Driving away from Parchman Penitentiary on the night Mississippi executed Joseph Burns, I was having trouble putting my feelings into words. I had just watched a man die in front of my eyes and yet, I was oddly calm, as if I had just walked out of a movie theater.
And then it hit me. I had witnessed an act of effectively masked extreme violence. On an emotional level, I had bought in to the myth that execution is a humane act.
Mississippi should make all executions public. While we're at it, let's bring back the really graphic, bloody versions of killing people: firing squads, hangings, electric chairs; methods where you can see the condemned thrash about, bleed and hear them cry out in agony.
Lethal injection is far too calm for the violence we inflict on the condemned.
Looks can be deceiving. Research into the three-drug cocktail we pump into the veins of those we execute paints a different picture.
The first drug, sodium pentothal, is a rapid-onset short-acting barbiturate (a depressant) general anesthetic. In large enough dosages, the drug can kill; however, in the dose used for executions, it should only put the condemned in a coma. But it may not do that, either. Recent appeals to the Supreme Court over the use of the drug revealed autopsy results showing that the dosages used in executions have not produced a comatose state, meaning it left the condemned prisoner awake to experience the results of the other drugs.
The second drug, Pavulon, or pancuronium bromide, "paralyzes the skeletal muscles without affecting the nerves or brain. The individual injected with Pavulon is conscious without being able to move or speak, thus giving the impression of serenity or tranquility," reports the Ohio Conference, United Church of Christ website.
The third drug, potassium chloride, stops the heart. If the prisoner is conscious, the drug causes excruciating pain, The New York Times reported in 2003.
"You're in a chemical tomb," said Dr. Mark J. S. Heath, an anesthesiologist and Columbia University teacher, to The New York Times.
"The subject gives all the appearances of a serene expiration when actually the subject is feeling and perceiving the excruciatingly painful ordeal of death by lethal injection," wrote Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle in the same New York Times piece, describing the worst-case scenario.
Lawyers made the argument against lethal injection to the Supreme Court and lost. But vets won't use the same combination of drugs on your pet.
I can attest to the fact that the drugs make everything look serene; Burns looked like he was falling asleep. The only change in appearance came when his chest stopped rising and falling.
Mississippi doesn't let any cameras or recording equipment into the death chamber. Witnesses don't get to see the condemned's face when he or she enters the little room. We don't get to see people buckling the six heavy leather straps or taping down the hands. Medical personnel have already inserted the IV needles by the time prison guards escort witnesses into the two viewing areas, one for the prisoner's family and one for the family of the victim. And no one sees the face of the person or people pushing the buttons to begin the drugs on their journey. Better to not leave a record should things go wrong.
Mississippi hides her executions. And that's a shame, because unlike the gratuitous violence we all see on television and in movies, this violence is real. And it's "we the people" who are inflicting that violence on our fellow human beings.
We should be watching. We should be gathering our children around us. We should allow the condemned to cry out. We should allow them to bleed. We shouldn't be allowed to turn our eyes away.
It's telling to read some of the comments in news media about putting people to death: "Bring on the rest … and don't take so long about it. If there are witnesses and no doubt, execute them, the day after sentencing."
The problem, of course, is that the criminal justice system is fallible. In the past several years, Mississippi has exonerated four men juries convicted "without a doubt," and to whom judges gave life or death sentences. On average, each spent 15 and a half years behind bars for crimes they didn't commit.
Sentencing for crimes is capricious. Where we condemn one man to death for murder, we give another a chance at parole, or just leave them to die in prison. Or perhaps a killer will be lucky enough to work for someone like Gov. Haley Barbour, who allowed five brutal murderers (four of whom killed ex-wives or girlfriends) to walk out of prison just because they cleaned the mansion well.
It's a travesty. The whole system seems designed expressly for the purpose of removing us—we the people—from any responsibility in the matter.
If we insist on killing people under cover of law, let's stop being hypocrites about it. Let's get it out in the open instead of hiding it like some dirty little secret.
Let's see it, hear it and smell it.
Then, let's confront the truth that violence never stops violence. Not even when it's neat and tidy and oh, so serene.
There was also some law students and anti-death penalty people outside the death chamber protesting the State of Mississippi during it's job. Do they not have any sympathy and empathy for the victims? One of them had on a shirt saying don't "Kill for me." What's wrong with those people? If you do the crime, you do the time. If you dance to the music, you pay to the piper. If you take a life, you give one. What's immoral or hard to understand about that?
I'm not sure if you're being for real or satirical, but why is that people like to link being against the death penalty with not having empathy for murdered victims' families?
I do agree with putting executions on TV. If we don't have a problem watch gratuitous violence on TV, what's wrong with showing something like this live?
- golden eagle
I'm not sure what to make of this...
A powerful, truly wonderful column, Ronni. If everyone could see an execution at Parchman, I can't believe people would allow it to continue. But you took us close to being there.
- Brian C Johnson