Death Row: Waiting to be Killed

by JoHarrington

Have you ever really imagined what it would be like? You or a loved one given that date and watching it draw near. Knowing that you will be killed.

“Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated, can be compared.

For there to be an equivalency, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him, and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.”

Albert Camus - 'Reflections on the Guillotine, Resistance, Rebellion & Death'

Peculiar Institution: America's Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition

Last Minute Stays of Execution

The legal fight for life is so intense in the USA, that it's become the norm for an 11th hour halt on killing the inmate.

Image: William Lee HillOn February 19th 2013, William Lee Hill was just half an hour away from being judicially executed, when two stays of execution reached the prison warden.

From one Georgia judge came concerns about the method of killing him.  He was to be given a single injection of sodium pentobarbital, a highly controversial procedure usually used as a last resort.

From another courtroom, the temporary reprieve came because three doctors testified that Mr Hill was intellectually disabled.  He had an IQ of just 70, which meant that he was unable to really grasp abstract concepts - like the rights and wrong of murder, and why people might want to kill him in cold blood.

It wasn't the first time that such last minute stops had been in place.  It wasn't even the first time for Mr Hill.  He'd been an hour away from death last time.  The previous execution in the state of Georgia had been Troy Davis.  He had been strapped to the gurney, when a judge called a halt. 

It was ultimately abortive and he was back there within hours.

There will always be those who argue that it doesn't matter.  These people are criminals, murderers and the scum of the Earth. They do not deserve to be treated like sentient human beings.  They killed someone.

Mr Hill killed two people actually.  The first was his girlfriend Myra Wright. The second was a fellow inmate on Death Row named Joseph Handspike.  Mr Hill was scheduled for execution for the latter. Which leaves us with the ludicrous situation wherein we have to examine the pedantry of murder.

Hill has to die, because he killed someone whom the state had reserved the right to kill.  Neither Ms Wright nor Mr Handspike saw their death coming.  Mr Hill did.  He watched it approaching with all of the force of a freight train; then twice he watched it pass by again.  And another date was set.

It is all horror.  But in some cases, the retribution is more horrific than the crime, and such monstrous acts are justified under a layer of legality.  To my mind, that does not make it any more civilized.

Books about the Death Penalty

There will always be two sides to this debate. Read these books to uncover the arguments for and against capital punishment.

A Most Deliberate Death

A family gathers to say goodbye to a loved one. They did not deserve that heart-break.

I sat for hours with my dying uncle.  He had choked to death on a biscuit; at least he would have, if medical machinery weren't keeping his vital organs functioning. 

We took the decision to switch them off, as his brain had gone.  He was no longer there.

The scene was tragic.  His wife, his siblings, his family and friends all took turns to wait by his bedside.  We were saying our goodbyes.  It was heart-breaking to be there and heart-breaking to witness others being there.

What made it so much worse was the fact that this wasn't natural causes.  Not really.  Had someone with the right knowledge and training been there to smack his back, then he'd still be with us now.  The biscuit would have dislodged.

You can half forgive heart failure, cancer or a disastrous series of strokes.  They feel like an allocated time on this Earth finally running out - a natural turning of the cycle from birth until death.  We live, and then we die.  This is the way of things. 

But what if your goodbyes were to a family member or friend in the prime of their life?  What if the person before you was as vital and healthy as they were loved?

Imagine looking a loved one in the eye, or hugging them, knowing that they are going to be killed within hours. There is nothing you can do about it.  Half of the country will rejoice at it happening. Half the world will condemn your nation as barbarians for letting it happen.  Those are bigger issues, for now this is your parent, sibling, child, spouse, relative or friend in grave danger. It's personal.

It's not about deciding to switch off the machine on someone already technically dead. It's about having to leave them - conscious and healthy - in the hands of those who will kill them.  All of your tears and fury will not stop that.  A judge decreed it; a law allowed it.

There is so much talk about the individual themselves.   He or she deserves to suffer in this way, because their crimes were heinous.  But their wider circle did nothing.  Mr Hill's mother killed no-one.  His cousin is law-abiding and innocent.  His friend wouldn't hurt a fly. 

Yet they have to go through this emotionally excruciating scenario.  Then repeat it each time there is a stay of execution.

The Family of Gregory Wright Before and After his Execution

Wright maintained his innocence even on the gurney. The sole witness found God and retracted his testimony, which had been the only evidence against Wright.

Books about Victims of the Death Penalty

The Last of Everything on the Day of Execution

Look around you. What if this was definitely, inevitably the last time that you would interact with all that's there? What then?

Image: LasagneMy favorite food is my mother's lasagne.  As a child, I bounced with glee in the kitchen, when I saw the shopping bag filled with the ingredients.  In truth, I do the same as an adult.

I also love pizza, and those Burger King cheese and chili balls.  I'm partial to Stilton and broccoli soup; Brie with a slab of hot baked bread and cranberry sauce; pasta with pesto and pine nuts; grey peas and vegetarian bacon; Derby cakes and Welsh cakes.  

Any one of these could be chosen as my last meal, if I was on Death Row.  What would you choose?

On the final day, those about to die will be with their loved ones for an hour or two.  Twelve family members and friends will be crowded into a room, where they can cuddle, cry and say goodbye face to face.  Another sixteen will be allowed to talk remotely, with telephones through bullet-proof glass. 

After that, the condemned is taken away to eat their last meal.  How appetizing can that be?  Filled with the upset and emotion of those final goodbyes, you are confronted with food.  You know that it will be the last thing that you will ever eat. 

It must taste like sawdust in their mouths.  A brick in their stomach. 

Everything that happens, that's seen, heard or felt, has a stamp of finality about it on that day.  They know the exact time of their death.  It won't be a kind death either.  Even if things go right, then it will be terrifying and painful.  Things frequently go wrong.  Those are the most horrific of all premeditated killings.

All of these last sightings, last conversations, last glimpse of that brickwork, skylight or bed, is enough to send the most resolute individual half mad.

Yet still the blood-thirsty mob will slobber out the baying cries, "But they deserved it!  They killed someone!"   But so did you, when you allowed this to happen without a call to your representative nor a letter to the paper.  "They showed no mercy to their victims!"  And two wrongs apparently  make it right.

No-one ever suggests that murder should go unpunished, nor any of the other terrible crimes. But for the average armchair serial killers, the only possible punishment is state sanctified slaughter. With no blood on their hands, it allows for silence and inaction to send a person to their death; and that is not humane.

More Wizzley Articles about Capital Punishment

Examining the murky history and gruesome use of death by needle as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Documentary film-makers are set to launch an anti-death penalty campaign. They will travel across the USA interviewing those exonerated of all crimes.
I consider judicial execution to be a 'cruel and unusual punishment', which is contrary to international human rights laws.
The death penalty for children has been stamped out in the majority of countries. Where it remains, kids as young as 13 are being killed.
Updated: 03/15/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 08/20/2013

I always welcome people sharing their views. That's what the debate is all about. Even if I disagree with the viewpoint. :) I absolutely do not support capital punishment.

cmoneyspinner on 08/19/2013

Neither you nor I will be the ones making the final decisions. But I'm glad you've given me a chance to state my position plainly on this matter. I support capital punishment.

JoHarrington on 08/19/2013

Yet an estimated one in ten person executed in the United States had an unsound conviction. Read here: This is an endemic problem.

Christie did it. His other victims all bore the same hallmarks as Mrs Evans and little Geraldine. Several died after Evans was hanged.

So Christie was a sadistic serial killer. But he was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint, the most prolific hangman that Britain ever produced. Christie was an unthinking savage. Pierrepoint must be applauded for what he did. Yet Pierrepoint killed far more people than Christie did. There are moral holes in this thinking, which I cannot reconcile. It involves having to consider the same thing from two separate directions, which can't be right.

As for the lack of regret etc, isn't that conflating murder with psychopathy?

There is a huge problem in what to actually do with those who commit criminal acts, up to and very much including murder. But murdering them isn't the answer to my mind.

cmoneyspinner on 08/19/2013

There is an "ideal" that we must strive for. Ideally, "we" must carry out justice in such a way that injustice, i.e. convicting the wrong person, doesn't happen. We don't live in a perfect world. But don't let your heart bleed over separate issues. Miscarriage of justice is a different issue. And yes! No matter what you can not bring a dead innocent person back to life. Who would know that better than the victims of a crime?

BTW, so this guy Christie confessed? Let me play Devil's advocate here.

He telling the truth? or He telling authorities "something" so he can play with their heads. Mess with their minds and make 'em feel guilty about putting an innocent person to death. Because maybe ... just maybe ... even though I - John Reginald Halliday Christie - really am a savage sadistic serial killer, maybe I could make y'all feel guilty about KILLING ME!!!

Because you see I like killing people. But I can't imagine what it's like BEING KILLED!! My victims didn't know nothing. But me. I'll know when and I'll know why and I'll know how and I'll have to wait and wait and wait ... The waiting is punishment too! At least if I don't get the death penalty I could live out the rest of my days being useless like that pervert Richard Speck and not have to die for my crime! Read books about me and watch movies about me. Practically live like a celebrity.

Jo - You're comparing yourself - YOU, a person with a conscience and pure motives versus ... a reprobate individual with a mind who cares nothing about right or wrong, has no regrets their heinous acts, and who ain't got no regard for man or beast. He's just trying to save himself from a punishment he know he earned!

- Let's settle this between me and you. No death penalty. Just don't let the criminals serve out their sentence in an American prison. Send them to one of those prisons in a Middle Eastern country, where they don't have TV or a library, and FORGET ABOUT 'EM!!!

JoHarrington on 08/19/2013

But that is to argue justice is taking the life of someone who took a life. What then of the executioner? That person just took a life.

And what about if the person just executed was innocent too? Timothy Evans was hanged pleading for his life and trying to get someone, anyone, to believe that he was innocent. He was innocent. A few years afterwards John Reginald Halliday Christie was revealed as a serial killer. He confessed that he'd killed Evans's wife and child, and framed him.

All the apologies in the world won't bring Timothy Evans back. Where is the weight of justice there?

cmoneyspinner on 08/19/2013

Understood. I support the death penalty. So I guess I will have to be thrown into the pool of non-compassionate. To me it's a matter of justice. It is not murder. It is just punishment for the crime. No more than if your self-defense resulted in you killing somebody who was attacking you or someone you were trying to protect. In this scenario, for the attacker, the justice came from the hand of the intended victim. Capital penalty is the defense for the victim who didn't get defended in time of enough to save their life.

I love you my sister. I respect your views . But we are not on the same page with this issue. I'm done making comments because I can not be persuaded that capital punishment is unlawful. The weight of justice swings the scale in favor of the victim.

Richard Speck should have been executed.

JoHarrington on 08/19/2013

Yes, I have absolute compassion for the victim too. But that doesn't mean that my compassion would find its outlet in murder. Not supporting the death penalty is absolutely not the same as condoning the crimes that these people did.

cmoneyspinner on 08/19/2013

&JoHarrington - My sister. With the greatest of respect, I say this. Weigh the scales. Victims on one side of the scale. The murderer on the other side. The amount of the compassion you would have the murderer? Would it outweigh the compassion YOU would have shown another human being by NOT KILLING THEM!!

Can you imagine a victim screaming, pleading, begging for their lives - crying for mercy and compassion? Tell me truly that you would not placed the greater weight of YOUR compassion on the scale side with the victim. You don't have to answer this question publicly. It's something for you to ponder in your heart. Peace and love.

JoHarrington on 08/18/2013

We can't all be the Apostle Paul; and he was doing it for his faith. I can't imagine anyone with compassion not shrinking from putting someone else to death.

cmoneyspinner on 08/16/2013

Have you ever really imagined what it would be like? No. I can't say that have.

It depends on what I'm being put to death for. The Apostle Paul awaited his death with great anticipation for the future.

I'm not preaching at you. I'm just sayin'.

Good thoughts presented in this article. But you already know which "camp" I'm in.

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