committed,” Parson said in a statement Monday. “The State of Missouri will carry out Mr. Deck’s sentence according to the Court’s order and deliver justice.”
Deck mouthed a few inaudible words as the 5 grams of pentobarbital were administered, then puffed out a couple of breaths before all movement stopped, the process lasting just a few seconds.
“My hope is that one day the world will find peace and that we all will learn to be kind and loving to one another,” Deck said in a written final statement. “We all are a part of this journey through life, connected in every way. Please give love, show love, BE LOVE!”
His final meal, which was served to him around 1pm, was a ribeye steak, shrimp, asparagus, salad with Italian dressing, cottage cheese and V-8 juice
Parson, in a statement Tuesday, said the couple killed, James and Zelma Long, “were innocent victims of Carman Deck’s heinous violence. Tonight, justice was served.”
Just four other people have been executed in the U.S. in 2022 — Donald Anthony Grant and Gilbert RayPostelle in Oklahoma, Matthew Reeves in Alabama and Carl Wayne Buntion last month in Texas. Eleven people were executed in the U.S. last year, the fewest since 1988.
Court records show that Deck, of the St. Louis area, was a friend of the grandson of the Longs, who lived in De Soto, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) southwest of St. Louis. He knew the couple, in their late 60s, kept a safe in their home.
In July 1996, Deck and his sister stopped at the home under the guise of asking directions. Deck wasn’t surprised the couple let them in.
“They’re country folks,” Deck told a detective, according to court records. “They always do.”
Once inside, Deck pulled a gun from his waistband. At Deck’s command, Zelma Long opened the safe and removed jewelry, then got $200 from her purse and more money hidden in a canister.
Deck ordered the couple to lie on their stomachs on their bed. Court records said Deck stood there for 10 minutes deciding what to do, then shot James Long twice in the head before doing the same thing to Zelma Long.
A tip alerted police to Deck, and he was arrested later that night outside his sister’s apartment building in St. Louis County. The decorative tin canister from the Long home was on the floorboard of his car.
Prosecutors said Deck later gave a full account of the killings in oral, written and audiotaped statements. He was sentenced to death in 1998, but the Missouri Supreme Court tossed the sentence due to errors by Deck’s trial lawyer.
The U.S. Supreme Court threw out his second sentence in 2005, citing the prejudice caused by Deck being shackled in front of the sentencing jury.
He was sentenced to death for a third time in 2008. Nine years later, U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry determined that “substantial” evidence arguing against the death penalty in Deck’s first two penalty phases was unavailable for the third because witnesses had died, couldn’t be found or declined to cooperate.
In October 2020, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals restored the death penalty, ruling that Deck should have raised his concern first in state court, not federal court. Appeals of that ruling were unsuccessful.
The clemency petition on behalf of Deck cited abuse he suffered as a child, including beatings that left welts and sexual abuse. It said he and his siblings often were left alone without food. Deck’s attorney, Elizabeth Unger Carlyle, said in a statement that Deck also was raped while in prison for theft at age 19.
“This experience transformed him from a non-violent thief into the person who committed two terrible murders,” Carlyle said. She called his execution “unjust and immoral.”
The number of executions in the U.S. has declined significantly since peaking at 98 in 1998. The drop has coincided with declining support, falling from a high of 80% in 1994 to 54% in 2021, according to Gallup polls. Since the mid-1990s, opposition has risen from under 20% to around 45%.
Use of the death penalty has become concentrated mostly in a few Southern and Plains states. Last year, Texas executed three inmates, Oklahoma executed two and one each were put to death in Alabama, Mississippi and Missouri. Three federal inmates were executed in January 2021, toward the end of Donald Trump’s presidency.
On Monday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee paused executions in his state for the rest of the year to enable a review of lethal injection procedures after a testing oversight forced the state to call off the execution of Oscar Smith an hour before he was to die on April 21.
Gilbert Ray Postelle was pronounced dead by lethal injection at 10:14 a.m. Thursday morning. He’s the fourth death row inmate to be killed since the state resumed capital punishment in October after a six-year moratorium. He was 35.
Five media members were selected by a random draw to witness the execution: Sean Murphy (Associated Press), Nolan Clay (The Oklahoman), Wayne Stafford (KOKH), Storme Jones (KWTV) and Dylan Goforth (The Frontier).
The witnesses said the execution appeared to happen without any complications. Their accounts were largely in line with the December execution of Bigler Stouffer and the January execution of Donald Grant, but drastically different from the October execution of John Marion Grant, who convulsed two dozen times and vomited multiple times during his execution.
Postelle did not have any last words.
Swindle’s sister, Shelli Milner, made a statement following the execution.
“It’s never over for the families of the victims. Today is not a joyous day for anyone. Today did not end anyone’s suffering. Today did not put closure on anything,” Milner said. “To know that [Postelle] will never walk this earth again does give me a little more peace than I had yesterday, but I will never have peace knowing what he did to my brother Donnie, to Amy, to James and to Terry.”
There are no more executions scheduled in the state at this point. Pending the results of the upcoming trial over the constitutionality of the current lethal injection protocol later this month, the state may schedule more executions.
Death row inmate Gilbert Ray Postelle’s request for clemency was denied by the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board in a 4-1 vote in December 2021.
Postelle, then 19, shot and killed four people — 57-year-old James D. Alderson, 56-year-old Terry L. Smith, 49-year-old James “Donnie” Swindle Jr., and 26-year-old Amy J. Wright — in southeast Oklahoma City on Memorial Day in 2005. The assault included nearly 100 shots fired from two assault rifles.
He was convicted of the four murders and given the death sentence for two.
Three others were charged with conspiracy and four counts of first-degree murder in the slayings. His brother, David Bradford Postelle, was sentenced to life in prison and their father, Earl Bradford Postelle, was ruled incompetent to stand trial in 2006. Another man, Randal Wade Byus, agreed to cooperate with authorities and pleaded guilty to reduced charges in 2008.
Postelle and his family believed one of the victims were responsible for a 2004 motorcycle accident, which left the elder Postelle physically and mentally disabled.
Gilbert Postelle’s attorney said he suffered from years of methamphetamine abuse that began around the age of 12. In 2021, he testified that he had been using meth for days leading up to the killings and doesn’t remember much about the crimes.
Last month, attorneys for Donald Grant and Postelle argued that the state’s lethal injection protocol exposed the two men to a constitutionally unacceptable risk of severe pain, citing the October 2021 execution of John Grant, who convulsed and vomited before he died.
Oklahoma’s method of execution — lethal injection — has been criticized as painful and terrifying, with claims it induces a sense of drowning comparable to the torture tactic of waterboarding.
Oklahoma held off on lethal injections for nearly six years after two botched executions. The state resumed the practice last fall, killing John Grant in October, Bigler Stouffer in December and Donald Grant in January.
The three-drug cocktail is being reviewed for constitutionality in district court in a trial that begins on Feb. 28.
Postelle’s last meal included 20 chicken nuggets, three large fries, one crispy chicken sandwich, one large cola, and one caramel frappe.
An Oklahoma death row inmate is set to receive a new trial aftera court overturned his conviction based on a US Supreme Court ruling last year that determined a large part of the state is Native American territory for the purposes of federal criminal law
.The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Thursday the state did not have the jurisdiction to prosecute Shaun Bosse, who was sentenced to death in 2012 for the murders of 24-year-old Katrina Griffin, her 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter because the victims were members of the Chickasaw Nation and the murders took place on the reservation.The appeals court cited the Supreme Court’s landmark July 2020 ruling in McGirt vs. Oklahoma, in which the justices ruled 5-4 that a broad swath of the state was Native American land for the purposes of federal criminal law. According to federal law, crimes that involve Native Americans on a reservation are subject to federal, not state, jurisdiction.CNN has reached out to an attorney for Bosse for comment.District Attorney Greg Mashburn, who prosecuted Bosse, told CNN in an interview Friday that federal prosecutors will assume jurisdiction in the case.”I’m devastated for the family (of Bosse’s victims),” Mashburn said. “They can’t heal. They’re just going to have to go through this whole process again. I’m just really upset for them and hate that they’re going to have to sit through another trial.”
The man who admitted killing 3 people at 2 suburban Kansas City Jewish sites gave jurors a Nazi salute Monday after they convicted him of murder and other charges for the shootings, which he said would allow him to “die a martyr.”
It took the jury of 7 men and 5 women just over 2 hours to find Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. guilty of 1 count of capital murder, 3 counts of attempted murder and assault and weapons charges.
After the verdict was announced, Miller, 74, of Aurora, Missouri, said: “The fat lady just sang” and he raised his right arm in the Nazi salute. As jurors were filing out of the courtroom later, he told them: “You probably won’t sleep tonight.”
The judge reminded Miller that the same jury will decide his sentence. He could get the death penalty. The sentencing proceedings were expected to begin Tuesday.
During the prosecution’s closing, District Attorney Steve Howe cited a “mountain of evidence” against Miller, who is charged with capital murder in the April 2014 shootings at 2 Jewish sites in Overland Park, Kansas. Although he has admitted to killing the three people, he has pleaded not guilty, saying it was his duty to stop genocide against the white race. None of the victims was Jewish.
“He wants to be the one who decides who lives and dies,” Howe said of Miller.
The Passover eve shootings killed William Corporon, 69, and Corporon’s 14-year-old grandson, Reat Griffin Underwood, at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, and Terri LaManno, 53, at the nearby Village Shalom retirement center.
During his closing, Miller said he had been “floating on a cloud” since the killings. Earlier, he objected when Howe alleged he wanted to kill as many people as possible. Miller interjected: “I wanted to kill Jews, not people.”
Miller, who also was known as Frazier Glenn Cross Jr., urged jurors to “show great courage” and find him not guilty.
“You have the power in your hands to inspire the world,” he said. “You can become a man or woman your forefathers will be proud of for your bravery.”
The proceedings were marked with frequent outbursts from Miller, who objected repeatedly while jurors were out of the courtroom during discussions about what instructions should guide deliberations. At one point, he said, “I object to everything on the grounds of George Washington, our founding father.”
The objections became so heated that Judge Thomas Kelly Ryan temporarily ejected Miller from the courtroom when Miller said he didn’t respect the process and used an anti-Semitic comment to criticize the court system. Ryan told Miller that if there were further outbursts, he would permanently eject him or declare a mistrial.
Miller groused before finally agreeing, “I will take it under advisement and try to improve.”
Miller is a Vietnam War veteran who founded the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in his native North Carolina and later the White Patriot Party. He also ran for the U.S. House in 2006 and the U.S. Senate in 2010 in Missouri, each time espousing a white-power platform.
Judge rejects claim from 33 death row inmates and says they did not prove the one-drug method led to a painful and lingering death
A judge in Tennessee has upheld the state’s lethal injection process for executing inmates, hours after a federal judge in Mississippi said that state’s process may break the law.
At issue in both cases is the efficacy of the states’ execution drugs. US states have been experimenting with various combinations of lethal injection since a European-led boycott made it difficult to obtain the drugs they require to carry out executions.
Tennessee uses a single drug, pentobarbital, to execute its inmates; Mississippi relies on a three-drug mixture including a pentobarbital or midazolam, sedatives that are followed by a paralysing agent and a drug that stops an inmate’s heart.
In Tennessee, Davidson county chancery judge Claudia Bonnyman said from the bench that the plaintiffs, 33 death row inmates, did not prove that the one-drug method led to a painful and lingering death.
She also said the plaintiffs did not show during a lengthy trial that there had been problems in states where the method was used.
“Plaintiffs were not able to carry their burdens … on any of their claims,” Bonnyman said.
She also said the plaintiffs did not show during a lengthy trial that there had been problems in states where the method was used.
“Plaintiffs were not able to carry their burdens … on any of their claims,” Bonnyman said.
In Mississippi, meanwhile, US district judge Henry T Wingate said Mississippi’s plans did not appear to include a drug meeting the legal requirement for an “ultra short-acting barbiturate” that would render a person unconscious almost immediately.
Three death row prisoners sued, saying they could remain conscious during execution. During the lawsuit, Mississippi changed its procedure to say it would use midazolam as a sedative, after the US supreme court approved the drug’s use in Oklahoma.
Mississippi officials have said they struggle to buy pentobarbital because death penalty opponents had pressured manufacturers to cut off the supply.
Midazolam has been implicated in troubled executions in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma that went on longer than expected as inmates gasped and made other sounds.
The US supreme court ruled five to four in June that Oklahoma’s use of midazolam in executions did not violate the eighth amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
LINCOLN — If Nebraska succeeds in importing the $54,400 in lethal injection drugs it ordered from India, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Thursday he’s confident he won’t need to seek a refund.
During an interview Thursday on “The Bottom Line,” The World-Herald’s Internet radio broadcast, the governor was asked what happens to the state funds if the death penalty repeal ultimately remains in effect. Death penalty supporters are collecting signatures in an effort to let voters decide the fate of capital punishment in 2016.
“Would we then be able to sell it back to the people who sold it to us?” host Mike’l Severe asked. “Would we get our money back?”
The governor, a major contributor to the petition drive, said the state will need the drugs for the 10 men on death row, regardless of the drive’s outcome.
More coverage of capital punishment in Nebraska
“The Legislature actually doesn’t have the authority to go back and change sentences that have already occurred,” he said. “We’re still working under the premise that we’re going to continue to carry out the sentences for the inmates we have.”
State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, the chief sponsor of the law, has said that while the Legislature cannot change the death sentences of those already on death row, the repeal removed the statutory means for conducting an execution. That, he has said, leaves the death row inmates with a sentence that can’t be carried out.
The state has not yet imported the drugs it bought in May from a broker in India. An official with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said one of the two drugs Nebraska purchased can’t legally be imported.
Ricketts said Thursday that state officials remain in discussions with the Drug Enforcement Administration to get the drugs shipped. He offered no timeline, however, on when the drugs could arrive.
A DEA official has said the agency is working in tandem with the FDA on the issue, suggesting Nebraska would not be able to use one federal agency to go around another.
The governor repeated his stance that the death penalty is a necessary policy for public safety. In particular, he said he believes it’s important to protect law enforcement and correctional officers who work with inmates serving life terms.
“That’s why I feel so strongly the folks in Nebraska should have a chance to vote on it,” he said.
The governor also was asked about a new “re-employment” program being launched by the Nebraska Department of Labor with his support. The program seeks to get unemployed people back to work as quickly as possible.
A key part of the program requires those seeking unemployment benefits to meet with a jobs coach so they can post a résumé online. That résumé could then be searched by Nebraska employers seeking to fill vacancies.
“In a state where we have a 2.6 percent unemployment rate, we’re really working hard to make sure we can do the best job possible to connect people who are looking for jobs with the companies that have them,” he said.
Ricketts, a former executive with TD Ameritrade, often discussed how he would work to make government function more like a business if he were elected. On Thursday, he said he is requiring his department heads to set goals and devise methods for measuring progress toward the goals.
For example, he mentioned the common complaints of long hold times when citizens call into AccessNebraska, the call center for public benefits. The Department of Health and Human Services, which operates the program, now keeps monthly statistics on hold times.
“If we don’t have any measurements, how can we hold people accountable?” the governor said.
Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik has won a place to study political science at Oslo’s university.
The 36 year old admitted killing 77 people when he bombed central Oslo and then went on a shooting spree at a youth camp on a nearby island in 2011.
Breivik has been studying certain course modules since first applying to the University of Oslo in 2013, but he will now be taught as a full student.
He will have no contact with staff or students as he studies from his cell.
In 2012, he was sentenced to the maximum 21 years in prison for carrying out Norway’s worst massacre since World War Two.
This jail term can be extended if he is deemed to remain a danger to society.
The university’s rector, Ole Petter Ottersen, said that Norwegian inmates “have a right to pursue higher education in Norway if they meet the admission requirements and are successful in competition with other applicants.”
The rector added that the university had students whose family members had been killed by Breivik. However, he said that the university would abide by its rules “for our own sake, not for his.”
As he studies from his prison, Breivik will be subject to strict regulations. He will be allowed no access to internet resources or receive any personal guidance from tutors. All communication with the university will take place via “a contact person in prison”.
Breivik first applied to study in 2013 but did not meet entry requirements as he had never completed secondary school. Instead, he was allowed to study certain political science modules.
The death penalty is often justified on the grounds that it brings peace to the families of victims; that the act of ending a life may mark an end to their pain. But for those who impose the death penalty, the truth about the emotional trauma of killing another human being belies this logic.
“You can’t tell me I can take the life of people and go home and be normal. If I had known what I’d have to go through as an executioner, I wouldn’t have done it. It took a lot out of me to do it.”
These are the words of Jerry Givens, former state executioner for the Virginia Department of Corrections. Givens executed 62 people over 17 years in a state that ranks third in the nation for number of executions. The emotional toll of his former job is something he can’t escape. “You have to transform yourself into that person that will take a life. Every time an execution was announced, it meant that I had to prepare myself mentally to kill.”
Confessions of an Executioner
It’s rare to find a former executioner willing to speak openly about their experiences. The nature of the job causes many to conceal their real occupation like a shameful secret. But Givens is one of the few executioners who speaks candidly about his past career, and he provides a unique insight into a world that few people ever venture into.
It’s clear from speaking to Givens that he is a compassionate man. He talks often of being able to look past the crime to see the human being underneath. “We degrade people and call them animals,” he told ThinkProgress. “But when I worked on death row, I didn’t see that animal. I saw a human being. When you call people an animal and treat them like that, that’s the behavior they’ll show you. But they can also show you that they’re not like that; that everybody can change.”
An executioner seems a curious job for a person to whom empathy comes easily. How did this compassionate man become an enforcer of the death penalty? What did it take for him to kill another human being? For Givens, it was a steadfast faith in the justice system. This faith meant that doubts were suppressed and fears were tolerated. Any gnawing unease was overpowered by the notion that it must be the right thing to do – it was state-certified, after all.
“I always ask myself, would I have agreed to participate in executions if I knew then what I do now?” Steve J. Martin, an execution witness for the Texas Department of Corrections, told ThinkProgress. “We do these things that we would normally never be involved in because they’re sanctioned by the government. And then we start walking through them in a mechanical fashion. We become detached. We lose our humanity.”
Givens agrees. “The people who pass these bills, they don’t have to do it. The people who do the executions, they’re the ones who suffer through it,” he said.
Deliberately killing another human being goes against all normal societal standards, and many individuals must go to unusual and harmful measures to accomplish such an act. A 2005 Stanford University psychology study by Michael Osofsky highlighted the tactics employed by prison staff to absolve themselves from feelings of guilt and despondency.
“Individuals must morally disengage in order to perform actions and behaviors that run opposite to individual values and personal moral standards,” Osofsky explained in the study. “Capital punishment is an example of this type of moral dilemma, where everyday people are forced to perform the legal and state-sanctioned action of ending the life of another human being, which poses an inherent moral conflict to human values.”
For many people involved in enforcing the death penalty, the subsequent trauma would never dissipate. California Governor Edmund Brown was responsible for deciding whether death sentences would ensue or be commuted to life without parole. Though he granted clemency to 23 out of his 59 cases, the weight of these decisions still overwhelms him.
“The longer I live, the larger loom those 59 decisions about justice and mercy that I had to make as governor,” Brown said. “It was an ultimate power over the lives of others that no person or government should have. And looking back over their names and files now, I realize that each decision took something out of me that nothing – not family or work or hope for the future – has ever been able to replace.”
Needless to say, the enforcers of the death penalty aren’t the only ones to suffer. Fully accepting the imminent end to your life, against your will and at the hands of another is a bizarre reality that many prisoners just couldn’t face, as Givens recounts.
“This one guy…was sort of moderately retarded. He’d ordered McDonald’s and a chocolate nut sundae for his last meal. But he couldn’t swallow it. So he said to me, ‘I can’t finish it so I’ll put it in the fridge for tomorrow.’ Here he is, three hours away for being executed and he’s thinking about putting his sundae away for tomorrow. But there was no tomorrow for him. He hadn’t realized this was his last day.”
Givens’ experiences in the death chamber have led him to campaign for the abolition of capital punishment, even driving him to write a book, Confessions of an Executioner. His motivation is deep-seated. “There are things I want the public to know that they don’t. I need to expose things that should be exposed. I don’t want to leave anyone in the dark, because America is still putting innocent people on death row. And people don’t know about it. People don’t understand.”
A Lethal Dose
The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma last year is one example of the realities of the death penalty, which Givens believes all people should know about. “He strained and struggled violently, his body twisting, his head reaching up from the gurney,” journalist Katie Fretland wrote. “Sixteen minutes after the execution began, Lockett said “Man,” and the blinds were lowered… It would be a full 43 minutes after the drug was administered before Lockett died – and only after he had thrashed on the gurney, writhing and groaning.”
Lockett was killed using a new combination of experimental drugs and the consequences were nightmarish. The doctor was sprayed with blood when an artery was hit; Lockett was in “some pain” as he was pricked at least 16 times in the attempts to find a vein; the scene was described by prison wardens as “a bloody mess” and the prisoner’s multiple attempts to talk like something from “a horror movie.”
The emotional repercussions of this blood-splattered scene were harrowing. Witnesses to the execution spoke of their distress and recounted not being able to sleep for days after. It is the quiet nature of lethal injections that is their selling point, after all –- state-sanctioned homicides veiled with a clinical serenity. As Givens knows all too well, no one wants to see actual blood spilled, or face the unwelcome reminder that, murderer or not, there is a human being dying in front of them.
After Europe blocked sales of the lethal drug sodium thiopental to the United States, the Department of Corrections were forced to look elsewhere for such a powerful anaesthetic. But global pharmaceutical companies didn’t like the idea of their drugs being used to kill people, and so drugs were sourced, purchased, but then again quickly blocked. Soon, the departments of corrections hit a wall. There were simply no anaesthetics strong enough.
But there were other drugs. Not anaesthetics, but sedatives like midazolam, usually administered in conjunction with an anaesthetic to relax a patient. Despite the warnings that midazolam is simply not powerful enough to produce the same coma-like state as sodium thiopental – a state absolutely necessary to ensure the subject feels no pain and the execution is ‘humane’ – midazolam became the drug of choice and the fatal experimentations began.
This unyielding desire to purchase and use barely-tested lethal drugs on prisoners doesn’t surprise Givens. “The criminal justice system is corrupted and we don’t want to own up to it. They think they can get any drugs they want. Where they got so much power from, I don’t know. The drugs should be disclosed to the lawyer and to the condemned – he should know what he’s going to die from.”
As many expected, the first midazolam executions were riddled with red flags. Pastor Laurence Hummer’s account of the execution of Dennis McGuire is just one of them: “His stomach swelled up in an unusual way. He struggled and gasped audibly for air. I was aghast. Over 11 minutes or more he was gasping for breath, his fists clenched the entire time. His gasps could be heard through the glass wall that separated us. There is no question in my mind that Dennis McGuire suffered greatly over many minutes. I consider that inhumane.”
Despite these reports, midazolam was recommended for use by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, and correctional facilities across the country jumped aboard. Last week, despite significant condemnation the
<href=”#ixzz3edvb5k66″>Supreme Court rejected the idea that midazolam is a cruel and unusual punishment and sanctioned its use, clearing the way for deferred executions to ensue.
“The drugs they’re using, who approved it? What doctor approved it?” asks Givens. “You can’t judge pain. You can’t measure the pain that a person is going through, physical or psychological. The guy receiving the drug can’t tell you, because he’s gone. You’ve never died before, so you can’t say. Even myself, I don’t know. I can’t tell you what a guy on the other end is feeling when I’m pushing drugs into his body.”
The Baseline of Morality
The botched executions didn’t end in Oklahoma. Sentenced to death in Arizona for a 1989 double murder, in July 2014 Joseph Wood took two hours to die. Journalist Mauricio Marin had never witnessed an execution before; prison staff had told him the process “lasts about 10 minutes” and would be “very clinical”. Instead:
“I saw a man who was supposed to be dead, coughing – or choking, possibly even gasping for air. What seemed like an eternity passed… Finally, the warden pronounced the killer dead, at 3:49 pm, one hour and 57 minutes after the execution began. I thought: Is this how long it’s supposed to take a man to die?”
Republican Senator John McCain was outspoken in terming Wood’s protracted execution as“torture”, but the governor of Arizona Jan Brewer disagreed. “Wood died in a lawful manner and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer,” she said. “This is in stark comparison to the gruesome, vicious suffering that he inflicted on his two victims.”
The argument that a convict’s crime was so heinous that it negates any qualms about their execution is popular with death penalty supporters. The incongruity of using the actions of a convicted killer to determine the baseline for what’s morally acceptable is not lost on Givens, who views this as a dire expression of our most base and ugly thirst for revenge.
“It is revenge – you can’t put it any other way,” he said. “We want revenge and we want it right away. Death is going to occur anyway, but we’re so impatient we have to execute someone. That’s the mentality people have. America was built on killing and there’s hatred in our hearts. But it shouldn’t be that way.”
While most supporters of the death penalty refute the idea that it’s about revenge, District Attorney Dale Cox -– responsible for one third of the death sentences in Louisiana since 2011 -– readily agrees. “I’m a believer that the death penalty serves society’s interest in revenge. I know it’s a hard word to say and people run from it, but I don’t run from it because I think there is a very strong societal interest,” Cox recently told a local reporter. “I think we need to kill more people.”
A death sentence is also no quick way to closure, as Bill and Denise Richard, parents of the 8-year-old boy killed in the Boston Marathon bombings took pains to point out. Publishing a personal appeal in the Boston Globe titled ‘To end the anguish, drop the death penalty,’ the Richards implored prosecutors to sentence Dzhokhar Tsaernev to life without parole instead of death.
“The continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives,” they wrote. “We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.”
The Richards are not alone. Marietta Jaeger, whose seven-year-old daughter was kidnapped and murdered by a mentally ill man, requested that prosecutors seek a mandatory life sentence instead of the death penalty. Jaeger has been vocal in her opposition to capital punishment,asserting that in reality, the death penalty only creates more grieving families and turns the victims into that which they deplore – people who kill people:
“To say that the death of another person would be just retribution is to insult the immeasurable worth of our loved ones. That kind of justice would only dehumanize and degrade us because it legitimates an animal instinct for gut-level, blood-thirsty revenge. My daughter was such a gift that to kill someone in her name would have been to violate the goodness of her life; the idea is offensive and repulsive to me.”
Givens recalled the case of Earl Washington Jr., a 22-year-old black man wrongfully convicted of rape and murder, as one example that made him lose faith in the justice system. Washington’s execution was stayed nine days before Givens was scheduled to kill him. Years later, new DNA evidence led Virginia’s governor to pardon Washington, who was released in 2001.
“I knew the system was corrupted when we exonerated Earl Washington Jr. from death row. Days later, I would have executed him,” Givens said. “You have two types of people on death row: the guilty and the innocent. And when you have the guilty and the innocent, you shouldn’t have death row.”
But even if the law has not yet caught up, attitudes are starting to change on the death penalty. Support for the death penalty is at historic lows, and abolitionists remain optimistic even after the most recent Supreme Court ruling.
“We have to look at the big picture,” Givens explained. “Everyone on Earth has a death day: you, me, everyone. We can’t stop death, but we can stop killing…We have to think about the generation that’s coming up. We can’t let them go through what we had to go through. We tried it; we tried it, and it didn’t work. Now let’s get them going in a different direction from us.”