Killing Me Softly

Is "putting down" a murderer "cruel and unusual"?


Convicted cop killer Clarence Hill had his day in the U.S. Supreme Court this week as the Justices heard arguments that executing him by lethal injection would violate the 8th Amendment's prohibition against inflicting cruel and unusual punishments. Hill's lawyer claimed that that the State of Florida could not guarantee that Hill would not suffer excruciating pain from the three drugs used together to execute first degree murderers.

Lethal injection was devised as a "humane" method of execution by an Oklahoma anesthesiologist Dr. Stanley Deutsch in 1977. Deutsch's procedure involves rendering a murderer unconscious with fast-acting sodium pentothal. Typically unconsciousness occurs about 60 seconds after the drug is administered. Next comes an injection of pancuronium that that paralyzes the muscles and stops breathing in 3 to 5 minutes. And finally potassium chloride is injected which stops the murderer's heart. Death occurs usually in seven minutes to ten minutes. Texas was the first state to use it to execute a murderer in 1982. Since then it has become the overwhelmingly popular method of execution in the 37 states that have the death penalty.

The humaneness of lethal injection was brought into question by an article in the April 16, 2005 issue of the British medical journal The Lancet. The article argued that a postmortem analysis of blood from 43 of 49 executed prisoners indicated that they may not have received enough sodium pentothal to insure unconsciousness. In which case, the murderers might have felt themselves asphyxiating after being injected with pancuronium and as well as an intense burning sensation in their veins as the potassium chloride flowed toward their hearts. "Failures in protocol design, implementation, monitoring and review might have led to the unnecessary suffering of at least some of those executed," concluded the Lancet article.

Once The Lancet article appeared, the courts began to see a spate of defense arguments that lethal injection violates the 8th Amendment. Now the executions of several murderers have been put on hold while the Supreme Court mulls over the Clarence Hill case. Let's take a brief look at their three such murderers' crimes.

On October 19, 1982, Clarence Hill stole a pistol and an automobile in Mobile, Alabama. Later that day, Hill and his accomplice, Cliff Jackson, drove to Pensacola and robbed a savings and loan association at gunpoint. When the police arrived during the robbery, Hill fled out the back of the savings and loan building. Jackson exited through the front door, where he was apprehended immediately. Hill sneaked back and shot officers Stephen Taylor and Larry Bailly while they were handcuffing Jackson. A gun battle ensued, during which Hill received five bullet wounds. Officer Taylor died.

The execution of another Florida murderer, Arthur Rutherford, is also on hold until the Supreme Court issues a decision in the Hill case. Arthur was convicted for the Aug. 22, 1985, murder of a 63 year old widow Stella Salamon. Salamon had hired Rutherford as a handyman. She was found dead with her head submerged in her bathtub. Salamon had a broken arm, bruises on her face and arms, and three severe head wounds. The medical examiner concluded Salamon died from strangling. Police found Rutherford's fingerprints and palm prints in the bathroom where Salamon was killed. Rutherford forged and cashed a $2000 check from Salamon's account.

And yet one more murderer, Michael Morales, has convinced a federal judge in California that lethal injection might cause him to suffer and so his scheduled execution has been delayed. The California Victim Services report on his crime makes chilling reading. On January 8, 1981, twenty-one-year-old Michael Morales murdered and raped seventeen year-old Terri Lynn Winchell, with his nineteen-year-old cousin, Rick Ortega. The two lured Winchell to a remote area where Morales tried to strangle her to death with his belt which broke as she struggled. Morales then took out a hammer and beat Terri into unconsciousness, crushing her skull and leaving 23 wounds in her skull. Morales dragged Terri face-down across from the car into a vineyard. The report continues: "Morales then raped her while she lay unconscious. Morales then started to leave, but went back and stabbed Terri four times in the chest to make sure she died. Morales then left Terri, calling her "a fucking bitch," as he walked away. Terri died from both the head and chest wounds. Her body was left in the vineyard naked from the waist down, with her sweater and bra pulled up over her breasts."

Hill, Rutherford and Morales had no concern about the suffering of their victims nor about the anguish of their victims' loved ones. It is nice that states have sought to reduce the suffering and pain experienced by murderers when they are executed, but historically, execution by much less peaceful means, including death by hanging, firing squad and electrocution were not found to be cruel and unusual. The current attack on lethal injection is an attempt by death penalty opponents to get the courts to outlaw the punishment they have been unable to persuade their fellow Americans is wrong. Murder is such a horrifying violation of decency that the most fitting punishment is to be completely cut out of the life of the community.

I frankly do not care if pre-meditated murderers experience a few moments of pain on their way to well-deserved oblivion. However, if the only way to guarantee that the death remains an option for punishing vicious killers is to further insure that they feel no pain when they are executed, it should be easy to remedy the situation. First, simply increase the dose of sodium pentothal. That alone would eventually kill them. And if absolutely necessary, other states could do what North Carolina just did when it executed Willie Brown earlier this month. In March 1983, Brown kidnapped and killed a convenience store clerk and took $90 from the cash register. During his execution, North Carolina prison officials arranged to have a doctor and nurse evaluate Brown's level of consciousness on a brain wave monitor in a room adjacent to the death chamber. If the machine had indicated that Brown was not completely unconscious, additional sedative could have been injected.

As harsh as it sounds, if lethal injection is good enough to end the suffering of a beloved pet, it's probably too good for a pre-meditated murderer.