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The Unbearable Lightness Of The Executioner

By David Chorlton

I find my own position on the death penalty unpalatable. The man who killed a worker at a fast food restaurant for no discernible reason in Phoenix recently does not deserve to live. Neither do the individuals who were out cruising the city streets close to dawn some eighteen years back, and randomly picked out a friend of mine as their victim. I have listened to the late news when the Arizona executions took place, surrounded by darkness and felt the nasty little glow of satisfaction on hearing that another murderer got what was coming to him. Having moved to the landscape of cowboys and Indians, some non-European sense of justice was clearly rubbing off on me. But I know my instincts this time are wrong, and that I expect the state to set an example that I can follow and make myself a better person in the process.

Nobody should need a New Age guru to explain that anger is a wasted emotion, or that it ultimately leaves only the taste of futility to flavor the juices we salivate in anticipation of another official killing. Anger may be natural, but it should not be the foundation of public policy. The feelings of victims' friends and relatives, likewise, should not be the sole force behind our deciding how to deal with crime. The state can't get rid of a life that has become a nuisance simply to slake the thirst of the bereaved for retribution. If the punishment meted out seems pale in comparison with the crime that provokes it, we prove ourselves to be collectively more capable of restraint than the individual criminal was.

What makes this restraint such a virtue, given the violent nature of so many crimes? I went to local newspaper archives to see what executions were like when the West was wilder than it is now. The first legal hanging in Phoenix occurred in 1880. A certain Demetrio Dominguis, clad in checkered shirt, ate his last meal of chicken, washed it down with wine, prayed, and shook hands with those around him as he walked to the scaffold. He also insisted to the last that the witness whose testimony brought him there was wrong. Later, in 1933, Manuel and Federico Hernandez collaborated in murdering Charles Washburn, an old prospector, near Casa Grande. The following year, when their relatives left watermelon rinds on the ground in the July heat after their farewell gathering. The Hernandez brothers then climbed the iron steps to a pair of straight-backed chairs where they sat with cotton gauze across their eyes. Fifteen pellets of poison gas fell and the fumes did what they were designed to do. A vacuum and blowers then cleared the air as a new technique was confirmed as being effective. We have electrocuted, gassed, and injected the guilty and the innocent alike since then, but no blower can make the questioning of the death penalty disappear.

Elsewhere, in my own family, I have found reason to study a murder conviction in detail. One of my Austrian cousins was convicted of a rape and murder in 1965 in a trial that was so slanted against him that he never stood a chance. So powerful was the state's presence and ability to select which witnesses and evidence made it into court that he was found guilty even though his blood group did not match that of the actual murderer. Austria does not practice executions, so he served a prison term and was subsequently released to continue a life in ruins. What I learned from my examination of his case is that a person innocent of a serious crime faces insurmountable odds if he was guilty of a lesser one that tarnished his character to such a degree that a jury identifies the accused as being evil and resolves to punish it in the most severe manner allowed. A report in Britain found similar incidences of those on the social fringe being sacrificed to satisfy the public need for retribution. Pick your country. Justice is often blind to facts that would bring the truth to light. The least we can do in response to such cases is to accept that death is forever and later evidence may show the mistakes behind a guilty verdict.

Even when the man or woman eating a last meal is guilty, the apparent enjoyment displayed on execution days by some who would turn them into parties has done as much as anything to make me realize just how wrong my support for the death penalty has been. The build-up to Timothy McVeigh's final day on Earth is a disturbing performance. However evil his actions, we cannot eradicate that evil with McVeigh's physical presence. It is enough to know that he, or any other dangerous individual, would not return to the society he has spurned. As punishment goes, I imagine a prolonged stay in the prison system to be as demoralizing and harsh as putting a premature end to a life.

Each execution is a studied and deliberate act. It depends on the dispassionate involvement of workers simply doing their job up to the very final measuring of expiring breath. It is a duty carried out in the name of all of us, and it depends on finding executioners who can function with a coldness matched only by the spontaneous heat of the crime being punished. I argue that this peculiar ceremony does not cast a good light on the country that supports it. If we cannot improve the criminal, we can at least improve ourselves by stopping short of the ultimate and irrevocable sentence. For every Timothy McVeigh who wakes up knowing he will not see the sun rise again, there is someone like my cousin who suffered for another man's action. With all its complex language, the law still cannot discriminate between them once it has reached a verdict. It behooves the state to calm passions not to enable the death chamber's employees to do their job, but to instill into all of us the restraint that will give the innocent the chance to retrieve some years of life should evidence justify it.


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