Choosing To Be Executed, Or Choosing To End Executions?

Yesterday in Alabama, Christopher Johnson was executed.  Despite a childhood spent in and out of psychiatric hospitals, he had been allowed to represent himself at trial and then refuse to pursue appeals.  He seemingly wanted to die.

More than one in ten U.S. executions since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 has been a “volunteer” like Christopher Johnson.  Another, Gary Haugen, is slated to be put to death in Oregon on December 6.  Oregon, unlike Alabama, rarely executes prisoners; its last two executions (in 1996 and 1997) were also of “volunteers”.  Oregon is one of several states that have executed only “volunteers”.  (Connecticut, Idaho, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota are the others – Nevada has executed 11 “volunteers”, but only one prisoner whose appeals were fully heard.)  At least one study has found a strong correlation between “volunteering” for execution and mental illness.

There is evidence that Gary Haugen is not mentally fit to choose to give up his appeals.  But courts haven’t heard that evidence because, well, he’s given up his appeals.  For a state that has never been enthusiastic about the death penalty, that’s a troubling catch-22.

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Intractable Obstacles

Last year ended with the news of a record low number of death sentences, and with the decision by the American Law Institute, described today in the New York Times, to give up trying to fix our broken capital punishment system.  The Institute, a collection of thousands of judges, lawyers and law professors, is very influential, in that it creates model penal codes which often serve as the basis for the real-life laws under which we live.  

The Institute created the “modern” death penalty system that the US Supreme Court endorsed in 1976.  But a report detailing factors we are already all too familiar with – persistent racial bias, inadequate defense, wrongful convictions, and a politicized judiciary – caused the Institute to vote to abandon capital punishment, citing “… intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment.”  

This doesn’t mean that the death penalty in the US will suddenly cease to exist; the deliberate and thoughtful analysis of the American Law Institute will not have an immediate impact in states where killing prisoners is routine and done without much thought at all.

Executions will continue.  Three in fact, will occur on Thursday.  While the usual suspects, Texas and Ohio, plan to execute Kenneth Mosley and Vernon Smith (aka Abdullah Sharif Kaazim Mahdi), Louisiana also has an execution scheduled on that day - its first in almost 8 years.  Gerald Bordelon has “volunteered” to be executed.  The next day, January 8, South Carolina will execute Quincy Allen.  He, too, is “volunteering,” and has asked to be put to death by electrocution.  The state will oblige him.

UPDATE: The state of South Carolina will NOT oblige Quincy Allen’s volunteering to be electrocuted.  The South Carolina Supreme Court has stayed his execution.

Suicide By Court

Lethal injection kit © AI

Lethal injection kit © AI

On November 21, Kentucky is set to execute Marco Allen Chapman, who was sentenced to death for the murder of two children in 2002.  He rejected efforts to defend him at trial, and has refused to pursue any appeals.  Since the moment of his arrest, when he asked police to shoot him in the head, Chapman has been trying to commit “state-assisted suicide”, or “suicide by Court”.  Next Friday, Kentucky may well grant him his wish.

Such voluntary executions are not a rare occurrence.  About 130, or more than 10% of all executions since 1977, have been “volunteers”.  In some states with a small number of executions (Connecticut, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota), “volunteers” have been the only prisoners successfully put to death. 

The state should not be in the business of killing, even (or maybe especially) when a prisoner wants to be killed.  The state’s participation in this kind of lurid charade is unseemly and degrading.  Tell Kentucky Governor Beshear to prevent this “voluntary” execution!