Enough is Enough!

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.

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Lethal Injections

P1040474On Saturday, I awoke to find my old black lab Macey in a bad way.  Pat and I knew this day was coming; we just hoped there would be a clear sign.  Now there was.  It was time to help Macey “crossover” to greener pastures, where she could once again roam free . . . to rummage through trash cans, one of her favorite activities.   At least that was the image I chose to hold onto to get me through the next few hours.

The employees at the vet hospital were very accommodating.  I arrived unexpectedly a couple of hours before they closed for the weekend.  “Don’t worry.  We can work her in.”

Macey was in the back of our Honda Element.  It had been a struggle to get her there.  Macey had lost the use of her back legs, but I had managed to pull/drag her out of the house and lift her to the very spot where she now rested.  (Pat was out of town.)

Now, I had help.  The aide and I struggled to get Macey onto a stretcher and strap her down so she wouldn’t fall off.  Then she was carried off to the back of the hospital to be “triaged.”  I was not allowed to be with her.  Instead, I was shuttled into an exam room, to wait . . . alone.

I tried to call Pat on my cell but could not reach him.  So, I just waited.  Thankfully, it wasn’t long before the door opened.  Two women entered with Macey on the stretcher.  She seemed to float in, on a magic carpet, partly covered with a comfy quilt.

I was thrilled to see Macey looking like her old self, even as she confusedly looked around the room.  I noticed a port taped to her front leg.  The aides sat the stretcher on the floor and left us alone to visit until the doctor was available.  Macey was never much into being touched, except in certain spots.  So I massaged those places, as I reassured her that all would be ok.  “I am ready,” she seemed to say.

Macey was over 14 years old, old for a lab.  We adopted her six years ago as a companion dog to our blind dog, Whitey.  Macey’s health had been declining for a while.  She had lung cancer, though a nerve disorder is what had brought her down.  Macey had rallied for the holidays, though, and that meant a lot to the family.

The vet entered the room, gently interrupting our visit.  She made a point to assure me that I was doing the right thing.   “It is best for Macey and that is what matters most,” she said.  I felt ready.

“Have you gone through this before,” the vet asked.  I nodded.  I couldn’t help think about it, in the same hospital, with Whitey.  “Okay, I have a syringe in my pocket,” the vet said as she reached toward her lab coat pocket.   “She will just go to sleep.”

WHOA . . . .  Not so fast.  “I don’t want to be here for that,” I blurted out.  “Sorry, I wasn’t sure,” she replied.  I was flooded with mixed emotions.  I knew I couldn’t stay, but I feared I sounded uncaring.  I looked to the doctor for direction, and she came through.  “I will leave the room.  You can say your goodbyes to Macey and then just leave.  I will take care of the rest.”   She then hugged me and left Macey and me alone.  I took a deep breath.

“Bye girl,” I said as I rubbed Macey in her special spots.  “You have been a great dog.  Everything is going to be fine.”  Tears were running down my face.  Not wanting other dog owners to see my upset, I raced through the waiting room and left alone in our Honda Element.

Perhaps it is common for pet parents to not stay with their animals being put down.  I don’t know, but I was angry that I could not.

I am a capital defense attorney and have witnessed the execution of four clients.

Zane, Willie, Steve and Timmy were all strapped down to a stretcher with a baby blue blanket pulled to their chins.  I never saw the tubes that I knew were inserted into their skin.  Separated by a thick window, I kept my eyes on each of their faces, trying to provide whatever comfort I could.  I sat there staring at Zane, Willie, Steve and Timmy, mouthing words of comfort and smiling.  All the while knowing that they were being poisoned to death — or as some like to think of it, being “put him to sleep.”

Yet I could not be there for my dog.  Witnessing those executions has left me vulnerable to traumatic stress reactions.  My first time was stepping up to have my own blood drawn, months after Zane’s execution.  The discomfort is less about the images and more about the flood of emotions:  the paralysis, the helplessness.  It is a state of mind one avoids if possible.  And on Saturday, I did.