The Executioner’s Hood | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The Executioner’s Hood

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Ronni Mott

Dennis McGuire writhed in agony for 25 minutes, groaning and gasping for breath before finally dying. "He started making all these horrible, horrible noises, and at that point, that's when I covered my eyes and my ears," his daughter, Amber McGuire, told The New York Times.

The state of Ohio put McGuire, 53, to death in January 2014 with an untested combination of drugs. McGuire's attorneys had attempted to stop his execution, arguing that Ohio's lethal cocktail could lead to "air hunger," a medical term for suffocation. McGuire would experience "agony and terror" while struggling to breathe, they said. Apparently, that is precisely what occurred.

A week earlier, Oklahoma executed Michael Lee Wilson, 38, using pentobarbital to sedate him as the first of three drugs that would end his life. As the drug entered his veins, Wilson cried out, "I feel my whole body burning."

In July 2014, Joseph Wood "gasped and struggled to breathe for about an hour and 40 minutes," his attorney told CNN. Like Ohio and Oklahoma, Arizona used an experimental combination of drugs to kill Wood.

America has a schizophrenic relationship with the death penalty. Many of us want to eliminate those who commit egregious, heinous crimes, but most don't want the personal or social guilt of inflicting additional pain and killing. So we don't behead or burn people at the stake in public squares any longer. We've largely stopped using methods such as gas, electrocution or firing squads. All those methods are either too unreliable or just too horrible to watch—or both.

Lethal injection promised to be that "clean" execution method: Two drugs render a prisoner unconscious and insensate before a third "kill shot" stops his or her heart. While the convict feels no pain, allegedly, witnesses (and executioners) don't see convicts writhe or hear them scream. Executions are mostly hidden from the public, and numerous opportunities to correct incompetence or wrongdoing precede our final solution for our most vile and evil citizens. That's the theory, anyway.

U.S. executions, most using a three-drug cocktail, have hummed along since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 after a four-year hiatus. That is, until the world's pharmaceutical companies—under global pressure from anti-execution advocates—stopped supplying two of the drugs to U.S. buyers for executions. Soon starved of the drugs that made execution neat and tidy, states are scrambling for alternatives—that don't work as advertised. To wit: McGuire, Wilson and Wood.

Now, Mississippi's conservative legislators are attempting the make the executioner's hood more opaque. House Bill 1305 seeks not only to protect the identities of any company supplying drugs for executions, but would also hide the identities of people participating in and witnessing an execution, even those who are required to attend. It would also relieve them of all accountability, making them immune from prosecution.

If this legislation passes the Senate, the process of state-sanctioned executions will be thoroughly protected and completely behind closed doors. Eyewitness accounts such as the story the JFP published after Joseph Burns' 2010 execution (jfp.ms/burns_death/) would disappear. Compounding pharmacies, responsible for hundreds of patient deaths due to alleged slipshod methods and a lack of oversight, would be free to proffer experimental drugs without consequence. If those drugs are ineffective or worse, akin to torture, well, too bad.

Instead of addressing and correcting a serious problem, legislators are simply moving to cover everyone's butt with this bill. And issues with executions are numerous, beginning with the preponderance of evidence showing the death penalty's ineffectiveness as a crime deterrent, to the enormous cost of the death-penalty process, to Mississippi's justice system convicting innocents and holding unfair trials, to the illegality of cruel-and-unusual punishment.

Even if Mississippians are OK with state-sanctioned killing, such an obvious ploy to keep the people in the dark about every facet of a lethal process carried out in your name should give you pause. It takes all decision-making power out of our hands and removes all accountability. And that's simply un-American. HB 1305 is a bad bill. Tell your legislators to reject the secrecy.

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