The Abolitionist New  
Vol. 2, No. 10
October 2014
Quick Links
Death Penalty Is No Balm For Grief
Vice Chair for Non-Violence
     Editor's Note: A statewide coalition of reformers worked diligently last winter to abolish capital punishment in New Hampshire, including New Hampshire Episcopal Bishop Rob Hirschfeld and the Episcopal Peace Fellowship. The legislature failed to repeal the death penalty by one vote.
     The Reverend Bill Exner testified before the legislative committee considering the repeal legislation. Portions of his forceful remarks are being shared with readers of The Abolitionist as an example of bearing witness for Christ when working to overcome a social evil.

     Mr. Chairman and members of the committee:
      No civil society condones the taking of life. Every civil society works diligently to deter the causes of violence against others, while appropriately sentencing those who commit such violence, particularly violence associated with capital murder.
     It is important to express our deepest sympathy to the families, friends, and co-workers of victims of capital murder. Nothing, no legislation and no amount of support, can ever replace what has been wrongfully taken away. Likewise, our sincere respect for those who protect and serve us in the law enforcement community must be stated and upheld as they literally put their lives on the line for every one of us every single day, in every single encounter.  Our concern for their well-being and safety has to be a part of this discussion as well, for their vocation is to protect a civil society wherein people and the law are respected and upheld.
     And it is this notion, along with the Episcopal faith tradition of which I am part, which compels me to testify why we, as a state and people, ought not support or ever apply a death penalty in New Hampshire.  Stated simply, a civil society ought not to empower its state to enact the premeditated killing of another human being, which is what the death penalty is, even when that human being is found guilty of murder.
     In our civil society and great state any of us may be asked to sit on a jury. In a murder case this means a prospective juror, you or I, may be asked, "Will you impose a death sentence if the facts of the case warrant capital murder?"  Not will you let somebody else do it, but will you do it?  Over the last century there have been over four hundred Americans mistakenly convicted of capital offenses.  There is no sure fire system that always gets the verdict right. Yet, when it comes to the death penalty as a possible sentence, the system must be right every time to assure that not one innocent person suffers death at the hands of the state. 
    Additionally, in the last one hundred years, over twenty poor souls have indeed been executed who have later been found to be innocent.  It is regrettable enough that over four hundred people have been mistakenly found guilty and imprisoned, but at least they are in prison. If it's later discovered that they were innocent of the crime, they could be released. When the death penalty makes mistakes, which it does, there is no recourse. Such a scenario is unacceptable in a civil and moral society.
     The FBI itself states that there is not a single study that supports the conclusion that the death penalty is a deterrent to violent crime. In fact, the states that use the death penalty have higher rates of violence and murder than the ones that do not.   The death penalty is no balm for grief; it is a symptom of a stage of deep grief itself and it cannot become the last word.
     What we need in New Hampshire and across the country is the political will to surround victims' families with our support, to protect the wrongfully convicted from execution, and to assure those rightly convicted of capital murder that there will be a mandatory life sentence, without the possibility of parole.  There is no place for the death penalty in a civil society, if people are truly respected and the law is upheld for the common good.
     The good news is that there is a growing moral and political will to shelve the death penalty.  Today, considering what we now know about the margins of error in the judicial system, the enormous financial cost of execution, the strain on the legal system, the testimony of victims' families, and the fact that a civil society should not kill people in the name of justice, I urge you to consider this testimony and make our political will even stronger to deal with the important issue of the death penalty definitively, finally, and soon. 
    Thank you for this opportunity to voice this viewpoint.

Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered? ~ Jerimiah 8:22
The Reverend William E. Exner is the Rector of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, Goffstown, N. H. He has been a priest in the Granite State for thirty years. He also serves on the EPF National Executive Council.

 Coping Skills Developed In Death Penalty Facilities


     There is a group of spectral figures in every execution chamber that receives virtually no attention, unless there is a problem like the recently botched deaths in Oklahoma, Ohio, and Missouri. These individuals operate in the shadows, but executions could not occur without them: the prison staff.


     In 2005, a research study was conducted to examine the psychological effects on prison personnel who actually carried out state-approved murder. The five-year study, entitled "The Role of Moral Disengagement in the Execution Process," examined the strategies used by prison officers to perform and cope with executions.


     The study showed that correctional officers, regardless of whether they had actually participated in an execution, stated they had witnessed some extreme events while performing their job. Nonetheless, there was no reported depression and a miniscule amount of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even among wardens who had overseen twenty or more executions.


     The authors of the study refer to this seemingly callous attitude as "moral disengagement," a series of attitudes that people develop to cope with the taking of human life. The study developed eight indicators to help identify what developed this coping mechanism: "moral justification, the use of euphemistic language, advantageous comparison (for example, "the execution prevented him from killing many more people"), displacement of responsibility, diffusion of responsibility, distortion of consequences (i.e. minimizing the execution process: "lethal injection is humane as the inmate has no pain"), attribution of blame, and dehumanization of the prisoner."


     The study also found that moral disengagement can be viewed on a continuum based on the staff's role in the execution. Moral disengagement is low if not directly involved with the prisoner, but very high if the staff member is directly involved in the actual execution process.


     One Texas official stated that the death penalty became "real" to him when a prisoner thanked him as he was taken away to be executed. "The whole thing made me step out of my role professionally, and touched me on an emotional level. I began to realize that this is how these things happen, executions. We do these things that personally you 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."


     Another Texas official, who was responsible for the oversight of eighty-nine executions, was asked if he was affected today by the executions stated, "To be honest with you, they rarely cross my mind. They rarely cross my mind at all."

True Stories From The Valley of Death

(Death Penalty News From Across The Country)


     Tennessee- The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruled on September 29 that the state

must provide the name of the execution team to the attorneys representing the eleven men who are currently slated for execution. The court ruled that the statute passed in 2013 that exempted the state from revealing the names of the individuals serving on execution teams did not apply in this circumstance and were subject to the rules of discovery.  The information on the teams, physicians, and pharmacist involved in the executions will not be available to the public, but will be supplied only to the lawyers of the plaintiffs. Officials of the State of Tennessee have not decided if an appeal will be pursued.

     Oklahoma- The State Department of Corrections has issued a new execution protocol following the forty-three minute death of Clayton Derrell Lockett in April. Although Midazolam was used in the botched execution of both Lockett and Ohio inmate Dennis McGuire, the new protocol still allows it to be used, but increases the amount by five times. The new procedure also requires the medical professional inserting the IV to be trained. The new protocol also requires a staff member to call the governor's office if the inmate has not died within one hour from the time the IV is inserted. In response to a suit filed by several inmates against implementation of the new rules, a federal judge has stated that he has concerns that the State of Oklahoma can effect the changes and train the staff properly before the November 13 execution of Charles Frederick Warner.

     Georgia- Butts County Judge Thomas Wilson ruled he could offer no relief for death row inmate Warren Hill based upon state law, even though the defendant is mentally challenged. Georgia has the most stringent definition of mental disability in the country, requiring the defendant to prove his disability beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge did recommend, however, that the Florida Supreme Court review the case under guidelines set in Hall v. Florida. The United States Supreme Court ruled in that case that Florida's law was unconstitutional because it relied on a fixed score (70) to determine whether a person was mentally disabled.

Oklahoma- State Representative Mike Christian is examining the possibility of using nitrogen gas as a method to execute prisoners. He maintains that the gas is "more humane and cost-effective method of execution than lethal injection." Currently, Oklahoma uses lethal injection to euthanize inmates, but after the unwanted publicity that occurred after the botched forty-three minute execution of Clayton Lockett, the legislator decided that nitrogen gas was a quick and painless way to kill inmates. An academic from East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma testified, that "Having (inmates) breathe pure nitrogen is indistinguishable from regular air."

    Kansas- The Kansas Supreme Court has ordered a retrial for Phillip D. Cheatham, Jr., who was convicted in 2005 for killing two women, plus multiple other criminal acts. The murder conviction and all other charges were reversed in 2013 because the court stated that Cheatham did not receive adequate legal representation. His attorney, Ira Dennis Hawver, faces disbarment by the Kansas Supreme Court for his lack of representation. He appeared before the court dressed as Thomas Jefferson, including a powered wig, to answer the charges. "I am incompetent!" Hawver said, "Anybody who thinks they are representing an innocent person and can't convince a jury is incompetent or ineffective." The court has not decided what, if any, action it will take against Hawver.

Mentally Ill Being Executed Despite Prohibitions


     In three separate decisions*, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that mentally ill people should not be executed.  Despite these rulings, however, states are finding loopholes to continue killing individuals with demonstrable mental problems. The likelihood for tragedy grows annually since it's estimated that  5-10% of all inmates have severe mental illness.


     The National Coalition To Abolish the Death Penalty is working to bring this important, but

usually overlooked, aspect of the death penalty debate to the forefront. Mental Health America, cited recently in a NCADP article, states that "mental health conditions can influence an individual's mental state at the time he or she commits a crime, can affect how "voluntary" and reliable an individual's statements might be, can compromise a person's competence to stand trial and to waive his or her rights, and may have an effect upon a person's knowledge of the criminal justice system." 


     Schizophrenia and Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are two of the major mental disorders found among death row inmates. Nonetheless, there are repeated examples of men being executed who have a diagnosis of one of these disorders. Some are currently under an execution order.


     For more information, see "Mental Illness and the Death Penalty" by Sara Swig.



     *  Ford v. WainwrightAdkins v. Virginia, Panetti v. Quarterman