Wednesday, May 04, 2005

A day in the death of inmate No. 918

Recently I was invited to speak to a group of college students about the death penalty. The event was entitled Still Surviving: Youth, Prisons and the Death Penalty and was held at Cafe Mawonaj near Howard University in Washington, D.C. "Still Surviving" is a reference to a book written by Nanon Williams, a juvenile offender on death row in Texas.

The invitation presented a dilemma. Everyone, or nearly everyone, in the audience was solidly anti-death penalty and I feared that if I simply went through my litany of reasons why I personally oppose the death penalty, the audience would be bored.

So I decided to do something I had not done before. I did a reading from an article I wrote a long time ago for the Austin American-Statesman, back in my days as a newspaper reporter. The article depicted an execution in Texas.

(Apologies to those of you who have followed this blog for a long time, as you may have already seen this.)

Here is what I read:

"HUNTSVILLE – Execution of Inmate No. 918 was nothing if not efficient.
At the stroke of midnight Tuesday, the inmate took the last steps of his life on Earth from a holding cell into the death chamber.
By 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, five thick tan straps secured his legs, waist, and torso to a stainless steel gurney with a cushion on top.
His arms were stretched wide. Intervenes tubes were quickly inserted into each.
His head lay flat. His eyes blinked rapidly. He stared into the microphone, suspended two feet above his mouth. Above the microphone was a bright fluorescent light.
At 12:03, a harmless saline solution began flowing into his left arm and, at 12:05, into his right.
Witnesses quickly were ushered into the adjoining room with drab brown carpet and white curtains around the walls. A glass partition and bars separated the witnesses from inmate No. 918.
The instant the last witness was in the room, a figure appeared from a room behind the death chamber. The figure nodded to Warden Morris Jones, standing by the gurney. It was 12:08.
“We’re ready warden,” he said.
Warden Jones asked Inmate No. 918 if he had any final words.
“Yessir,” Cook responded. He licked his lips once and stared at the bright fluorescent light. “I just want to tell my family I love them and I want to thank the Lord and savior Jesus Christ for giving me another chance and for saving me. That’s it.”
At 12:08 a.m., a mixture of pancuronium bromide, which relaxes the muscles, potassium chloride, which stops the heart, and sodium thiopental, which induces unconsciousness, began flowing into Inmate No. 918’s veins. The average cost of the drugs is $71.50 per execution.
Inmate No. 918 gulped, blinked. His stomach moved up and down strangely. The effect of the drugs seemed immediate. Inmate No. 918 strained against the heavy tan straps and coughed or chocked, as if seeking air.
At 12:10 a.m., the flow of the drugs subsided. No one moved. The chaplain, inside the death chamber, stared at the floor.
The witnesses watched the corpse intently, as if expecting Inmate No. 918 to arise. The reflection of their faces could be seen in the glass partition separating the rooms.
Finally, Warden Jones made a motion toward the door to the death chamber. He admitted a medical doctor, who pulled out a stethoscope. He several minutes hunched over the body, probing, listening.
He removed his stethoscope, looked at his watch and looked at the warden.
“I’ve got 12:15,” he said.
“12:15,” the warden repeated.
Three hundred and sixty inmates remain on Texas’ death row. More than 600 capital murder cases are pending on the dockets of the state’s six largest counties."

A couple of notes: First, Texas now carries out its executions shortly after 6 p.m. Back when I wrote this, almost 12 years ago, they did them at midnight. There are now around 450 people on death row in Texas, even though this particular execution was several hundred executions ago.

My purpose in identifying the person being executed as "Inmate No. 918," if it is not obvious, was to try to demonstrate how the state, as part of the execution ritual, stripped the person of his humanity. It's difficult to execute people. It is easier to execute that which is less than human.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, Texas strips human beings of their humanity and sanitizes its hellish killing as a 'procedure.'

The real dehumanization has occurred in the hearts and minds of the jury who decided to play God and kill Inmate 918 and then walk away....with no consequences for their actions.