Rusty NelsonRusty Nelson on Peace and War

By the time I wrote my first editorial about the death penalty, Nancy had produced several articles, including a commentary in the Spokesman Review, but Washington had not yet killed Dodd and Campbell. Lethal injection was catching on, but Nevada had resumed executions with a firing squad, Florida electrocuted a man whose crime would have been self-defense if he had not been gay, and Washington was dusting off its gallows. If I had been better organized and more careful, I could compile a book from our experiences, observations and opinions on state killings. And I have a lot more to say. More than I’ll try to cram into this space.

To paraphrase Einstein, everything’s changed about executions in the U.S. but the way we think about them. Two recent developments should affect the way Americans think about capital punishment, but thinking doesn’t change easily.

Governor Jay Inslee declared he would sign no death warrants, drawing gratitude from abolitionists and those who agree that our execution process is flawed. He also elicited outrage from people like my state representative, Joe Schmick, who is offended that Inslee would unilaterally deprive him and other state citizens, especially survivors of murder victims, of their right to kill anyone convicted of killing someone they care about. Schmick, unopposed for reelection, again, in the 9th District, previously revealed to me that he supports capital punishment, based upon self-righteousness, a small file of faulty information and a presumption that executions are constitutional and only carried out in the interest of justice.

Much of the country was shaken by the recent Oklahoma execution that resulted in the death, by heart attack, of Clayton Lockett, who suffered over 40 minutes before the procedure was called off…too late to save him for a tidier death, later. Yes, I was shaken, too, but not because I found his punishment cruel and unusual. The cruelest thing about executions in this country has nothing to do with the efficiency of the killing agent or actual physical pain. It’s the waiting, the anticipation, constant reminders that the state is going to kill you on a particular day in a particular way, then hope there may be a stay, a retrial, clemency…but only at the last minute…and then facing death, again, a day, month or year later. It’s telling a loved one goodbye, again, especially if she or he has fought for your life for six to 25 years, on issues of importance to everyone but the prosecutor who decided you must die and the people of your state, who will continue to be fearful, ignorant and angry whether you are given a cyanide tablet with your ice cream or drawn and quartered.

In the wake of the ghastly Oklahoma exhibition, more people are talking about capital punishment as a problem instead of a solution, but some of the conversations are as disturbing as secret ingredients and sources for killer drugs, some of which are banned for euthanizing dogs. Pundits, governors, legislators, and crackpots are suggesting remedies for uncertain death by perhaps-lethal injection. Back to the electric chair, the gas chamber, the gallows, the firing squad, the guillotine. All were considered more humane than whatever was used before, or at least, to appear more humane, but each became, in practice, an engine of severe, psychological torture. On top of that, we who have followed the serial murders of executing states since the reinstatement, know of numerous grisly executions, horrified witnesses, and embarrassed execution teams.

Support for capital punishment is as scant today as in 1972 when the US Supreme Court found death penalty statutes unconstitutional because they were capricious and racially discriminatory. Like Inslee’s moratorium, the decision was good, up to a point. Within a decade, however, states were finding ways to discriminate, racially and otherwise, with their new death statutes because the justices had failed to rule that every execution violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. When Chief Justice Warren Burger retired, about that time, he commented that capital punishment is certainly cruel but hardly unusual. It was high time for him to retire because executions by constitutional governments, anywhere on Earth, had become extremely unusual during his judicial career.

I heard, from a well-placed source, that death row prisoners in Walla Walla believe their death sentences will be carried out quickly after Inslee leaves office because death advocates will be more impatient than ever to see them die. Hopeful we were moving closer to abolition, I was startled to learn their perspective, until I realized that’s what happened when the national moratorium ended.

In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court, without the just-retired Justice William O. Douglas, accepted new death penalty laws from Florida, Georgia and Texas. Ultimately, a majority of states, including Washington in 1981, wrote new statutes accepted by the Court, and the carnage began in earnest. Americans had not been much interested in punishing fellow citizens by death until the moratorium. Three persons were legally executed in the U.S. between 1966 and 1978. After reinstatement, several states proceeded to, almost gleefully, carry out death sentences enthusiastically sought by local prosecutors. By the time Washington got in on the action, our first execution would have barely made a ripple but for two reasons: The state obeyed the demands of Wes Dodd that he go to the head of the line and be executed right away; and we had the first legal hanging in the U.S. in 30 years. It was great theatre, if not Smart Justice. The penitentiary protected itself from protesters with heavy fencing, and abolitionists were glad to be contained apart from the hysterical, drunk and threatening crowd who came to celebrate the hanging. A media circus plastered Washington’s warts on tv screens and newspapers all over the world, and many of us felt like many Oklahomans must feel about the butchering of Clay Lockett.

After watching governments and individuals massage death statutes to gain some semblance of justice, compassion and constitutionality, Justice Harry Blackmon decided it was all futile and declared, “I will no longer tinker with the machinery of death.” Now, the tinkerers are in a frenzy, trying to find a way to restore the brutal snuffing out of human life to its blurry pedestal of quasi-dignity. A tinkerer, myself, I could suggest a dozen ways to make the death penalty less icky and more presentable, but why waste the time and energy when the right solution is so clear and simple?

Capital punishment will be abolished. Let’s be a part of it. Our own abolition group has the resources you need to become an effective part of the solution.

It is unfair to our country to postpone the inevitability of abolition. Done sooner than later, abolition would spare Missouri the effort to kill a man with a problematic medical condition and, perhaps prevent the next death chamber catastrophe, the next innocent victim, the next death by discrimination, the next state-assisted suicide, the next time we all become killers in spite of a constitutional amendment designed to protect us from such degradation.

Lethal injection is just one kind of lipstick that’s been put on the slobbering pig of execution. Hold the cosmetics. Keep the conversation alive and the death penalty moving toward extinction.