A grotesque act


In Virginia this month, Brandon Hedrick, a convicted rapist and murderer, chose the electric chair over lethal injection as his means of execution, perhaps because he had heard of the pain that sometimes results when stuck with needles that anesthetize, paralyze and then kill.

Lethal injection was supposed to be a humane way of ending life. That’s why it is used in 37 of the 38 states that have the death penalty and why it was used in every execution in the United States last year. For various reasons, though, the drugs can induce agony. The convict may sense himself dying of suffocation, it has been reported. He may feel his insides burning.

The Supreme Court decided in June that convicts could legally challenge a state’s use of lethal injection as cruel and unusual punishment. Hedrick did not go that route. Virginia gives the condemned the option of choosing between injection and electrocution, and Hedrick apparently decided on the latter because he feared the possible pain of lethal injections, according to a quote from his lawyer.

Was the evil a lesser one?

An Associated Press account says that the press of a button caused Hedrick’s body to bounce upward against the straps holding it down and that a "plume of smoke rose from his right calf, where a metal clip had been placed." The pain was likely short-lived, though sometimes it has taken a series of jolts from an electric chair to kill. As cited in an Internet article, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan once wrote that "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 … Sometimes the prisoner catches fire."

Introduced in 1890, the electric chair was supposed to be more humane than hanging, which could yank a head off if you misjudged in one direction, or leave a convict to slowly strangle to death if you misjudged in another. The last official public hanging _ in fact, the last public execution _ occurred in 1936 in Owensboro, Ky., the city in which my mother happened to have grown up. She told me of how thousands of people had strained to see a black man dangled by a rope for rape. There seems to have been a carnival-like atmosphere, with a lynching spirit very much in the air. Throughout the nation, millions were justifiably shocked.

Is there no humane means of execution? The gas chamber, the Internet article tells us, causes terrible fear in prisoners, who will try to hold their breath and may lose consciousness slowly as the gas afflicts the body. The guillotine _ still allowed for executions in France as late as 1981 _ was better than hacking away at necks with swords. But the thought of what’s going to happen to you is surely awful, and I’ve read as well that even a severed head can retain consciousness for some seconds. Saddam Hussein has said he wants to be killed by a firing squad if convicted of his long list of crimes, but probably because that is thought by some to be the most dignified means of execution, not because nothing can go wrong.

I am not worried about Saddam suffering. I find it hard to have the least inkling of sympathy for any number of murderers whose own human sympathies were scrunched to an infinitesimal pinpoint when they committed their heinous acts. If it’s extremely doubtful that executions deter other potential killers, it at least deters the people executed from ever striking again. Execution by law helps assuage the impulse to revenge outside the law, it restates society’s revulsion at what has happened to the victims and it affords justice that often seems more nearly symmetrical than sticking someone in prison, especially if the term is not truly for life.

But if the prison sentences in such cases do last till death parts the person from the cage, there is reason for forbearance _ the mistakes that courts can make in something that cannot be rectified later, inevitable sentencing inequalities and, not least, the cruel, society-callousing grotesqueries associated with any means of doing the deed.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)