The Abolitionist New  
Vol. 3, No. 1
January 2015
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Tennessee Refuses To Admit The Irony In Its Arguments To Execute Prisoners!



The Reverend Joseph B. Ingle


Editor's Note: Although this month's editorial is Tennessee-centric, the same issues are being argued in courts across the country by states that want to execute people with anonymity and to sanitize a grisly process.

     In my work against the death penalty, I have attended many judicial proceedings: trials, state and federal appellate hearings, and arguments in the United States Supreme Court. 

On December 18, 2014, I attended the most astonishing hearing of all at the Tennessee Supreme Court. What made it remarkable were the levels of irony that permeated the proceedings. Indeed, it was at least triply ironic.


    First IronyThe case, West v. Schofield, considered whether or not to disclose information to the prisoners' lawyers about the makers of the compounded drugs used in executions. For anyone living in Nashville, the mere fact that this was a question was an enormous irony.

     The Tennessee Supreme Court building is about four miles from a local hospital that administered compounded drugs to its patients in 2012. It turns out compounded drugs are poorly regulated and as a result, many patients became ill and died. More than 750 people in twenty states contracted fungal meningitis due to the drug compounding lab's errors. In Tennessee alone, sixteen people died. 


     What could happen if the maker of lethal injection drugs, designed to kill someone rather than heal them, could do so without any accountability because of secrecy? The Department of Corrections in Georgia had its lethal injection drugs confiscated by the Justice Department because they were obtained from an individual who made them in his garage in London, England. 


    Second Irony: Tennessee has executed five prisoners by lethal injection. As a result of autopsies performed on these individuals, the chemical levels in the blood of several prisoners revealed that the state had inadequately anesthetized them. Therefore the prisoners were paralyzed by one of the drugs, but still conscious as they struggled to breathe. They were slowly asphyxiated in an excruciating death. This evidence came forth in an earlier state court hearing. 

     The state maintained that this problem would not occur again because they planned to use licensed doctors to oversee the administration of the drugs.  Ironically, trained physicians administered the tainted drugs at the local hospital that killed sixteen Tennesseans. It's ludicrous to believe that the state would know any more about the composition of the drugs they are using to execute people simply because it's being administered by a doctor. The issue is not who is facilitating the death, but the unknown quality of the drugs.

    Third IronyI usually visit men on death row on a weekly basis. I have done so since Riverbend Maximum Security Institution opened in October of 1989. I know the prisoners and the staff. Hence, I know the members of the execution team.


     Death row is a small world, so you learn the cast of characters. I mention this because in oral argument the state made a point of voicing concerns about what would happen if the identity of the person who mixed the chemicals to execute prisoners was revealed. Since nothing untoward has happened to anyone involved in any previous execution, one wonders what imaginary fear the state is invoking?


     Finally, those of us who oppose executions are non-violent. It is the state that is committing violence by killing an individual, not us. Yet we are the ones accused by the state of possibly seeking to harass someone involved in an execution, despite the absence of such behavior after any previous execution.

     Herein is the greatest irony of all: those who kill people to show that killing is wrong, develop a mindset that can't conceive of responding to violence except with more violence. Thus they accuse the nonviolent of violence. Perhaps it is time to consider an alternative to the entire mind bending process. 

Rev. Joseph B. Ingle is a United Church of Christ minister and former director of the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons. He has been one of America's most prominent opponents of the death penalty since beginning his work in 1973. Born in North Carolina, Ingle is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary in New York City and was a Harvard Fellow in 1991. He is the author of two books,  Last Rites: Thirteen Fatal Encounters With The State's Justice and The Inferno-- A Southern Morality Tale.

True Stories From The Valley of Death

(Death Penalty News From Across The Country)

     Georgia- On January 13, Andrew Brannan became the first man executed in the United States in 2015. The highly decorated Vietnam veteran was put to death for killing a policeman in 1998. Despite the fact that Brannan was diagnosed by the Department of Veterans Affairs as "100% disabled" due to post-traumatic stress disorder and that a Veterans Administration psychiatrist diagnosed him with bipolar disorder, Brannan was sentenced to death. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a last minute appeal, and Brannan was killed by lethal injection.

     Maine- Newly elected state Senator Bill Diamond is introducing a bill to reinstitute the death penalty for individuals convicted of murder in connection with a sex crime against a child. Diamond knows his bill will engender controversy, but he maintains there is a growing pornography problem in the country that is exploiting children, oftentimes resulting in murder. The senator stated that child predators "are not who you think they would be. They are police office, teachers, and members of the clergy." The senator has not talked with the state attorney general about the bill, but the AG stated that she thought that Maine's policy of a no parole life sentence for murder accomplishes the same objective as the senator's bill.

     South Carolina- In an attempt to correct an historical and judicial wrong, Judge Carmen
Mullen ruled in December that fourteen year old African-American George Stinney, Jr. was denied his constitutional rights when he was found guilty and executed for killing two white girls in 1944. 

The judge vacated the original ruling because Stinney was tried by twelve white men, who took ten minutes to reach a verdict. The defense called no witnesses and no appeals were ever filed.

Judge Mullen issued a "writ of coram nobis, a rare legal doctrine held over from English law that 'corrects errors of fact' when no other remedy is available to the applicant."

     Missouri- A bill has been filed in the Missouri Senate asking that a one-time study be conducted to determine the cost of administering the death penalty in the state. The bill, sponsored by St. Louis Senator Joseph Keavney, has been introduced five times previously, but never passed. The Death Penalty Information Center conducted a similar research project in Colorado and found that death penalty case proceedings took six times as long as life without parole cases. If Colorado had commuted all pending death penalty cases to life without parole, the state would have saved $170 million, according to the study findings.

     Maryland- Outgoing Governor Martin O'Malley has announced that he will commute the sentences of the four remaining men on death row. Maryland abolished the death penalty two years ago, but the legislation did not affect the five men who were awaiting death. Since the passage of the law, one of the prisoners died of natural causes. In an interesting legal interpretation, the Attorney General informed the governor that the four men could not be executed since the state no longer had a death penalty or regulations on how to carry out lethal injections.
Death Penalty Is Wrong Even For Alleged Boston Bomber
Guest Editorial, Star-Ledger

     Mayor Martin Walsh of Boston is opposed to the death penalty. So is Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Their state abolished capital punishment in 1984. A Boston Globe poll in July reported that in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the accused bomber in last year's Boston Marathon, 57 percent of Boston residents favor life without parole. Only 33 percent prefer capital punishment. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty, says he is personally opposed to capital punishment. 

     So why seek the death penalty against Tsarnaev if those most affected and the enforcers are opposed to its use?


     Because, explains the Justice Department in its eight-page document filed in federal court in Boston, " Dzhokhar Tsarnaev targeted the Boston Marathon, an iconic event that draws large crowds of men, women and children to its final stretch, making it especially susceptible to the effect and acts of terrorism." Prosecutors also explained that Tsarnaev shows no remorse, and used a weapon of mass destruction.


     In other words, even though the death penalty as a general principle is wrong, certain heinous circumstances warrant its being invoked as an exception.

     But shouldn't a moral principle like the sanctity of life -- even the life of an alleged murderer -- be upheld in all circumstances, especially when there are other effective means of permanently removing that person from threatening society?


     Realistically, every situation is unique and special and potential grounds for an exception. Morally, no situation is grounds for an exception.


Rabbi Zelizer

      Israel hung Adolf Eichmann in 1962, passing special legislation which instituted the death penalty exclusively for his punishment. It rejected appeals for clemency from such notable citizens as Martin Buber and Ernest Simon, contending that genocide is so heinous as to be an exception. So is genocide then the only exception?

New Jersey abolished capital punishment in 2007. In testimony to a special commission of the State Assembly which studied the death penalty, I was invited to testify as to Judaism's viewpoint. I pointed out that the Torah says incontrovertibly that "the person who kills, his life shall be taken" - thus endorsing capital punishment.


     As Judaism evolved during the next 1,000 years after the Torah, it increasingly mitigated and limited the Biblical allowance. For example, the rabbis of the Talmud put the following question to a witness to a murder: "Did you warn the murderer of his punishment for this killing, and did he reject your warning?" Absent that convoluted warning and brazen rejection, the accused was exonerated. The iconic Rabbi Akiba said that he would never be part of a Sanhedrin which applied the death penalty, and Maimonides in 12th-century Spain wrote that the person "guilty of a crime punishable by death is instead excommunicated and whipped." To be sure, the sages could not eliminate the Biblical authorization of the death penalty, but they sure circumscribed it. It was on the sacred books, so to speak, but unusable.

A psychological rationale for the death penalty has more recently trumped the vintage ones of deterrence and retribution. We often hear, "Closure from mental anguish to the survivors comes when they know that the murderer has been executed." But does it?

     Here in New Jersey, June and Larry Post lived through the death of their daughter Lisa, who, about 25 years ago, was fatally stabbed by her husband as she was about to exit the marriage and take their little girl with her. Larry Post acknowledged that "there is still a strong hatred." But he resents those who exploit his anger as a father of a victim to argue for the death penalty, especially contending that executing murderers brings "closure" to the surviving family. "We know the agony of those who have suffered as we have and who feel they need this second killing in order to get on with their lives. However, there is nothing the state can do relieve our pain." Real closure, Larry said, comes with the knowledge that the killer has been imprisoned without chance of parole and prevented from doing more harm.

     One can always justify exceptions to moral principles. Some speculate that the prosecutor is using the death penalty as leverage for a plea bargain. I hope that is so. On absolute terms capital punishment is wrong, even for the accused Boston Marathon bomber.

Window-dressing Is Expensive In The Sooner State  


     "My body is on fire. No one should go through this. I'm not afraid to die. We's all going to die." 


     These were the last words of Charles Frederick Warner, executed on January 15 by the State of Oklahoma. He is the first inmate executed in Oklahoma since the botched the killing of Clayton Lockett on April 29. In the Lockett execution, it took more than forty minutes for the man to die.

     The State of Oklahoma spent over  $106,000 to remodel the execution chamber  following the
Lockett death investigation. The state has also limited the number of witnesses, including the press, that can witness an execution in Oklahoma. 

      Charles Frederick Warner was executed with the same "drug cocktail" used in the botched killing of Lockett. Other than restricting public access to the execution process, virtually nothing has changed in the way Oklahoma kills inmates. It's just a bureaucratic sleight of hand.

     The state has executed 111 people since it reinstated capital punishment in 1990. Fifty more inmates are on death row.