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The deceit of capital punishment

What I learned when I witnessed the brutality of an execution

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It's too bad Albert Camus isn't alive and visiting Atlanta. The great French thinker would understand precisely what is going on when Georgia officials proclaim that it's just dandy to kill murderers Jack Alderman and Curtis Osborne this month -- even though the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether the method of dispatching the miscreants is unconstitutional.

Russ Willard, spokesman for Attorney General Thurbert Baker, declared that the executions are de rigueur because there are "no judicially entered stays prohibiting" them. Interpreted: Kill 'em all, and let God sort out whether the state murders were constitutional.

"People write of capital punishment as if they were whispering," Camus told us a half-century ago. I'd add that some folks, such as Willard, substitute the obfuscation of bureaucratese for the hushed tones Camus decried. For me, I'll side with Camus, who proclaimed, "It is my intention to talk about it crudely."

That's why this column includes a very crude photograph. Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis – a loathsome man who brutally murdered a Jacksonville mom and her two daughters – was the last person executed in Florida's "Old Sparky" electric chair. Florida had secretly photographed executions for years, and this picture became public only when state Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw, an ardent death-penalty foe who is now retired, attached it to an opinion.

As a witness to the 1999 event, I watched Davis' head cook and heard him bellow twice in agony as he died. I sat stunned as blood oozed from under the leather mask that choked and partially asphyxiated the condemned man, and I saw more blood erupt on his chest after 2,300 volts began to sizzle through his twitching body. I recoiled in horrific nausea as he continued to breathe for several minutes after the current was turned off.

Florida officials, like Georgia's, always maintained that the electric chair was humane. It's not as though they didn't know about Old Sparky. Florida for decades had been famous for its sandy beaches, sunny skies and flaming-head executions. After Davis' demise, officials sought a nicer way to kill people. Georgia followed suit.

Proponents of the death penalty should acknowledge that there is no justification for the gruesome spectacles. We're not delivering justice; we're descending to the moral level of killers, and quite likely murdering a few innocent people. When the condemned dies, each of us becomes a version of Tiny Davis because the state represents us.

Death-penalty states in 2005 had a 46 percent higher murder rate than states that have banned legal homicide. That spread has increased steadily. In 1990, death penalty states' murder rate was only 4 percent greater than no-execution states. So, claims of "deterrence" are dangerously delusional.

Some so-called Christian fundamentalists in the Atlanta area seriously advocate a return to stoning and burning for not only murder but also for "crimes" such as being gay. They can't point to any message from Jesus that sanctions his followers to kill their fellows. The ultimate irony is that Christ was history's most famous victim of capital punishment. I can certainly see Satan pushing the poison plunger, flipping the switch or dropping the trapdoor – I can't see Jesus doing the same. Did God execute Cain? No, he spared him.

Reason and religion aside, let's not forget that 124 condemned prisoners in 25 states have escaped the executioner after proof of their innocence materialized. In August, Troy Davis – who was sentenced to death despite an appalling lack of hard evidence – just barely escaped Georgia's death chamber, at least temporarily.

Officials across the nation have adopted poisoning, also known as "lethal injection." It is said to be painless, although anyone who could give authoritative testimony on that point is beyond conversation. Critics contend that the chemicals likely cause extreme agony. But, since one of the trio of lethal drugs injected into the condemned induces paralysis, the awful pain is undetectable to everyone except, of course, the guest of honor.

So we can understand why Camus' wisdom would be so applicable in Georgia today. He wrote: "If people are shown the machine, made to touch the wood and steel and to hear the sound of a head falling, then public imagination, suddenly awakened, will repudiate ... the penalty."

Do you get it? The problem with executions is public relations. It's not whether we torture or whether that torture is constitutional; it's the public perception that counts. Speak softly about executions, remove them from the town square to hidden chambers, paralyze the condemned to project an illusion of peaceful passing – and citizens don't have to confront the awful brutality that they, by proxy, have committed.

But then we have these annoying "activist" judges who spoil the fun. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to rule on the constitutionality of poisoning criminals. A number of states – including execution-record-holder Texas – have called moratoriums on the death penalty until the justices rule. But not Georgia.

That outrage follows an incredible series in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month that exposed bias and unpredictability in the application of the death penalty. The series also revealed that the Georgia Supreme Court often uses overturned cases to justify upholding death sentences. That's "justice"?

Georgia's Republican leadership, and many Democrats, needn't be dismayed. If poisoning is declared verboten, there are many other means. Sure, they'll be equally cruel, but it will take the courts a few years to rule.

Here are some suggestions, ripped from the rich history of executions: stoning, clubbing, "pressing" with heaving stones, stretching on the rack, breaking on the wheel, drawing and quartering à la Braveheart.

There's also drowning, shredding, starving. Almost certainly unconstitutional, but a heck of a lot of fun: impalement.

We could boil, al dente in water, or fry extra crispy in oil. Or slowly roast. Flaying would allow the condemned to ponder his sins for a day or more.

Beheading? Absolutely a contender. A cheer for the French doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin. Garroting and hanging. Gassing and the firing squad are always candidates.

OK, you've guessed my point. There is no humane way to kill someone. Politicians know that. But we're talking about winning elections. And the Grim Reaper is a great vote-getter.

A Georgia case reinstated the death penalty in America. Read about it at:  Amnesty USA: "30th Anniversary of Gregg vs. Georgia: The beginning of the modern era of America's Death Penalty"

A federal profile of condemned prisoners is at:
U.S. Department of Justice: Capital Punishment Statistics

And a Georgia study is at:
Georgia Department of Corrections Study

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