U.S. Death Penalty: Botched Executions And Suicide Attempts

Billy Slagle died in a holding cell, like the one in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility featured here, three days before the state of Ohio was to execute him (Photo Credit: Mike Simons/Getty Images).

Billy Slagle died in a holding cell, like the one in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility featured here, three days before the state of Ohio was to execute him (Photo Credit: Mike Simons/Getty Images).

Back in 2010, the cruelty – and absurdity – of the death penalty was on full display when Brandon Rhode tried to commit suicide just days before he was to be executed by the state of Georgia. The state rushed him to the hospital and saved his life – only to execute him a week later.

The suicide attempt reportedly left Rhode brain damaged. He was shackled to a restraint chair for the next 7 days, and then the execution proceeded. The lethal injection may have been botched, as Rhode’s eyes remained open the entire time.

This weekend, Billy Slagle was found hanged in his cell on Ohio’s death row. Slagle died three days before the state of Ohio was to execute him. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has promised a “complete investigation.”


10 Reasons to Abolish the Death Penalty

This blog post is brought to you by the number 10.  It was after 10 pm last night when Georgia put Brandon Rhode to death, less than a week after rushing madly to save his life after his failed suicide attempt.

October 10th, 2010 (10-10-10) will be World Day Against the Death Penalty, and the focus this year is on the USA.  There has never been a more important or better time to get involved in ending capital punishment in the USA, and here are 10 reasons why:

1) The death penalty is absurd and cruel.  The ridiculous spectacle of putting a man to death just days after saving his life, is a perfect illustration of that.

2) The death penalty is degrading.  It turns states into prescription drug abusers, killing prisoners with drugs like sodium thiopental that manufacturers are on record as stating should only be used to healing purposes.

3) High profile cases, often with racial undertones, create political pressures that can lead to police and prosecutor misconduct.  Reggie Clemons was convicted as an accomplice in the murder of two white women in St. Louis.  Four federal judges have agreed that the prosecutor’s conduct was “abusive and boorish,” and Clemons alleges police brutality during his questioning. Witnesses attest to Clemons’ face being swollen after his interrogation.

4) It is not limited to the “worst of the worst”.  A recent example: the execution of Teresa Lewis in Virginia on September 23; she was put to death as the “mastermind” of a crime despite her 72 IQ, and despite the fact that the men who actually carried out the crime did not get the death penalty.

5) The death penalty is not limited to cases where there is no doubt about guilt.  Convicted by flimsy witness testimony, and unable to exonerate himself with those same witnesses, Troy Davis remains on death row despite serious doubts about his guilt.  His birthday is on October 9!

6) The times are changing.  In Ohio, Governor Ted Strickland granted clemency in the case of Kevin Keith, despite his belief that Keith was probably guilty, because some doubt remained.

7) In Texas, a hearing on whether Cameron Todd Willingham was wrongfully executed will take place October 6-7.  Skepticism about the application of the death penalty continues to build in the Lone Star State.

8) Death sentences continue to drop.  Last year barely over 100 were sentenced to death , compared to an average of close to 300 in the 1990s.

9) One-by-one, states are abandoning capital punishment, particularly in odd numbered years. (New Jersey in 2007, New Mexico in 2009).  In the coming year (2011), many more states will have serious debates and possibly votes on abolition

10) There is so much that can be done for World Day Against the Death Penalty, from taking action on specific cases, to joining your local state-based coalition’s efforts to abolish the death penalty.

The death penalty abolition movement is growing, and some progress is being made, but there is a lot of work yet to be done.  This World Day is the perfect time to get started.

Act Now to Stop the Execution of Brandon Rhode

Brandon Rhode's stitched neck wound. © Private

[Update 12:15 am (Sept. 27): Brandon Rhode was granted a stay of execution by the Georgia Supreme Court on Friday afternoon, a few hours before his second execution date.  The stay will be in effect until Monday, Sept. 27 at 4pm.  He has been scheduled again for execution for Monday, Sept. 27 at7pm.  Please continue to take action!]

The state of Georgia wants to execute Brandon Rhode tonight at 7pm. Please take action – ask the Parole Board to stay the execution. Amnesty International just released a new document about the cruelty of the death penalty, highlighting this case and underlining the irony of President Obama’s speech to the United Nations promoting the need for the world to focus on the respect of human rights.

Rhode’s lawyers are scrambling to halt the execution stating that a meaningful competency review of Rhode has not been made. Almost 90 pages of documents about his hospital visit early in the week following his attempted suicide were only just today sent to his lawyers. Other documents have also been slow coming to them that are critical in mounting an intervention around his competency to face execution. It seems that Rhode’s attempt to take his only life, using a razor blade to his arms and neck, have been inconvenient to authorities who have been tasked with taking his life. Rhode is not an innocent man, but he is a human being and what we as a society do to him speaks volumes about who we are and what our values are. The state is making us all complicit in an unnecessary and outrageous act of cruelty.

The Great Experiment?

In a recent report to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,  the US touted its human rights record and argued that:

The American experiment is a human experiment; the values on which it is based, including a commitment to human rights are clearly engrained in our own national conscience…

Yet US commitment to the death penalty, which only a shrinking minority of other nations still supports, belies these grandiose words.  A commitment to executions fundamentally conflicts with a commitment to human rights.

There have been around a thousand executions since former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun famously declared that “the death penalty experiment has failed,” arguing succinctly that “…the inevitability of factual, legal, and moral error gives us a system that we know must wrongly kill some defendants, a system that fails to deliver the fair, consistent, and reliable sentences of death required by the Constitution.”

A new short Amnesty International document illustrates just how pervasive these errors are, drawing just on cases from this month.  In Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia and Washington state we have seen executions scheduled, and sometimes carried out, despite blatantly atrocious lawyering, clear racial bias, and defendants whose diminished capacity should have made them ineligible for the death penalty.  These cases show that our capital punishment system continues to be “little more than a lottery, with outcomes affected by issues such as prosecutorial resources, electoral politics, race, defence representation, jury composition, and so on.”

And just yesterday we saw an inmate, Brandon Rhode, rescheduled for execution three days after his life was saved following a suicide attempt.  The cruelty and absurdity, and completely arbitrary nature of American capital punishment has been on full display this month.  If the US wants its “commitment to human rights” to be taken seriously, it will have to give up its experiment with the death penalty.

Please Stay Alive, We Are Supposed to Kill You

[Update 9/22/10:  You can take action to stop the execution of Brandon Rhode]

Brandon Rhode was rushed to the hospital today to prevent him from dying following his attempt at suicide. This afternoon, the Georgia Department of Corrections announced a delay in his scheduled execution, vaguely referring to an “incident”. Rhodes did not get strapped to the gurney tonight, but the state may try to kill him Thursday instead.

It is the irregular situation like this one that magnifies the cruelty of the death penalty. Clearly, the thought of being executed was terrifying to Rhode, as it must be for every individual facing the pre-ordained and publicly announced time, date and method by which their life is to be ended. What will it be like for him between now and Thursday as his body and mind recuperates from his failed suicide attempt, and as he contemplates the moment when he will be strapped to a gurney and killed?

Those who believe the death penalty is not cruel are focused on the acts of those who commit murder and the belief that retribution is a legitimate means to justice. The idea of human rights, however, is that society sets a standard based on what is cruel and inhuman period, not what is cruel and inhuman in comparison to the worst things an individual may have done to others. Somehow, we get that it would be disgusting to rape someone convicted of rape and we don’t burn down the property of arsonists, but killing those who commit murder seems to be fair game, at least in the minority of nations left using the death penalty.

Retributive justice may feel satisfying to a primitive part of the brain or to a society that wants a simple and loud outlet to relieve a base level of outrage. But retribution is a dangerous place to take justified feelings of anger about the injustice of violent crime. The attempt by Mr. Rhode to violently end his life breaks the façade of the sterile, hospital room-looking, “civilized” execution chamber. Homicides are performed on the gurney in that room in the name of the citizens of the state, dragging us all into a new crime. And we pour millions into this system rather than ask ourselves what went wrong in Mr, Rhodes’ life that led him to do what he did (and a lot did!) and how could we prevent future violent crimes? How could we give law enforcement more tools to effectively tackle crime? They know the death penalty is not a deterrent and doesn’t make our streets safer. What are the needs of the loved ones who survive the victims of violent crime? So many things we could do with our energy (and money) besides resuscitating prisoners only to then kill them.