Georgia to videotape an execution in one hour. What will it show?
When the state of Georgia executes Andrew DeYoung tonight, for the murder of his parents and sister, it will be the first time an execution was caught on tape since a gas chamber killing in California in 1992. The order to record the execution came from a Superior Court judge and was upheld by the State Supreme Court, due to concerns over Georgia’s new execution protocol.
Georgia officials have fought the videotaping, but their efforts appear to be in vain. “It’s gonna happen,” Brian Kammer, a capital defense attorney who represents prisoners on Georgia’s death row told me over the phoene this afternoon. “And if something goes wrong, there’s going to be objective evidence of that.”
“Hopefully this will not go badly for Andrew DeYoung but we want to have cameras on in case anything does happen.”
Kammer represented Roy Blankenship, who was executed last month and who died in a violent and unusual manner. He was the first Georgia prisoner to be put to death using pentobarbital, an anesthetic that death penalty states have been using to replace sodium thiopental, formerly the go-to drug used as the first of three in a lethal injection “cocktail,” but which has become impossible to obtain. Recent botched executions in Georgia have been blamed on the fact that the state’s stash of sodium thiopental came from a highly dubious source and may have been expired. But Blankenship’s execution suggests that pentobarbital is not solving the problem.
According to Greg Bluestein of the Associated Press:
As the injection began, Blankenship jerked his head toward his left arm and began rapidly blinking. He then lurched toward his right arm, lunging twice with his mouth wide open as if he were gasping for air. A minute later, he pushed his head forward while mouthing inaudible words. His eyes never closed.
The movements stopped within three minutes, and he was declared dead 12 minutes later.
The description echoes accounts of recent executions in Georgia using sodium thiopental, such as that of Brandon Rhode, who “maintained eye contact the whole time” according to one witness, and Emmanuel Hammond, whose execution, his attorney told me “was like nothing I have ever seen before.” (See “The Executioner’s Dilemma,” The Nation)
For things to “go badly” would mean that DeYoung would effectively be tortured to death. Like sodium thiopental, pentobarbitol is meant to anesthesize an inmate so that the effects of the subsequent drugs aren’t felt. Eye movement and other outward physical motion is a strong sign the anesthetic isn’t working. Death by lethal injection, one anesthesiologist at Columbia University Medical Center has said, “would be agonizing in the absence of adequate anesthesia.”
There are many who would argue that we should not be concerned by the pain and suffering experienced by men who have committed terrible crimes. Whether that is true on a moral level, the Constitution’s 8th Amendment bars “cruel and unusual punishment” for a reason.
Kammer considers the decision to videotape tonight’s execution “very important.” “It could be that nothing observable happens. But in the last three executions, evidence of pain and suffering has been observed.”
Meanwhile, other prisoners on death row have reached a point where they fear dying a tortuous death. “They’re getting worried,” Kammer tells me. “You know, a lot of our clients are former IV drug users and everyone used to have a feeling that it was going to be like one last high and then they’d go to sleep. That was how people took care of their underlying fear of getting killed. But now the prospect that it is, in fact, painful is very very scary.”
Andrew DeYoung is set to die in an hour. “The video will show what it will show,” says Kammer. But if it shows evidence of a botched execution, “maybe that evidence will carry us over the line.”
“We’ve had three gruesome executions in Georgia and we can’t seem to pry anything loose in the courts,” he says. “It’s grotesque.”
Videotaping an execution is rare and would be the first such recording in nearly two decades…No states with the death penalty currently allow it.
“Executions in this state are not public, and the potential for sensationalism and abuse of a videotape of an execution is a great concern,” the attorney general’s office said in its unsuccessful appeal. “Appeal tossed, Ga. execution to be taped”
A death penalty case out of Texas has gotten a good amount of coverage in the past week, as state prison authorities prepare to execute Mark Stroman, a man who shot and killed two men in a vengeful rampage after September 11th. His victims, who he targeted because he thought they were Arab, were a Pakistani man named Waqar Hasan and an Indian man named Vasudev Patel. A third man survived. His name is Rais Bhuiyan. He is Muslim, from Bangladesh. He has told his story to many news outlets in the past several weeks, how he was approached at the gas station where he worked, how Stroman, a tattooed white man, demanded, “where are you from?” as he brandished a gun. How he had not yet answered when he felt “the sensation of a million bees stinging my face, and then heard an explosion” as Stroman shot him.
Bhuiyan survived, somehow, and was left blinded in one eye.
Today, to the surprise of many, Bhuiyan is fighting for Stroman’s life, pleading with Texas not to kill the man who brutally shot him and left him for dead. He has started a website in which he preaches forgiveness. “In order to live in a better and peaceful world, we need to break the cycle of hate and violence,” he has written. “…I forgave Mark Stroman many years ago. I believe he was ignorant and not capable of distinguishing between right and wrong. Otherwise he wouldn’t have done what he did.” Stroman’s latest appeal was denied by the US Supreme Court. If all goes according to plan, he will die tomorrow.
Bhuiyan’s story is extraordinary in many ways, heavy with the symbolic weight of 9/11. His willingness to forgive and even fight for the life of a man who tried to murder him has moved many people, with good reason. But it’s worth remembering that victims of violent crime oppose the death penalty more often than we may realize, and, like Bhuiyan so far, they are often disregarded. As much as prosecutors and politicians love to insist that the harshest penalties are meted out on behalf of victims and their grieving family members, the reality is that deference to the mantle of “victim” often relies on a full-throated embrace of the harshest sentence for the people whose job it is for them to punish. Anything less is liable to be ignored.
Take another Texas case from a few months back. An Army veteran named Timothy Adams was put to death in the killing of his 19-month-old son during a standoff with police. Adams was suicidal at the time; he immediately turned himself in and expressed remorse for his crime. As Texas prepared to put him to death, his family members begged for clemency. “Our family lost one child,” his father said. “We don’t deserve to lose another. After my grandson’s death, we lived through pain worse than anyone could imagine. Nothing good will come from executing my son Tim and causing us more anguish.” Adams was executed by lethal injection on February 23rd.
That same month, in Ohio, a man named Johnnie Baston faced execution for the killing of a South Korean store clerk in Toledo. The man’s family members fought for clemency, but were ignored by the state parole board, which voted unanimously to put him to death. “While many members of Mr. Mah’s family favor a commutation to life without parole, Mr. Baston’s lack of accepting responsibility, criminal history, and the severity of the execution-style killing of Mr. Chong Mah outweigh their personal opinions regarding the death penalty and their wishes as to the sentence imposed in this case,” the parole board concluded.
“The death of Johnnie Baston isn’t going to do anything that’s going to bring back our father, give us any closure or gratification,” his son, Peter Mah argued to no avail. Baston was executed on March 10th.
The same thing happened in Alabama in January. Leroy White was executed over the wishes of his victim’s family members, who, as in the case of Timothy Adams, included family members of his own. White was sentenced to death for the killing of his wife, Ruby, with whom he had a young daughter, Latonya. In a signed affidavit, she described how despite years of anger at her father for taking her mother away, she was now very close to him and “have grown to love him just as much as any child would love their parent…I know that he did a terrible thing by taking my mother’s life, but I have forgiven him completely.”
I am deeply opposed to my father’s execution. He is the only thing that I have left that’s a part of me. Taking away my only remaining biological parent will hurt me more than I can say. Executing my father will do nothing to bring my mother back. I would do anything in my power to stop this execution from taking place.
Leroy White was executed on January 13th.
Some would argue that cases like White’s and Adams’s are different, that of course family members of murderers will argue to spare the life of a relative, even if they have taken one of their own. To do so sets up a strange hierarchy of victimization—who are the “good” victims?—but one that is all too real. The family members of death row prisoners are rarely included under the banner of “victim’s family,” but when the state has killed your loved one, what are you then?
As we were so aggressively reminded after the death of Osama bin Laden, the killing of killers is celebrated as a way to bring “closure” to people who have suffered terrible losses at their hands. There are many reasons to question this notion, but whether this is ever true can only depend on individual experiences. What is clear is that, when those in a position to carry out the death penalty stand upon the moral pedestal bestowed to them as a defender of victims’ rights, such “rights” have limits. As Jeff Gamso, a capital defense attorney in Ohio, wrote last week: “Texas, of course, like Ohio, like other states, like the feds, is deeply committed to ensuring the rights of crime victims. Their voices will be heard. Their needs will be met. They will be offered support and comfort and help. As long as they seek vengeance. The rights of victims don’t extend to seeking mercy. At least, not so far.”
(Thanks to Dan Solomon for putting that last quote on my radar.)
Dozens have been sent to prison infirmaries because of irregular heartbeats and fainting, according to a statement issued Monday by a group calling itself California Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity, which represents attorneys and family members of inmates. “Most have lost 20-35 pounds,” the statement said.
Major medical problems begin once a hunger striker has lost 18% of his or her body weight, according to an article from the Journal of the American Medical Assn. that prison officials said they were using as a reference for what to expect if the protest continues. Life-threatening problems typically begin when a person loses 30% of body weight.
How long it takes to reach those stages varies from person to person, according to the article.
So far, no inmate has symptoms requiring a trip to emergency clinics within prisons or specialized outside medical care, according to an email…
Despite repeated assurances that the situation is under control, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation refused The Times’ request to visit and interview striking inmates.
“At this time, we are not allowing media into the prison due to security and safety issues,” prison spokesman Oscar Hidalgo said in an email. “This hunger strike signifies a disruption in normal operation of Pelican Bay and our operations staff are focused completely on resolving this issue.” “Prisoners’ hunger strike in its third week,”
Ohio criminal defense lawyer Jeff Gamso writes about Rais Bhuiyan’s efforts to stop Texas from executing Mark Stroman, the man who shot him in the face, and killed two other men, in a hate crime in 2001. Gamso is a lovely writer, especially on death penalty issues, and this is one of his most eloquently-expressed sentiments.
I’m fairly certain that Gamso shares my opinion of the concept of “victim’s rights,” which is that they have not historically been a part of our justice system for a good reason. But if we’re going to elevate them, we ought to do it across the board.
Support the Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers
An ACT NOW post up at TheNation.com:
Prisoners in California are taking part in an “indefinite” hunger strike that could prove fatal if something isn’t done soon. Many participants “are experiencing irregular heartbeats and palpitations, some are suffering from diagnosed cardiac arrhythmia,” according to the Bay-Area group Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS), which is in touch with the inmates’ lawyers and family.
The hunger strike was started two weeks ago by inmates in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Secure Housing Unit (SHU) “in order to draw attention to, and to peacefully protest, 25 years of torture via [California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation]’s arbitrary, illegal, and progressively more punitive policies and practices,” according to their official statement, dated July 1, 2011. Prisoners in the SHU are confined in cement cells with metal doors for more than 22 hours a day, with no real access to natural light or human contact. Many spend years locked up in these conditions.
This fact—and the prisoners’ list of “demands”—should concern anyone who believes in basic human rights for prisoners. Aside from an end to indefinite solitary confinement, the list included such meager requests as “adequate food” and a call for staff to stop using “food as a tool to punish.” They want “meaningful access” to “adequate natural sunlight” and “quality health care and treatment.” They also ask for a “weekly phone call” and “one photo a year.”
As James Ridgeway and Jean Casella write today at Solitary Watch, these requests are largely “based on the recommendations of the bipartisan US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons, which in 2006 called for substantial reforms to the practice of solitary confinement. Segregation from the general prison population, the commission said, should be ‘a last resort,’ and even in segregation units, isolation should be mitigated and terms should be limited.” Yet, “some of the prisoners have been in the SHU long enough to remember the hunger strike that took place exactly 10 years ago, when 600 Pelican Bay prisoners stopped eating for 10 days…A decade later, inmates say, virtually nothing has changed.”
Read the rest here.
Take action here.
Anyone who visits (or used to visit) this blog probably knows that I am now working as an editor at The Nation, a thrilling professional move, but one that has forced me to shelve some of my prison-related work—and completely neglect this site. I intend to pick it back up when I’m more settled in; there is so much happening in prisons right now around the country that merits attention, not the least of which is the Pelican Bay hunger strike, which is at a critical point. Read more about the motivation behind the strike here. Read a letter from one of the hunger strikers, written to James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, who I recently had the privilege of meeting, here.
The good news so far about my new gig is that I’ve had the opportunity to cover prisons a bit for The Nation, including a Q&A with Michelle Alexander. (A longer web version is available here.) I hope to do more. The letters from prisoners that arrive at the office remind me to try to do more.
Thanks for reading.