Friday, July 27, 2007

A hood doesn't mask our failures

Published July 27, 2007

Given the latest in our off-again on-again death penalty, here's a question from left field:

Why does the person carrying out the absolute punishment get his identity hidden by the state?

Historically, executioners have worn hoods. (Ku Klux Klansmen, too, but that's another story.) Maybe this was symbolic, to show that society, and not just the hangman who had to do the dirty work, decided the fate of the doomed.

Our own Department of Corrections says keeping the executioner's identity secret - state law, by the way - protects the person from retribution by extremists or an inmate's friends or family. (Surely there's little fear about anti-death penalty types, who tend to be against that whole eye-for-an-eye thing.) The doctor and doctor's assistant present at executions have worn hoods as well.

Critics have a different view. They say this secrecy is born of shame, or ambivalence about killing even killers, or because even for true believers, there are grim realities to actually taking a life.

For now, let's skip the real question of right or wrong and talk process. We have a history of horror shows: flames erupting from men's heads during electrocutions, a face dripping blood. "They butchered me back there," killer Bennie Demps said just before he was executed in 2000, saying they cut and injected his groin and leg in search of a vein. We have struggled to consistently impose death with even the dignity we give to euthanizing stray dogs.

When convicted murderer Angel Diaz took twice as long as normal to die from lethal injection, with drugs injected into his flesh instead of his bloodstream, Gov. Jeb Bush rightly halted executions. (Please, hold the chorus of no-punishment-is-too-cruel-or-unusual. Surely we're better than that.)

An appointed commission looked at what went wrong, the DOC agreed to recommendations, and the death penalty was back on.

Which brings us to convicted killer Ian Deco Lightbourne. Like others on death row, he had appealed on cruel-and-unusual grounds. Judge Carven Angel (what a name in a death case) questioned, among other things, the experience and competence of the hooded executioner who administers the lethal dose.

(Job requirements: picked by warden. Must be 18. Must get training. Pay: $150.)

The judge talked about whether any 18-year-old under the gun of a governor's warrant and a world watching would "have enough experience and competence to stop an execution when it needs to be stopped." Good question. Add mine: Why hide his identity? Shouldn't we know his qualifications, his history?

"When you become a public employee, you should not be able to hide behind a black hood," said a Florida lawyer who in the 1990s unsuccessfully sued to unmask executioners.

Truth is, even if we exposed the identity of the man or woman at the switch, syringe or whatever our current instrument of choice, I doubt we would lack for applicants.

A DOC spokeswoman confirmed my suspicions. "Any time the death penalty comes up in court or an execution is looming," said Gretl Plessinger, "we get a dozen e-mails to this office saying, 'I'm interested in being an executioner.' "

These days, I'm guessing a hood wouldn't make a whole lot of difference.

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