Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Listen to the executioners before you opt for executions

Jeff Sparrow

A FEW weeks ago, I talked to a man called Ron McAndrew. He spoke about the death penalty, but from quite a different perspective than either Kevin Rudd or John Howard.

You see, McAndrew had served as the warden of Florida State Prison. He'd actually executed people - and it had changed his life forever.

In a slow, sad voice, McAndrew described what it was like sending a man to the electric chair.

"When we turned on the electricity to kill this guy," he said, "flames shot out from under the helmet. We burned his head - badly. There was steam going down the side of his face, coming out of his eyes and his nose burned as well. It was horrifying. The chamber filled up with smoke. We could hardly see each other . . . but you could still smell the burning flesh."

The man McAndrew killed that day was called Pedro Medina. A court had found Medina guilty of what McAndrew described as "a vicious crime" - he'd stabbed a teacher to death. Medina might not have been a Bali bomber, but he was by no means a nice man.

Of course, few of the people on death row are. By and large, the people McAndrew dealt with were the wretched of the earth: men who were, at best, pathetic; at worst, genuinely terrifying.

Which is why Rudd's stance on capital punishment makes no sense.

If you don't speak out against the execution of unpleasant people, you'll almost never speak out on capital punishment at all. If terrorists don't deserve mercy, what about, say, a Ted Bundy, a man who tortured and murdered about 30 people for no reason other than his own gratification? What about a Gary Gilmore, a multiple killer who actually campaigned to be put to death?

Yet it was through such cases - the execution of men guilty of grotesque crimes - that capital punishment returned to the US.

But, in the current debate, McAndrew's experience with Medina matters for another reason.

It's too easy to discuss the death penalty on a plane of lofty abstraction, far removed from the messy business of actually killing a man. The history of capital punishment in the modern era involves a search for a method of execution compatible with contemporary notions of justice - something clean, sterile and dignified. But the closer you look, the more impossible that seems.

The elaborate tortures of the Middle Ages gave way to the simple British gallows. The noose often meant slow strangulation or involuntary decapitation, and Americans turned to the electric chair, which was supposed to make turning off a life as simple as turning on a switch.

Except, as McAndrew discovered, it doesn't.

Today, most American states use lethal injection: a method that, as Ronald Reagan explained, was just like putting an animal to sleep.

McAndrew had also conducted executions by lethal injections - and he'd found it no less grotesque.

For a start, he explained, many prisoners were drug abusers, so that getting a needle into their ruined veins was very difficult.

"They don't have any veins," he said. "Their veins are flat. So in order to get an IV you've got to do what's called a cut-down, cutting through their arms to get a vein. And you've got to get two IVs in - one in each arm.

"This last guy they executed up there, it took them 34 minutes. And, you know, he could still move his head on the table. He's looking all around and he's asking them - and I've spoken to some of the guys involved in this - he's asking them, 'What the hell is going on? Give me a shot - do something to stop the pain'."

Even when the process went smoothly, it was still traumatic for the prison staff.

"You know," he said, "when the person has been executed and you tell the witnesses that they've been pronounced dead, you close the curtain. They don't see anything else. But you've got to stay there. You've got the body. You've got to take the apparatus off them. You've got to pull the needles out of their arm. You've got to stuff the body into a body bag."

He didn't know anyone who'd been involved in the death penalty who didn't later regret it.

Should it matter to Rudd what the death penalty does to executioners?

Let's put it like this: if the execution of even the wickedest man still traumatises the people who carry it out, what about the society that condones it?

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland.

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