Choose: a fix or the electric chair

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It’s hard for me to sit down and write this: a piece in favor of lethal injection, opposing a certain “not very intelligent” form of activism against the death penalty.

I sit down and I rise again, I move like a restless animal and I do the best I can to avoid starting the piece. I know I have to write it, but I don’t like it and I fight it. I guess it’s the effect of trying to put myself in the place of somebody who is about to be killed, legally killed, and through a very well established liturgy.

I understand that each time we -as a society- press the plunger on the syringe, pull the trigger or push the button, we certify our own failure. We have failed if we haven’t found another way, something different to murdering a helpless human being. We’re writing the official record of our own misery when after examining the corpse.

I am not going to list the whole rosary of data that prove how unfair death penalty is, the number of mistakes made in the process that lead to the execution of innocents. Just that should be enough to stop any legal execution from taking place. I don’t intend either to discuss the statistic anomaly that the ethnic group or race of the executed prisoners exposes when compared to the percentages of those groups in society. White people have much fewer chances of ending in the butcher’s hands, not because they are less of a criminal threat but because they enjoy a system made by and for them. Remember that black people, the slaves, were described in the US Constitution as amounting to “3/5 of a person”. Or in other words: if you kill five blacks, we’ll charge you for just three. Sounds thug-like, but it must be the motto of cops over there, judging by the amount of unarmed black citizens murdered by police shooting. Including them as 3/5 of a person was supposedly done “for their own good, to help them become free people”, but I honestly think it has good chances of winning a “Humanity’s Greatest Fuck-Ups” prize.

I am not going to indulge in all of these clichés: I do not like death penalty in any case. But I do understand that, if we must use it, it should be used in the best possible way. Seems legit to expect that in the XXI Century, Right? When we want to take a life, we don’t put a person over a blazing grill anymore, or use 4 pairs of horses to dismember somebody pulling in different directions from arms and legs. We don’t bury half of their bodies in the ground so that we can stone them, in a moral self-affirmation group party… Oops wait! Well, even if that is the case in many different spots on the planet, we Europeans and civilized Americans, a bit more advanced on that matter, do not do it that way. We’re not barbarians, damn it!

When we’ve had to resort to legal murder, in the past century and in the present, we have used ropes to hang people, we have shot them, put them in gas chambers (Nazi specialty?), electrocuted them and even tied them to a “garrote vil”, the name for inserting a metal bar through the back of someone’s neck. We have adapted to times in this killing business. So much so that Jay Chapman, a US medical examiner proposed in 1977 that, if killing needed to be done, it should be in the least cruel way possible. Does that sound good? It must do, because a priest by the name of Bill Wiseman made sure that proposal took legal form and entered the US law system. That’s how the “Chapman Protocol” was born, the least cruel way to kill someone according to that day’s scientific knowledge.

The “Chapman Protocol” consisted of a high dose of short-acting barbiturates (as used in anesthesia), followed by a drug that impeded breathing and another one that stopped the heart. Things didn’t always turn out the way they were supposed to, but in general it was not a bad way to kill (from the dying one’s perspective). And in 1982, Charles Brook became the first person in being executed in this “compassionate” way.

I have used quotation marks for the compassion remark, but it was ultimately an honest attempt by people that did not want to see someone suffer beyond logic when facing death. Until that time, deaths were far more traumatic. Especially through two specific procedures that we are about to review. One was the gas he gas chamber: a USA invention, used from 1924 to 1999 to legally kill prisoners. The first person executed in the gas chamber was a mobster of Chinese origins called Gee Jon, who was ignored when he appealed against such methods. The state determined that he had to be killed using the most modern means, and they believed the poison gas was the answer.

As nice as the state was, the first attempt at the modern execution was to pump the venom (the same used by the Nazis, by the way) in Gee’s cell while he was sleeping, but logically the poison escaped the room. So without losing a beat they built the chamber ad hoc, so they could kill that man, and left us that great invention. That’s how the chamber’s story began, and it lasted almost a century. It is still legal in some States, and 11 people have been killed with it since 1979.

The other “scientific” method dates from the XIX century and the “War of the currents” between Tesla and Edison. Tesla defended AC or alternating current and Edison DC or direct current. The latter managed to attract the law enforcers’ attention and recommended that, in the electric chair, his competitor’s current was used. He wanted people to associate alternating current with death to harm Tesla, and he also brought in a generator of the Tesla’s competitors (Westinghouse) to further cause damage to his image. But the actual method was actually invented by a drunk that somehow broke an arc lighting street lamp (like the current sodium ones) and touched the cathode and the anode, electrocuting immediately. Apparently he had done so because earlier that morning, while working with something electric, he had enjoyed a tickly sensation when in contact with a small electrical current.

Amazed by how well it worked and pleased with the fact that it left no marks on the corpse, the authorities elevated this method to capital punishment and adapted a wooden chair for this use, adding straps to tie the prisoner. It is not too complicated: a guy gets plugged to a million amperes to basically fry him. As you can imagine, all sorts of things can happen: the body can burst in flames, the eyes can explode. There’s even the chance that the prisoner survives. This happened once, and the inmate and his lawyer claimed that the “electrocution sentence” had been implemented, which was true. A jury bought this, but the next one decided a replay was needed. And the second time they didn’t miss.

This sort of thing was the reason for the creation of the lethal injection. It doesn’t make much sense to make a living being suffer if the goal is just to kill it. Therefore, injection became the usual execution method in the US, although the other ones were not scrapped totally. And as we abolished death penalty in Europe, we decided it was time for others to do the same, and so we started fighting the death penalty in the USA. How? By attacking the drug they use to kill the prisoners.

Does that sound stupid? It is. Using the same reasoning we could try stopping armed murdering by insulting the bullet manufacturers or the lead producers. That’s how stupid the choice was. And the result was catastrophic: pharmaceutical laboratories became aware of how damaging to their public image it was to supply the barbiturates for the killings. They had been in a similar situation before: in 1924 they refused to supply the venom for the gas chamber for the same reason. Feeling the pressure, they stopped supplying the drugs for the execution, even though they were very common drugs you could find in any hospital.

Every State reacted in a different way. Some decided to synthesize the drug themselves, and even selling it to other states. Others decided to try different drugs: a mix of benzodiazepines and opioids, a good idea for a smooth euthanasia but not that good as a mean to obtain a “quick and clean execution”. They don’t do the job as effectively as barbiturates. Barbiturates have apparently no rival when it comes to causing death, and they are the top searched topic on the internet for suicide purposes.

Some prisoners and their lawyers decided to explore this path as legal defense against death penalty, arguing that “this kind of death is a cruel and unfair punishment”. And the state reacted in the best way it could, a sort of “You don’t like being executed with drugs? Fair enough then”. And so we get to the point that caused me to write this article, as news break that certain states are re adopting “old killing ways”. And activating plans B in case they run out of drugs (as a result of activism and pressure against labs), or in case some inmate complains about the injection being inhumane.

There are two things every judge should have to witness: the death of every inmate they sentence to die and the death of all those who were denied a “good death”. We must not forget that all this (electric chair, gas chamber, hanging and shooting, and the “compassionate” lethal injection) are the answers we as a society give to certain problems. At the same time, we deny access to a chosen death to citizens that haven’t harmed anybody. Paradoxical justice.

“…and justice for all”.

I recommend to all interested in death penalty in the USA this website with a whole list of cases and a specific search engine.