Capital Punishment: Things to Consider

By Trudy Ann Taylor

How would you feel if someone you loved was murdered? Even more directly – how would you react if the killer was still alive allowed to spend his or her days behind bars not free to do whatever he or she wished but alive, nonetheless. Your loved one is no longer with you. If that person took a life, confessed to the crime, was tried, and convicted in a court of law, why should that person be allowed to live?

According to the Criminal Justice Project of the NAACP, as of January 1, 2020, there are 2,620 people on death row in the United States. Since the death penalty was reinstated by the U. S. Supreme Court, states have executed 1,516 people. There have been 170 death row exonerations. But what does it mean to be on death row? It is interesting to note that after someone has been convicted and placed on death row, the individual does not die by lethal injection or electrocution, hanging or firing squad the next day. There are appeals and without these appeals mistakes in the death penalty cases would be missed. Former Georgia Attorney General, Mike Bowers said in 2001, “People are adamant…. that every avenue should be exhausted to make sure there is no chance the condemned are not guilty. The surer you are, the slower you move.” So, there is a huge toll on the taxpayer, victims’ families, and the prisoners themselves. The typical time a prisoner spends on death row while awaiting execution is more than a decade. Some have been on death row for over 20 years. When a prisoner is on death row, they are isolated from other prisoners, excluded from prison education and employment programs. Their visitation and exercise are sharply restricted. They spend as many as 23 hours a day alone in their cells. Unlike other general-population prisoners, even in solitary confinement, prisoners on death row live in a state of constant uncertainty over when they will be executed. This isolation can result in a decline of their mental status.

As noted in the National Conference of State Legislature, twenty-eight states have the death penalty. Some states such as Pennsylvania, Kansas and Oregon have only one method of execution, which is lethal injection. Sixteen states have a secondary method of execution. They include California, Arizona, and Florida. Washington and Utah’s primary source is lethal injection with their secondary source being hanging and death by firing squad, respectfully. The tri-state area as well as Rhode Island and Vermont are among the states that do not have capital punishment.

Christopher Andre Vialva, age 40, was executed on September 24, 2020 by lethal injection for the slaying and robbery of an Iowa couple when he was 19. This was deemed a federal crime because the killing of the couple was on a secluded part of Fort Hood US Army in Killeen, TX. The process for death by lethal injection is as follows: The condemned man is bound to a gurney and several heart monitors are attached to his skin. A needle is inserted into usable veins, usually the inmate’s arms. A harmless saline solution is then started intravenously. The warden sends a signal which raises a curtain allowing the witnesses in the adjacent room to view the proceedings. Next, the inmate is injected with an anesthetic – sodium thiopental – which puts the inmate to sleep. This is followed by pancuronium or pavulon bromide, which renders paralysis of the entire muscle system and stops the inmate’s breathing. The flow of potassium chloride stops the heart. Death is the result of the anesthetic overdose and respiratory and cardiac arrest while the inmate is unconscious. Due to medical ethics, a doctor is prohibited from performing the execution. However, a doctor is on hand to certify that the inmate is dead. The lack of doctors administrating the execution can cause problems. The injections are carried out by orderlies or inexperienced technicians. If someone from the execution team should hit a muscle instead of a vein, or if the needle becomes clogged, the inmate can experience extreme pain. Due to intravenous drug use, many prisoners have damaged veins, which makes it difficult to find a usable vein. This results in long delays while the inmate is strapped to the gurney.

Nicholas Todd Sutton, age 58, died by electrocution on February 20, 2020, for the 1981 killing of three people. He also killed an inmate while serving time in prison. For an execution by electric chair, the person is often shaved and bound to a chair with large leather belts across his arms, legs, groin, and chest. A metal skullcap with electrode is attached to the scalp and forehead over a sponge moistened with saline. Another electrode moistened with conductive jelly is attached to part of the prisoner’s shaved leg. The inmate is then blindfolded. The warden sends a signal to the executioner, who pulls a handle to connect the power supply. A jolt of between 500 and 2000 volts, which lasts for about 30 seconds, is given. The current surges and is then turned off, at which time the body is seen to relax. The doctors wait a few seconds for the body to cool down and then check to see if the inmate’s heart is still beating. If it is, another jolt is applied. This process continues until the prisoner is dead.

The prisoner’s hands often grip the chair and there may be violent movement of the limbs which can result in dislocation or fractures. The tissues swell. Defecation occurs. Steam or smoke rises and there is a smell of burning. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan once offered the following description of an execution by electric chair,” the prisoner’s eyeballs sometimes pop out and rest on his cheeks. The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool. The body turns bright red as its temperature rises, and the prisoner’s flesh swells, and his skin stretches to the point of breaking. Sometimes the prisoner catches fire.” Witnesses are said to hear a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and the sickly smell of burning flesh permeates the chamber. At postmortem, the body is hot enough to blister if touched, and the autopsy is delayed while the internal organs cool. There are third degree burns with blackening where the electrodes met the skin of the scalp and legs. According to Robert H. Kirschner, the deputy chief medical examiner of Cook County, “The brain appears cooked in most cases.”

Now that you are better versed on the process a death row inmate goes through and the various methods of execution in the United States, whether you’ve had a loved one ripped from your life or not, I ask you, “Are you for or against the death penalty?”