Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Death penalty: state-sanctioned murder (2007)

From the March 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

The bungled execution of Saddam Hussein has raised this issue again. But executions in the US are no better.

It was while looking for background information on Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the Californian death row inmate executed in December 2005, that I discovered what Karl Hammond actually looked like, via the Texas Dept. of Corrections website. What a weird feeling! Until that moment the only thing I knew about his physical appearance was that he was black. You'll not have heard of Karl Hammond, but I came in contact with him back in the late 1980s when he was awaiting execution in Huntsville, Texas for the murder of an FBI secretary.

For six years I wrote to Karl, as often as possible, and managed to send him regular $25 money orders (sometimes a bit of an effort, as I was unemployed) to allow him to buy the day-to-day things you and I take for granted (toothpaste, soap, coffee, stamps, etc). And Karl always wrote back. He wrote long letters, his handwriting impeccable, his language fused with Texan inmate jargon. He wrote about his past life, about prison, about its dehumanising conditions, the callous and indifferent prison guards and the inmate fights they would initiate for their own amusement, the total lack of privacy, and his fears, but never about the crime that led him to death row. And I never asked about it. As far as I was concerned it was irrelevant. I was just totally against state sanctioned murder.

Early in the morning of 21 June 1995, I received a phone call. It was from one of his supporters - I had spoken to her before and she had a beautiful telephone voice. She told me that minutes earlier Karl had been executed by lethal injection. I honestly did not know how to reply. I had contacted so many human rights bodies, lawyers, governors and the like in the US regarding his execution date that I was sure he would get a stay at the very least. I really felt as if I had let Karl down. Undoubtedly many people involved with Tookie Williams felt the same that cold December morning.

Tookie's case was a bit different from Karl's, not that this implies he should have had more of a right to live, but Tookie was something of a celebrity among death row inmates and the anti-death penalty campaign. He was a one-time leader of the notorious Crips street gang. Whilst in prison he had penned nine books warning children and teenagers about the dangers of joining street gangs. He'd been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times and also for the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1993, he videotaped a message at San Quentin that was shown to 400 gang members, and he helped negotiate a truce between the rival Crips and Bloods gangs during the first-ever gang summit in Los Angeles. He had also written a "peace protocol" to help warring gangs work out their differences. He had undoubtedly prevented many a gang death and put many a would-be hood on the proverbial straight and narrow.

Were this not enough to make Governor Schwarzenegger re-think executing him, there was the fact that Tookie had spent 24 years awaiting execution. Twenty four years! If his crimes had been committed in Britain or anywhere else in Europe, I'm sure he would have been eligible for parole after that spell behind bars. Doesn't the Eighth Amendment to the US constitution refer to cruel and unusual punishment? Is 24 years in a prison cell, awaiting state execution, not cruel and bloody-well unusual?

Sadly, in the USA, the death penalty issue can be a popular vote winner and it seems that the Terminator was looking to up his ratings by ignoring pleas for clemency. Certainly Schwarzenegger was in trouble in the opinion polls, more so having appointed a Democrat as his chief-of-staff, so this execution was just another act of political expediency. Yeah, a sick trick indeed - George (Dubya) Bush actually got where he is today by signing the death warrants for 152 Texas inmates, my old friend Karl Hammond included.

Died in agony
The case of Tookie Williams has resurfaced in recent weeks. For, like Angel Nieves Diaz, a Puerto Rican, executed on 13 December last year. It turns out that Williams also took a long time to die - thirty-five minutes - and in agony.

With news spreading fast that Diaz's was another bungled execution, Governor Jeb Bush, brother of Dubya, announced he was suspending capital punishment in Florida. That same day, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel put the breaks on the Californian state murder machine, insisting that death by lethal injection violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Maryland followed suit within a week and also shut down its execution chamber, not because state authorities recognised lethal injection is "cruel and unusual," but ostensibly because the method of execution (lethal injection again) had never been the focus of investigation where the views of the wider public are considered.

The Death Penalty Information Centre, reports that 2007 began with 10 states putting executions on the back burner - 25 percent of states that sanction the death penalty - and in almost every case it is the lethal injection method that is the centre of debate. Diaz, like Williams, and many others before him, was supposed to die painlessly and quickly - or so the defenders of the lethal injection method believed, and as if this made state murder more acceptable. However, one of the three chemicals in the lethal injection process didn't enter his veins, and instead dispersed into the tissue of his arms, leaving 12-inch long chemical burns. Almost twenty-five minutes after the first of the three chemicals were injected, Diaz was still moving, contorting, blinking and apparently mouthing words. It was then that prison officials stepped forward to administer a second dose of the deadly concoction. How kind of them.

Tookie had taken longer to die and prison officials had not considered his massive 250lb muscular frame, injecting him with the same dose a man half his size would have received. Barbara Becnel, Tookie's advocate, and who had co-written several of his books on gangs, was at his execution. Speaking at an anti-death penalty convention in Chicago in November, she described the last minutes of his life:
"His feet and part of his body started contorting and distorting . . . could see he was in trouble . . . [he] died a horrible, excruciatingly painful death, where he not only woke up to the horror of his lungs paralyzed, so he was being slowly smothered to death, but the drug that makes your heart stop makes your veins feel like they're on fire at the same time as it causes a massive heart attack, so it's as if someone picked up a Mack truck and put it on your chest."

Execution by lethal injection followed the reintroduction of the death penalty in the USA in 1976, being the brainchild of a medical examiner with no knowledge of anaesthetics or pharmacology and without having undertaken any prior research. Regardless of this the lethal injection method of state murder became the preferred choice in all but one state that executes capital offenders.

Bursts of three chemicals are used to kill the prisoner. The first is a sedative, the second a paralysing, muscle-relaxing drug and the third causes a heart attack. Evidence revealed in an investigation last September shows that lethal injection is anything but the humane medical procedure its advocates profess. Witnesses to the last six executions in San Quentin claim it is likely the inmates suffered excruciating deaths. It was further revealed that the second, paralyzing drug in the lethal injection procedure is actually administered to conceal any outward visible signs of pain, observers believing the inmate is calm and quiet, when they could be inwardly screaming in agony, unable to move a muscle or cry out. Indeed, animals are put to death in a more humane way. Human Rights Watch have noted that animals fare better when being "put to sleep", with 30 US states banning the use of neuromuscular blocking agents like pancuronium bromide in animal euthanasia, lest the animal suffer undetected pain.

Racist and class-biased
Many point to the dissolute nature of the death penalty, to how it degenerates civilised society. It is all of this indeed, but, morality aside, state execution has always been racist and class-biased in the US. More than half of the 4,000 executed since 1930 have been black - some five times the proportion of African-Americans in the US population as a whole. Forty-two percent of all back men on death row are black, even though they make up some 6 percent of people living in the U.S. Almost 85 percent of those executed since 1972 have been convicted of killing whites. In that same period only one person has been executed for killing an African-American. In the history of executions in the USA, of 18,000 executions carried out, only 18 have involved a white person killing a black person.

Not so long ago, the US General Accountancy Office (GAO), the alleged non-partisan audit, evaluation, and investigative arm of Congress, put out a report addressing the racism endemic in capital cases. It stated:
"Our synthesis of the 28 studies shows a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing and imposition of the death penalty . . . In 82 percent of the studies, race of victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty", and "those who murdered whites were found to be more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks."

The death penalty rarely targets the rich and never the company directors knowingly responsible for corporate manslaughter. If you are wealthy, then you can afford the best legal representation money can buy. William A Schabas, in his book The Death Penalty As Cruel Treatment and Torture (1996), looks at the class dimension of capital cases. He writes:
"A majority of capital defendants are indigent, and they are normally represented by state-appointed counsel, since the professional fees paid are insufficient to attract experienced lawyers. At best, the accused is defended by an eager, well-meaning, but inexperienced advocate. At worst, counsel are lazy or incompetent or both."

In a system in which money tips the scales in favour of justice, the poor are clearly at a disadvantage. Presently, 90 per cent of death row inmates could not afford their own trial lawyers.

No doubt right now US government officials will be working on an execution protocol that removes the likelihood of prisoners dying agonising death. This however does not distract one iota from the fact that state sanctioned murder is barbaric and sickening. Changing the damned method of execution is not the solution - only the abolition of the death penalty would be.

However, while we, as socialists, would dearly welcome the abolition of the death penalty, for us, as a revolutionary party, it is a single issue amongst thousands of others, many equally deserving. We have no intention of appearing churlish, but whilst only a few dozen have been executed in the US in the past year, some 40,000 children die of hunger and its related illnesses every single day. Up to 655,000 people may have been killed in Iraq since the US-led invasion. And daily, thousands more suffer fatality through corporate manslaughter and bureaucratic negligence in every area of our society. The working class is murdered and battered and robbed and dehumanised every day.

Yes, we loathe the death penalty, as much as we detest every other injustice perpetrated against our class, but we locate the problem in a class war that is waged daily against us. Our duty is to respond by urging our class to end capitalism and, in so doing, finally eliminating all the social problems that presently plague us; forever changing a society that sees it poorer and more desperate members killing one another and thus ending up victims themselves at the hands of the capitalist state's killing machine.
John Bissett