Serial executions take toll on executioners too, critics say

Putting a prisoner to death “stays with you for a long time,” says Ron McAndrew. The former warden of Florida State Prison says his own mental health had begun to deteriorate by the time he left his position in 1998 after taking part in eight executions. McAndrew is now fighting against the death penalty.

He was particularly concerned about the psychological well-being of the handful of officials who would be involved if Arkansas were to proceed with the rapid-fire executions of eight condemned men, originally set for April 17 to 27. Courts in the state had blocked the executions while legal appeals were in process.

“We wanted the governor (of Arkansas) to understand that he’s sitting in his office very comfortable, and these men are going to be partaking in a killing of another human being,” McAndrew said. He doesn’t use the word “execution,” which he considers a euphemism.

“These officers, they get to know these inmates,” he explained. “Twenty-four hours a day, they work with these inmates. They feed them. They take them to get their showers, they take them for exercise. They stand in front of their cells and they talk to them when they feel lonely,” McAndrew said.

“The only persons that the inmates know are the officers. Suddenly it’s the same officer who’s taking them to another room to kill them. The experience is something that will stay with you for a long time. I don’t think it ever goes away.”

McAndrew, who took part in the deaths of eight convicts — three in Florida and five in Texas as training — said that the executions in Arkansas would undoubtedly be carried out by the same five people. “You can’t change the team,” he said. “The officers that will carry out the executions, they have practiced the executions several hundred times. They do it over and over and over again,” he said.

In the view of anti-death penalty activists, everyone involved pays a price. “We are concerned for the welfare of the prisoners; we are concerned for the victims’ families; we are concerned for the welfare of the prison workers that have to do this,” said Abraham Bonowitz, director of the New York-based Death Penalty Action group. “There’s a broader range of collateral damage than simply the prisoner and the victim.”

A group of former officials from all over the United States, including Ron McAndrew, wrote to Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas urging him not to impose such a burden on prison staff. “Even under less demanding circumstances, carrying out an execution can take a severe toll on corrections officers’ well-being,” the letter said.

Arkansas’s original plan to execute eight men in 10 days would have set a rate never seen since the United States resumed the death penalty in 1977. Four executions were carried out in April. Four others continued to be stayed by courts.

– edited from Agence-France Presse, April, 17, 2017

Nebraska lawmakers repeal death penalty by override of governor’s veto

Lawmakers in Nebraska overrode Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of their vote to repeal capital punishment, making it the first Republican-controlled state in the U.S. to repeal the death penalty since North Dakota in 1973. The vote was 30-19.

Ricketts, a Republican, vetoed the legislation flanked by law enforcement personnel, murder victims’ family members and state lawmakers who support capital punishment. Opposition to the death penalty in the conservative state came from Republicans who were against it for religious or fiscal reasons, as well as from Democrats and independents.

Those who opposed capital punishment in Nebraska point out that the state hasn’t executed a prisoner since 1997. But writing in the Omaha World-Herald, Ricketts said: “Even without executions in recent years, the death penalty in Nebraska has continued to play an important role in prosecuting criminals, protecting our families and ensuring that criminals remain locked behind bars. The death penalty allows prosecutors to get stronger sentences which keep dangerous criminals off our streets.”

Nebraska’s previous attempt in 1979 to repeal capital punishment failed when the measure was vetoed by then-Gov. Charles Thone.

The death penalty is legal in 32 states, including Washington, which has the only active gallows in the United States. Michigan was the first state to abolish capital punishment, which it did shortly after entering the Union in 1846. Other states that have banned it recently include Maryland (2013), Connecticut (2012), Illinois (2011), New Mexico (2009) and New Jersey (2007).

There are currently nine men on death row at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla, but Governor Jay Inslee announced a moratorium on capital punishment in February 2014.

– edited from NPR, May 27, 2015
PeaceMeal, July/August 2015

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

New Jersey bans death penalty

New Jersey Governor Jon S. Corzine signed into law December 17 a measure that abolishes the death penalty, making New Jersey the first state in more than four decades to reject capital punishment. The bill replaces the death sentence with life in prison without parole. Gov. Corzine said, “This is a day of progress for us and for the millions of people across our nation and around the globe who reject the death penalty as a moral or practical response to the grievous, even heinous, crime of murder.”

The bill passed the Legislature largely along party lines, with controlling Democrats supporting the abolition and minority Republicans opposed. Republicans had sought to retain the death penalty for those who murder law enforcement officials, rape and murder children, and terrorists, but Democrats rejected that. Members of victims’ families fought against the law.

The measure spares the lives of eight men on the state’s death row. Among the eight spared is Jesse Timmendequas, a sex offender who murdered 7-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994. The case inspired Megan’s Law, which requires law enforcement agencies to notify the public about convicted sex offenders living in their communities.

New Jersey reinstated the death penalty in 1982 — six years after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to resume executions — but it hasn’t executed anyone since 1963. The last previous states to eliminate the death penalty were Iowa and West Virginia in 1965, according to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Other states have recently considered abolition, but none has advanced as far as New Jersey.

The state’s move is being hailed across the world as an historic victory against capital punishment. Rome shined golden lights on the Colosseum in support. Once the arena for deadly gladiator combat and executions, the Colosseum is now a symbol of the global campaign against the death penalty.

The United States has executed 1,099 people since the Supreme Court re-authorization in 1976. The highest and lowest annual totals since then are 98 people executed in 1999 and 53 in 2005.

Executions have been suspended nationally since Sept. 25, 2007, pending a U.S. Supreme Court decision on whether execution by lethal injection violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

– edited from The Associated Press, Dec. 17, 2007
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2008

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Murderers and heroes

In all the articles and talk about the infamous Timothy McVeigh, what I find missing is any mention of the role of official violence in forming his character. Mr. McVeigh was not a natural-born killer. He was a trained killer. He was trained by our government.

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Dave Grossman is a psychologist who designed military training programs to overcome the natural human aversion to killing our own (see PeaceMeal, July/August 1999). According to Lt. Col.Grossman, the training methods used by our military to accomplish this end are brutalization, desensitization toward violence and death, and conditioned response to kill reflexively and show no remorse.

After such programming, the enigma of Mr. McVeigh is that he still had a conscience. According to Mr. McVeigh, it was his experience in the Persian Gulf War that turned him against his own government. He was disturbed by the sight of Iraqi soldiers desperate to surrender, starving children, and the widespread destruction caused by our bombing. According to Lou Michel, co-author of American Terrorist, Mr. McVeigh "began to think he was working for the biggest bully in the world."

That view is shared by myself and many thousands of peace activists in the United States. The only difference is that we have a commitment to nonviolence.

Who ever taught Timothy McVeigh nonviolent methods of resistance? Certainly not the military. Mr. McVeigh fought the bully the only way he knew. He lashed out with the deadly violence of his official military training.

With his one bomb, Mr. McVeigh killed 168 people including 19 children. In our obsession to take out Saddam Hussein, we ignored Iraq's claim that the al-Amiriya bomb shelter in Baghdad was for the protection of civilians. With two smart bombs, we incinerated 403 people who took refuge there including 261 women and 52 children. The pilots responsible for that "collateral damage" were welcomed home as heroes. The only difference between their murders and Mr. McVeigh's is that their innocent victims were not citizens of the United States.

Our eyes are still being opened to the brutal crimes our military committed against civilians in other countries, such as Korea and Vietnam. We continue to shut our eyes to the violence and murder done by other governments with our direct assistance and support. For example, when our man in Iran fell in 1979, it was said there was no one left in Iran who had not lost someone to the Savak, the shah's secret police. The Savak was trained by our CIA.

The horrors of the 36-year civil war against the indigenous Mayan people in Guatemala aided and abetted by our government are well-documented in the book by Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu Tum. Sr. Dianna Ortiz, a U.S. citizen tortured and raped in a Guatemala City jail in 1989, is still trying to find out the identity of the North American named "Alejandro" probably CIA from whom her captors took orders.

We are still waging our siege-war against the innocent people of Iraq through economic sanctions. According to UNICEF figures, the death toll due largely to starvation and intestinal disease from sewage-contaminated drinking water exceeds one million civilians including some 600,000 children.

In reference to the official violence of governments, Charlie Chaplin observed: "One murder makes a villain, millions a hero. Numbers sanctify."

- Jim Stoffels, Chairman and Editor
PeaceMeal, May/June 2001

Death penalty: The view from Europe

The President of the European Parliament, Nicole Fontaine, sent the following letter to the Italian newspaper La Reppublica last September. American newspapers did not carry it. It was printed in The Oregon Peaceworker, November 2000.

Without distinctions of nationality or political sensibility, the overwhelming majority of the European Parliament, the democratic voice of the 370 million Europeans who presently constitute the European Union, does not understand why the United States is today the last, among the great democracies of the world, not to have renounced the death penalty.

Every time an execution is scheduled in one of the states of your country, the emotion and the concern that this gives rise to assume a nearly worldwide dimension. All attempts to plead for clemency made by the highest religious and political authorities to the state governor on whom the final decision depends, receive only a complete rebuff. ...

Collective Conscience

From this side of the Atlantic, we recognize that your great country symbolizes freedom and democracy to all the world. No one has forgotten what Europe owes you for having helped us regain our liberty at the price of your sons' blood in two world wars. No one contests that the death penalty has been found by the Supreme Court to be in accord with the United States Constitution. No one denies that, following the handing down of a death sentence, long years of procedures hold out to the condemned the possibility of a review of his case. No one questions the right of every organized society to defend itself from criminals who menace the security of its people and property, nor the right to punish them as befits their crimes.

Europe does not forget that, up until a short time ago, she herself used the death penalty, and often with cruelty. Some countries abandoned it long ago in their legal systems or in practice, but less than twenty years ago some European nations, as profoundly tied to human rights and universal values as my own France, had yet to renounce it, and when their parliaments confronted the issue of abolition, the debate was as vehement as it is today in the United States. Today, the controversy is settled.

There has, moreover, developed in Europe a sense of collective conscience that has overcome the hesitation that still exists. This consciousness, which today I invite the American people to join, is based on the following elements:

• No objective study has ever demonstrated that the death penalty has a dissuasive effect on major crimes, and in none of the European countries that have recently abolished it has there been an increase in serious crime.

• Contemporary societies have sufficient means to defend themselves without breaking the principle of the sanctity of human life. Punishment by means of the death penalty is nothing but the outmoded survival of the ancient law of retaliation: "You have killed, therefore you too must die." The macabre script of an execution has little dignity and is instead the sacrificial rite of a legal homicide. When a perfectly stabilized society of laws, which has at its disposal other methods to defend itself, resorts to the death penalty, it weakens the sacred character of every human life and any moral authority it could have to defend itself wherever it is accused in the world.

• Finally, too many condemned from whom life has been taken have later been recognized as innocent, and in this case society, even if it has done so in the name of law, has committed an irreparable crime.

Pale Shadow of Leadership

In the whole history of justice in our modern society, a single innocent among us put to death by error, a death that fulfills no need, should be enough to condemn completely this same capital punishment. And we all know that this can be the case, particularly in the United States.

I know that the majority of your country's population stand in favor of maintaining the death penalty and that, in a democracy, the people are sovereign; but is that truly enough for those who have the responsibility to guide their country in a wise and modern manner? When President Lincoln abolished slavery, did he have the support of the majority in the Southern states? When President Roosevelt brought the United States to the side of the Europeans to reestablish peace and freedom in a world devastated by Nazism and its allies, did he have from the outset the support of the majority of Americans? When President Kennedy imposed an end to the racial segregation that persisted in some states, he showed the courage, ultimately at the cost of his own life, to go against the current of the many who intended to maintain it, even with violence. Is it possible that the politicians of today, out of opportunism or for political motives, are but a pale shadow of those great visionaries who forged the unity and the greatness of the American nation?

I urge, not in the role of a censor but as a friend of a great nation that is a beacon to the world, that the United States unite with Europe to banish capital punishment that no longer has a reason to exist in the millennium now beginning.

- PeaceMeal, May/June 2001

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)