Tony Norman: Put the horror of executions on public view

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Every now and then, the notion of televising executions comes up, only to be slapped down by those with more than just a passing acquaintance with morality.

The objection fielded for not showing executions on television is usually the most obvious: America doesn’t need to be reminded of its historic and shameful fascination with public executions.

The photographs of the lynchings of African-Americans and unlucky immigrants accused of crimes, which were made into celebratory postcards and circulated through the mail in the early 20th century, testify to an inherent appetite for inhumanity by a significant segment of the country.

As much as we want to forget it, people used to go out of their way to pose with the corpses of those who had been recently disemboweled, hung, castrated or burnt to a crisp. Family picnics often coincided with lynchings.

Joy was the most frequent expression on the faces of witnesses captured in those lynching photos. Sadism and justice were two sides of the same coin as far as the average lynch mob was concerned. Even legally sanctioned executions were occasions for public celebration.

With few exceptions, no one wants to go back to those bad old days of summary executions in the heartland. That isn’t to say that the taste for barbarism has somehow disappeared after decades of enlightenment.

Like a dog that has bitten too many people in the neighborhood before it is itself put down, America still has an appetite for killing its citizens if they’re considered deserving enough. The lynch mobs that once hooted, played fiddles and danced while blacks and the most disenfranchised whites in America were flayed alive have merely given way to more bureaucratized executions.

Instead of frenzied crowds doing selfies with corpses, witnesses are carefully screened and their numbers kept low out of an exaggerated concern for the dignity of the wretch about to be murdered. Even the instruments of death are more clinically deployed these days.

Shortly after a last meal on death row, the condemned can look forward to a chemical cocktail that may or may not deliver a death that our laws ironically describe as “cruel and unusual.”

This cocktail, which is made of proprietary chemical ingredients that the state prison officials conducting the execution won’t disclose, has resulted in at least three botched executions across America in recent months. The chemicals are meant to kill, but without side-effects like drowning in one’s own blood, suffering internal burning or remaining conscious-but-paralyzed through waves of deep pain.

Arizona put double murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood to death this week. It took Wood more than an hour and a half to die while undergoing an execution that should have taken 10 minutes — the advertised time that gives the illusion that nothing particularly cruel or unusual has taken place.

Witnesses said Wood gasped and snorted much of the time, clearly distressed, but unable to speak on the cross-shaped gurney. They insist he was conscious through most of it. While he was in the midst of his suffering, his lawyers filed an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the execution, but it was rebuffed. Wood died in exactly the way he feared most — conscious of his suffering and in agonizing pain.

For its part, the Arizona Department of Corrections disputes the characterization of Wood’s last hour and a half as “suffering.” Officials deny he snorted or gasped more than 600 times, as reported by The Associated Press. He was asleep, they said. The gasping was just Wood snoring through his coma — not torture — though they mercifully refrained from speculating about whether his sleep apnea would continue in hell or whatever his next life had in store for him.

Wood was finally pronounced dead an hour and 57 minutes after the IVs were inserted. It was either a stunning act of incompetence or sadism.

As a result, I’m having second thoughts about the morality of televising executions. I think all Americans should see this aspect of our criminal justice system up close. We should hear the gurgling and the death rattles of condemned men and women in real time without relying on the conflicting reports of journalists, defense lawyers and prison officials.

Denial about the inhumanity of every step of the process would not be possible after that. Even if an execution goes “smoothly,” the end result is still appalling. If murder is being committed in society’s name, then it is only right that we all be witnesses to it — even if we can’t do selfies next to the corpses anymore.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG. First Published July 24, 2014 8:00 PM

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