I believe that in the not-too-distant-future, thoughtful Americans will look back at our governments’ use of the death penalty with horror, much like we do at slavery and at Jim Crow. How could we (and our parents and grandparents) have ever supported such a practice? What were we thinking to let our federal and state governments make decisions on who to kill and how to kill them? How could we let our governments implicate us in carrying out executions — as jurors, as lawyers, as judges, as voters. Thank goodness those vengeful days are behind us, we will one day say.
For this day to come, some of us have to bear witness to the horror of capital punishment in America. I feel sorrow for Clayton Lockett who so tragically and so publicly suffered at the hand of prison officials in Oklahoma. I also feel sorrow for his family and friends, the murder victim’s families and friends, and the lawyers, at least one of whom witnessed the execution. “It looked like torture,” the lawyer reported.
I know that trauma. In 2006, I was asked to report what I had witnessed during three executions. I flew to California to testify at a hearing on the constitutionality of lethal injection. The question: is death by lethal injection a cruel and unusual punishment?
I reported what I witnessed. As to the worst of my observations, that of Willie Fisher’ death, I said the following in an affidavit:
1) Willie Fisher was executed on March 9, 2001, from 9:00 to 9:21 p.m.
2) When Willie was brought into the execution chamber, he was alert but only looked at those of us in the witness room briefly. He mostly stared at the ceiling or closed his eyes. His lips would often move, as if he were praying.
3) Shortly after 9:00, Willie appeared to lose consciousness. Instead of the quiet death I expected, Willie began convulsing.
4) The convulsing was so extreme that Willie’s cousin jumped up screaming.
5) Willie appeared as if he was trying to catch his breath but he could not. I remember this because I was upset that he was suffering, and, wanting to help him, I timed my breathing to his.
6) Willie’s chest heaved repeatedly. I wondered if the straps would hold him.
7) Willie’s eyes were partially open through most, if not all, of the time he was convulsing.
Thankfully Willie was not as conscious as Mr. Lockett, though it did take him 20 minutes to die.
What I didn’t tell the court was how I screamed and jumped up after Willie’s cousin, grabbing her and pulling her down. I feared we would be forced to leave since we are instructed to remain silent. She wept. I don’t think I did. As usual, as the lawyer, I felt a responsibility to be strong.
I left the execution chamber outraged. I marched with my co-counsel to the visitor’s center, where the press was stationed. Unlike other executions, I took the stage. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I remember expressing my anger at the unnecessary cruelty that had just happened to my client AND to his family.
Here I am again feeling outrage at the senseless cruelty of state killings. I pray that with this latest botched execution, courts, law-makers, and voters will finally say enough is enough. Let’s put this torturous practice behind us.