Friday 2 May 2014

Botched executions                        

Don't click on words that are in blue as they are unwanted ads that somehow slipped into this article. 

I have been an abolitionist with respect to executions of condemned prisoners for many years. In 1976, the members of the Canadian Parliament and the Canadian Senate voted against capital punishment. I was told that they all had read my report on executions along with other reports. In my report, I wrote about the fear that innocent people would be executed. But in 1980 and again in 1985, while addressing two United Nations conferences (Caracas and Milan) I advocated the death penalty for murderers who are terrorists and those who torture their victims before they murder them. I haven’t changed my mind on that issue. I also feel that war criminals should be also executed. I don’t believe that the taxpayers should have to bear the burden of having to support these kinds of killers in prison at $50,000 a year for the rest of their lives.

Now I am concerned about botched executions. Condemned killers should be executed painlessly if at all possible. Alas, that hasn’t always occurred. From sadistic executioners to faulty equipment to simple human error, the death penalty can be a bit of a wild card for the condemned. Assured that death will come quickly and painlessly, some prisoners have been allowed to choose their own method of execution based on what best suits them, or what they assume will be the quickest way out.

Botched hangings    

After the Second World War, war, the Supreme National Tribunal of Poland at Kraków found Amon Göeth the Nazi commandant of a German concentration camp guilty of murdering tens of thousands of prisoners. He was hanged on September 13, 1946, at aged 37, not far from the former site of the Płaszów camp. At his execution, Göeth's hands were tied behind his back. The executioner on two occasions miscalculated the length of rope necessary to hang Göeth, and it was only on the third attempt that the execution was successful. Even them, he only dropped a few inches and slowly strangled to death. Rudolph Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz where millions of Jews were exterminated, was executed at the camp after the war and he too dropped only a few inches and strangled to death.

In 1906, an itinerant worker, William William was to be hanged for the murder of a teen and the teen’s mother. The sheriff who was to conduct the hanging botched it. His math was faulty in calculating both the height of Williams and the gallows platform.    When the murderer dropped, his feet hit the floor. His neck had stretched four inches and the rope had stretched eight inches. So deputies quickly grabbed the rope and pulled it upward, then took turns holding Williams' feet off the ground for almost 15 minutes while the life was slowly choked out of him. The death certificate stated that the cause of death was strangulation.         

The debacle, and the newspaper coverage of it, gave ammunition to those in the state Legislature who opposed the death penalty. In 1911, capital punishment was abolished in the state of Minnesota. Williams was the last person to be executed in that state. 

American Master Sgt. John C. Woods botched the executions of Nazi leaders after the war. A number of the hanged Nazis died, not quickly from a broken neck as policy, but agonizingly from slow strangulation. Ribbentrop and Sauckel each took 14 minutes to choke to death, while Keitel, whose death was the most painful, struggled for 24 minutes at the end of the rope before expiring. I don’t think Woods bungled. I think he did this on purpose. He was an experienced executioner. Since the Nazis themselves used the "short drop" (i.e., strangulation) as their standard method of hanging, this information doesn't really break my heart.

Convicted of murdering his girlfriend in 1891, George Painter was sentenced to be hanged three years later for the grisly crime in which the woman was strangled, and her head beaten against a bed post until she was dead. If Painter, who maintained his innocence until the end, had been the true murderer (multiple witnesses came forward in Painter’s defense but were dismissed as unreliable), he had attempted to make the scene look like a burglary by pulling down his lover’s left sock—a known hiding place for money amongst women of her class.

But, despite who may have been the killer, George would be the one to pay for the crime with his life. On January 26th, 1894, Painter was walked to the gallows in front of about seventy spectators and allowed to speak his final words: a low, trembling assertion of his innocence and a desire for the real killer to be found. A white hood was then placed over Painter’s head and drawn closed with a string, and his thighs bound by straps.

The noose was then placed around George’s neck as the men preparing the condemned stepped away from the trap door. Given the signal, a man in a concealed box cut the rope and the trap door below Painter swung open with a bang, dropping his body through the opening.

The rope supporting Painter’s weight became taut, then, as the crowd breathed a collective gasp, the rope snapped and sent the man’s body hurtling to the solid ground in a heap. Jailers rushed to carry Painter’s body back up to the platform where doctors confirmed that his neck had broken but they didn’t believe him to be dead. While the jailers cut the rope from his neck and replaced it with a new one, spectators were aghast at the sight of the white hood becoming red in color as Painter’s head began to bleed profusely. Now in a sitting position upon the trap door, blood poured down George’s body, staining his white gown the same crimson shade as his hood, prompting some spectators to flee the room. The trap door was then sprung once more, and Painter’s body took a second, final plunge, after which he was pronounced properly deceased.

Botched electrocutions

I was always of the belief that an execution by electricity would be quick and painless. That’s what I was told when I sat on the electric chair in Florida. No. I wasn’t being executed. I was invited by the Florida director of corrections to visit their state penitentiary and I was asked if I would like to sit on the electric chair. Well that offer isn't given to very many people so I couldn’t refuse.

The first execution by electricity took place before the turn of the last century. In 1890, William Kemmler was convicted of violently murdering his common-law wife with a hatchet and was subsequently sentenced to death via the first electric chair.

Placing a childlike trust in his soon-to-be executioners, Kemmler did what he could in order to assuage their nervousness. This including assisting in his own restraint and offering some words of encouragement to the warden and his deputy by saying; “Take your time. Don’t be in a hurry. Do it well; be sure everything is all right,” The warden replied, “It won’t hurt you, Bill. I’ll be with you all the time.” The warden probably believed his own words as much as his prisoner did, but this was 1890, and they were attempting to painlessly kill a man using electricity. But it worked well enough on their equine (horse) test subject, they reasoned, so how could it not succeed on a much smaller man? Well it didn’t succeed as planned.

Upon finishing up with the preparations to begin the execution, the warden gave the signal to flip the switch and almost instantly, Kemmler’s body became rigid with the current flowing through it, and by the end of the ten second mark; everything seemed to have gone according to plan. Kemmler was declared dead. As the warden and doctors started to wrap up the execution with a business-like discussion about the preceding events, one of the doctors noticed a cut on Kemmler’s hand that was caused by a piece of the equipment rubbing against it. The wound, by all appearances pretty inconsequential, happened to be bleeding—strongly indicating that William was still alive. His heart was still beating.

The warden, panicked by the apparent blunder, quickly ordered the current to be restarted in order to finish the job. By this point, fluid seeped from Kemmler’s mouth and ran down his beard as he began to groan repeatedly and increasingly loudly. It was clear that the condemned man was beginning to regain consciousness, which caused even seasoned doctors to turn their heads and go pale. At last, after what seemed like ages to all those involved, the electricity was restarted and Kemmler once again convulsed, ceasing the noise coming from his lips. It was almost a relief to watch as the man died, but then came a sickening sizzling sound from the chair, as if meat was being cooked upon it. It was followed by a billow of smoke that filled the room with the odor of burning hair and flesh.

Allen Lee Davis had been convicted for murdering a woman and her two daughters. That his crimes were heinous and totally reprehensible is not in dispute. The execution of him in the Florida electric chair on July 8th  1999, was so violent and gross that it set off a shock wave that rippled around the world. Justice Shaw describes in detail the execution of Davis, wherein the execution went awry. He points out that Davis not only died from electrocution, but from being smothered by the large leather strap that held his head to the electric chair. His nose was bleeding and the blood ran down his shirt. Witnesses described Davis as either screaming or moaning prior to the current being turned on.

Florida’s electric chair malfunctioned during the execution of Jesse Tafero on May 4th, 1990, resulting in a violent scene, with smoke and foot-long flames spurting from his head. Smoke and flames instantaneously spurted from his head for a distance of as much as 12 inches. The flames and smoke emanated from the area around a metallic skull cap, inside of which was a saline-soaked synthetic sponge meant to increase the flow of electricity to the head. The cap is the source of electricity administered to condemned prisoners by the electric chair. Because of the smoke and flames, officials of the Department of Corrections stopped the first surge of electricity. A second jolt again resulted in smoke and flames spurting from Tafero’s head. Finally, a third jolt of electricity was administered. A medical examiner found that Tafero was finally dead some six or seven minutes after the execution commenced.

It was determined that for the first time a synthetic, rather than a natural, sponge had been used in the headpiece. The Department concluded that the burning of the sponge caused the flames and smoke which were seen during Tafero’s execution. However, while that sponge was burning, it was also burning the scalp of the condemned man. It is conceivable that he was aware that his head was on fire. The shock of the 2000 volts hasn’t always knocked the condemned person unconscious. One man had to be removed and later brought back to the chair a second time. The top of Tafero’s head was severely scorched and burned. 

Florida’s electric chair malfunctioned again during the execution of Pedro Medina on March 25, 1997, resulting in another violent scene with smoke and flames spurting from the head-piece. When Pedro Medina was executed on March 25, 1997, the following events occurred. When the electrical current was activated, within seconds, smoke emanated from under the right side of Medina’s head piece, followed by a 4 to 5 inch yellow-orange flame which lasted 4 to 5 seconds and then disappeared. After the flame went out, more smoke emanated from under the head piece to the extent that the death chamber was filled with smoke–but the smoke was not dense enough to impair visibility in or through the chamber. The smoke continued until the electrical current was shut off in the middle of the third cycle. Florida State Prison Superintendent Ronald McAndrews, described the odor as burnt sponge.

Florida no longer uses the electric chair as a means of executing murderers. They use the needle.

On April 22, 1983, John Evans was electrocuted in Alabama`s electric chair. Alabama.  After the first jolt of electricity, sparks and flames erupted from the electrode attached to Evans's leg.  The electrode burst from the strap holding it in place and caught on fire.  Smoke and sparks also came out from under the hood in the vicinity of Evans's left temple.  Two physicians entered the chamber and found a heartbeat.  The electrode was reattached to his leg, and another jolt of electricity was applied.  This resulted in more smoke and burning flesh.  Again the doctors found a heartbeat.  Ignoring the pleas of Evans's lawyer, a third jolt of electricity was applied.  The execution took 14 minutes and left Evans's body charred and smoldering.

Death by gas

On September 2, 1983, Mississippi officials had to clear the room eight minutes after the gas was released when the condemned man`s  desperate gasps for air repulsed the witnesses.

On September 2, 1983, Jimmy Lee Gray was convicted for the murder of three-year-old Deressa Jean Seales in 1976, after kidnapping and sodomizing her. At the time of this murder, he was free on parole following a conviction in Arizona for the murder of a 16-year-old girl. During his execution by gas in San Quentin prison in California, .Gray began breathing in the toxic gas. Soon after, he was slowly suffocating and then he began thrashing his head around as by striking the iron bar behind him repeatedly before he finally lost consciousness. Officials decided to clear the observation room eight minutes after the gas was released, due to the graphic scene of Gray banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber. The reporters counted his moans (eleven, according to the Associated Press). Later it was revealed that the executioner, Barry Bruce, was drunk.

Death by firing squad

Wallace Wilkerson was born in 1834 in Quincy, Illinois, before moving to Utah with his family at the age of eight. At seventeen he worked as a stockman and repeatedly enlisted in the military, one time serving as a drummer in San Francisco. Around 1877, he found himself frequenting a nearby saloon that was tended by a man named William Baxter, who once had to break up a conflict between Wilkerson and another patron by using a revolver to settle them down.

As luck would have it, that same year fate conspired against Baxter when he wound up running into Wilkerson at another saloon and the two decided to play a game of cribbage for money. As with most stories about card-playing in the 1800s, this one also took a turn for the worse with accusations of cheating. Baxter attempted to back out of the argument, but Wilkerson was having none of it and planted a bullet in the man’s forehead, then his temple. It later turned out that Baxter was unarmed at the time and Wilkerson was tried and convicted for premeditated murder.

The execution date was set for later that same year, and Wilkerson chose his method of death to be execution via firing squad, rather than the alternative options of being hanged or decapitated. On the day of his death, Wilkerson was permitted to spend his remaining hours with his wife, during which time he must have gotten his hands on some alcohol, according to witnesses who saw him in his final moments. When he was at last taken from his cell, Wilkerson was dressed in black with a white felt hat and a cigar that he kept during the execution. The condemned man was then seated on a chair about thirty feet from the shooters as a blindfold was prepared for him.

Wilkerson, however, declined to wear the blindfold, stating “I give you my word. I intend to die like a man, looking my executioners right in the eye.” Restraints weren’t used at the request of the prisoner as a small white square was pinned over the man’s heart by a marshal.

Wilkerson took a deep breath and drew himself up straight in the chair in anticipation of the volley. This action, unbeknownst to the firing squad, moved the target several inches upward as the executioners fired their salvo at him. One bullet shattered his left arm, while the rest punched into his torso, failing to instantly kill the man. Wilkerson, meanwhile, leapt from the chair and hit the ground screaming “Oh my God! My God! They have missed!” Four doctors rushed to him amidst concerns that the executioners might have to shoot him again, but the worries were unfounded: Wilkerson bled out from his wounds just twenty-seven minutes after receiving them.

Lethal injection

Christopher Newton was imprisoned at Mansfield Correctional Institution  in Ohio for burglary and after telling officials he had been threatened, he was placed in a cell with 27 year old Jason Brewer. The two men got into an argument over a game of chess when Newton attacked Brewer and began hitting him in the face. He then tied a piece of rope around his neck and stuck a gag down his throat. When Newton realized that Brewer was still alive, he cut a piece of cloth and strangled him with it.

Newton was unsurprisingly placed on death row to be executed by lethal injection. When the time came on May 24th 2007 for his execution, nothing went to plan. First off, it took about an hour-and-a-half to find a suitable vein in which to administer the cocktail of chemicals due to his weight. That continued process can really be painful. During this time, he was stabbed a minimum of ten times with needles, and was even permitted a bathroom break because of the sheer amount of time taken. Finally, when the needle was properly inserted, witnesses reported that Newton’s stomach heaved, his chin and mouth twitched and he suffered at least two mild convulsions on the gurney, all of which should have been impossible if the injection was administered properly. Further adding to the debacle, it took Newton a full sixteen minutes from the time the drugs began flowing to the time he was declared dead. That’s about double the time it normally takes for lethal injections to kill the condemned.

Brian Steckel might as well be synonymous with being a despicable human worthy only of death. Given the nature of his crime, it’s difficult to find a valid reason for keeping him alive. However, capital punishment is intended to be humane—something it was not in his case.  It began when Steckel knocked on twenty-nine year old Sandra Lee Long’s door and asked to use her phone. Upon being allowed into the premises, his demeanor rapidly changed as he propositioned the woman for sex. Of course, she refused him. This sent him into a rage, at which point he strangled her with a pair of tights. Half-conscious from the attack, Sandra was unable to defend herself as Steckel sexually abused her with a screwdriver, then raped her from behind. Unsatisfied with just this, Steckel then decided to set her on fire, which was ultimately the cause of her death due to smoke inhalation and severe burns.

When it came time to execute Steckel, the procedure should have been carried out quickly and humanely. But his execution was anything but quick, as the lethal injection machine sat and clicked for about twelve minutes while Steckel remained conscious and lucid throughout. Determining that the main IV line was blocked, the machine was switched to the backup line, and this time, the sedative drug was not administered so Steckel continued to stay conscious as the paralytic pancuronium bromide took effect. The heart-stopping potassium chloride was then injected which excruciatingly killed Steckel with a sensation described as “having your veins set on fire,” all while he was unable to move or react to indicate the kind of pain he was experiencing. A fitting end for one guilty of murder by fire, I suppose.

It took Díaz 34 minutes to die from the time the two executioners inserted the IV tubes into each arm and began pumping the chemicals into his body. His eyes widened. His head rolled. He appeared to speak. The faint signs of movement from the body strapped to the trolley continued for 24 minutes. His face was contorted, and he grimaced on several occasions. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down continually, and his jaw was clenched.

Diaz's execution in Florida on December 13, 2007 for the murder of the manager of a topless bar in 1979 and he was the last to be executed in the state for some months to come. Almost immediately after his body was removed from the execution chamber, it became clear that the execution had gone wrong.

The cocktail of three chemicals that was meant to have sent him to oblivion within moments had unfortunately led to a painful, lingering death. After a report from the medical examiner who said he had found 12-inch-long chemical burns on Diaz's arms, the state governor, Jeb Bush, opened an inquiry into his death and suspended all executions, granting more than 370 people on Florida's death row at least a temporary reprieve.

The Oklahoma prison system used a new drug combination on 38 year-old inmate Clayton Lockett. The execution was botched, and ended with Lockett writhing in pain, clenching his teeth on his gurney. Lockett died from a heart attack 43 minutes after the first drug had been administered.

What went wrong? At 6:23 pm, Lockett was injected with 100 milligrams of midazolam to induce unconsciousness. Technically, midazolam, one of the drug's in Oklahoma's mix, is supposed to act like a sedative, practically putting a prisoner to sleep before the other parts of the lethal cocktail hit the bloodstream.

The needle was inserted in the condemned person’s vein in his arm because the blood in the vein will be going directly to the brain and then via the arteries, heading towards the rest of his body including his diaphragm that controls breathing and also to the heart.

At 6:33 pm. the doctor said that Lockett was fully unconscious. The doctor then began administrating the second drug which was vecuronium bromide which was to stop his breathing and the third drug which was potassium chloride which would stop his heart from beating.

In this particular incident, Lockett’s vein didn't burst as originally believed. The deadly fluids were injected into Lockett's femoral vein in the area of his groin.

At 6:36, Lockett became conscious again and began writhing and one of his feet  was shaking.  He began mumbling and then cried out, "Oh Man. Something's wrong." A minute later, he raised his head as if trying to get off the gurney. That is when the curtain was drawn so that the spectators wouldn't see any more of this fiasco.

At 6:39, the doctor lifted the sheet covering Lockett and examined the injection site.  The director of the State's Department of Corrections who was present in the execution chamber concluded that something was terribly wrong and after making a couple of calls, he ordered that that the execution be halted. By that time, it was too late to save Lockett as the third drug had caused him to have his heart attack.

An autopsy later determined that the execution team botched the execution. I suspect that the fatal drugs didn't go into the vein properly which must have been very painful to Lockett. Torturing a condemned man to death is inappropriate in civilized countries like the United States.

The governor has ordered that the execution of his partner is to be put on hold.

Death is appropriate to these two men because they tortured their victim. Clayton Lockett and his accomplice tried to rob a house Miss Neiman was at. She tried to fight him off. The two men overwhelmed her. They beat her, bound her with duct tape, taped her mouth shut, shot her, then buried her alive. But their executions should be humane. Lockett’s execution was not. Since 1976, as many as 1,203 executions by lethal injection have been performed. How many of those condemned persons died in pain? Scary, isn't it.  

As I said earlier in this piece, n 1980 when I was addressing the UN Conference in Caracas, on the topic of capital punishment,  I advocated abolition of capital punishment with few exceptions and recommended natural life without parole as an alternative.

Many of the American states that previously retained the death penalty now have life without parole as an alternative.  Considering what has happened to those murderers whose executions were horribly botched, it is easy to see why these states in the US chose natural life without parole as the best way to punish murderers.

I realize that we don`t have to have sympathy for some of these people who committed horrible crimes and really do deserve death, but those of us who live in democratic countries recognize the responsibility of not subjecting condemned murderers to painful deaths such as they do in Iran. In one case in Iran, the murderer of a young woman was whipped 100 times by prison guards the day before his execution and on the next day, he was taken to a city square where he was then whipped another 100 times by members of the dead woman’s family before he was then hoisted by his neck upward by a crane before hundreds of spectators. Civilized countries don’t do things like that.

Now here is irony for you. The State of Tennessee's legislature passed a bill that would reintroduce  the electric chair if they are unable to find appropriate drugs for lethal injections, The State of Missouri is seriously considering a proposal to reintroduce the firing squad and the gas chamber.

Death by a  firing squad would be merciful if the marksmen can shoot straight. Bullets slamming into one's heart will bring instant death. The last execution by firing squad in the US was in 2010  when the State of Utah executed Ronnie Gardner. The gas chamber always was a terrible way to die because it brings about death by suffocation and that death isn't instant.

If murderers cannot be executed humanely, then the alternative of natural life in prison without parole should be the appropriate manner of punishment.  At least that form of punishment is humane.

My next article will deal with capital punishment and the one after that will deal with life in prison without parole.  

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