For Romel Broom, death will coming knocking a second time. He is being given a week to recover from the 18 needle injuries he sustained earlier this week, and is due to be executed again on Tuesday. Unbelievably, he is not the first to experience this.
In 1946, a similar bungle occurred when the teenager, Willie Francis, survived the electric chair. During the jolt, he screamed “I’m not dying!” Francis’ attorneys subsequently appealed that a “second” execution would violate the double jeopardy rule (as well as the Eighth Amendment which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment). The appeal failed and Francis did not survive the second attempt at taking his life.
Stories of grotesque bungles abound in death penalty literature. In May 1992, it took Texan officials 47 minutes to execute Billy Wayne White, a former drug user. Randy Wool, also a drug addict, was forced to assist technicians to find a suitable vein. Violent convulsions were not uncommon, and hence a paralytic drug is now introduced into the blood stream before the lethal drug is administered. The paralytic, amongst other things, prevents the diaphragm from working, effectively suffocating the inmate. Perhaps worst of all is the story of Raymond Landry. Two minutes into the execution, the syringe flew out of Raymond’s vein, spraying deadly chemical across the room towards witnesses. The syringe had to be reinserted as Raymond was half dead. It took 24 minutes for him to die.
Not only is the death penalty clumsy, it is costly. It is estimated that it is at least ten times more expensive for a District Attorney to seek the death penalty, as opposed to second degree murder. Then there are appeals that run for decades and cost millions. As a general political trend, it is also proving harder for DAs to obtain the death penalty than it once was. It may only be a matter of time before a majority number of states, like New Jersey, outlaw capital punishment. This will be significant for when a case comes before the US Supreme Court. Under the Eighth Amendment, cruel or unusual punishment is considered unconstitutional. One of the ways the Supreme Court defines “cruel and unusual” is by considering the public opinion on the issue by considering the number of states which have retained capital punishment. Once there is a majority of state against the death penalty, the US Supreme Court may well consider it unconstitutional.
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This would be a huge step forward for human rights. It unfortunately only represents the tip of the iceberg.
Prison may be an awful place to die, but equally, it is an awful place to live. There are 82 prisoners held by the State of Louisiana currently sentenced to death. There are 4280 people in the State who are sentenced to life without parole. Paradoxically, there is an incentive for defendants to avoid pleading to life, as a capital offender has a statutory right to legal representation for appeals if he or she is indigent (unlike those sentenced to life without parole). The untold story, as Jeff Sparrow points out, is that prisons are fast becoming what the workhouse was to 19th century England: a waste disposal unit for “the poor, the crazy or the simply forgotten”.
In a society that is untroubled by the horror of Romel Broom’s botched execution, it is no surprise that there is indifference to the sense of hopelessness for prisoners facing life without parole. In some prisoners’ final statements, they talk about the relief of death, that it would have been harder to serve life. Louisiana has some of the most violent prisons in the country (in particular, the notorious is Angola). As document by Dave Eggers in his recent book Zeitoun, these prisoners suffered appalling treatment in the wake of hurricane Katrina. They were denied food, water and shelter for days, whilst being conscripted to build holding pens to hold people arrested by the National Guard in the days after the storm. The similarities with Guantanamo were haunting.
How a society treats people who seek its mercy reflects the strength of its justice system and its moral fibre. The social problems reflected through the prism of criminality are too sophisticated to be addressed through the blunt instrument of prison sentences. There is no denying that many of these people are no angels and in some cases, they are not able to live and function in society. But condemning people to die is barbaric. Equally, condemning them to a life without dignity, respect or hope is nearly as bad.
Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer interning at the Capital Post Conviction Project of Louisiana in New Orleans, which represents indigent prisoners on death row in their State and Federal Appeals.