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Botched executions incite fight against death penalty

Published Jan 6, 2007 12:30 AM

Following a botched execution in Florida on Dec. 13, in state after state, judges and governors are calling a halt to executions by lethal injection.

Don’t believe the state politicians are suddenly becoming more compassionate. Instead, there is a growing movement by prisoners and their allies on the outside, in this country and internationally, who are fighting to stop the executions.

While Washington tries to promote the bizarre idea that it is spreading democracy and freedom abroad, the states are murdering poor and oppressed people with gruesome means.

A number of recent horrific executions that seem like deliberate cruelty but may be incompetence have prompted prisoners to challenge the lethal injection procedure in individual and class-action lawsuits.

A year ago, a nationwide movement failed to stop the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams. Witnesses to Williams’ torturous execution on Dec. 13, 2005, were told they could not speak above a whisper or “sob loudly” as they watched his execution in growing horror. It took 20 minutes to insert a tube in Williams’ vein; the mishandling of the injected chemicals resulted in a contorted struggle.

These witnesses then defied the rules, giving the Black power salute and shouting in unison, “The state of California just killed an innocent man!” Their courageous act received worldwide publicity.

Within a month another California inmate, Michael Morales, had filed suit, claiming that lethal injection would subject him to excessive pain. This led to a hearing in September 2006 that brought to light the barbarism and bungling of Williams’ execution.

On Dec. 15, Judge Jeremy Fogel issued a “Memorandum of Intended Decision” in which he reports that “the team failed to set an intravenous line during the execution of Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams.” Fogel adds that “the evidence raised concerns that inmates may have been conscious when they were injected” with the drugs, which would subject them to pain.

Fogel lists the “critical deficiencies,” including “lack of meaningful training of the execution team” and “unreliable record-keeping,” so that it can’t be determined if all of the anesthetic in the syringes was actually injected. The judge concludes that as currently implemented, the state’s use of lethal injection is unconstitutional.

Death penalty still in force

But this decision does not eliminate the death penalty. Fogel states that the deficiencies are correctable and suggests that the state execute prisoners using the anesthetic, sodium thiopental, or another anesthetic alone. Executions may go on. They are just halted temporarily while the state works out the glitches.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzennegger released a statement Dec. 18 saying that his “administration will take immediate action to resolve court concerns which have cast legal doubt on California’s procedure for carrying out the death penalty.” Remember, Schwarzennegger has a reputation of being the “terminator,” and can be expected to get California’s death machine quickly back in action.

On the same day as Judge Fogel’s memo, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush issued an executive order creating a Commission on Administration of Lethal Injection. This was in response to the execution of Ángel Nieves Díaz on Dec. 13 that took 34 minutes to kill him, in contrast to the usual 15 minutes. Díaz was moving, looked toward the witnesses and may have been speaking. He had to be given a second dose of the drugs.

The autopsy revealed that the original needle went through Diaz’s vein and delivered the chemicals to his muscles rather than his blood circulation, causing great pain. After the medical examiner’s ruling, Gov. Bush suspended all Florida executions. New Jersey, Maryland, Missouri, Delaware, Arkansas and South Dakota also have holds on executions by lethal injection.

Prisoners in Ohio also began a class-action lawsuit challenging lethal injection. Some participants in the lawsuit have nevertheless been put to death. Recently, however, there have been two stays of execution for prisoners in the lawsuit. This still leaves open for execution prisoners who are not in the lawsuit, particularly those who are “volunteers.”

Lucasville Five

Other Ohio prisoners have a renewed fighting spirit. This includes the Lucasville Five, political prisoners framed for their positive roles as prisoner leaders during and after the 1993 rebellion in Lucasville prison. One of the Five, Bomani Shakur (aka Keith Lamar), has recently won a new evidentiary hearing expected to take place this coming spring.

Banner headlines in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Dec. 29 declared, “Riot testimony called a lie.” A new affidavit presents the argument that a witness who sent four of the Lucasville Five to death row lied on the stand to benefit himself. This witness was released from prison in September 2006. Now this “witness” is walking the streets while the Five are condemned to permanent solitary confinement.

One of the Five initiated a prisoner chain-letter throughout the Ohio prison system to bring prisoners’ family members and friends to a rally outside the country’s largest death-row supermax in Youngstown, Ohio, on Martin Luther King Day weekend in January.

Anti-death-penalty activists believe they must redouble their efforts at this time and also act on behalf of specific prisoners. The rallying cry for this movement is that the death penalty is racist, it targets the poor, it is barbaric, it doesn’t deter crime, and it murders the innocent; it is an instrument of control that has nothing to do with justice.