By Abraham J. Bonowitz, State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Delaware & Ohio for Amnesty International USA
Amnesty International opposes the death penalty as a violation of the right to life. Further, AI considers death row itself to be cruel and unusual, setting aside that an execution method which does not deliver death within seconds might be better termed “death by torture.”
What else can you call it when witnesses describe a prisoner coughing, snorting, and heaving against his restraints for upwards of 20 minutes before finally dying? This is exactly what happened last week when Ohio executed Dennis McGuire.
Now that lethal injection executions may no longer start with a paralyzing agent, it’s becoming much clearer that executions themselves are cruel. I’m not only talking about the criminal being executed. I’m also talking about the witnesses who experience the sights and sounds of such prolonged suffering, whether they are the murder victim family members, the family of the prisoner, lawyers, journalists, official witnesses, or corrections officials.
Terry Collins was the Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections from 2006 to 2010. He oversaw the execution of 33 prisoners. After the McGuire execution, he said:
“Anyone who witnessed that execution will never forget it, and some will be deeply traumatized for life. It’s my opinion that no state employee should be asked to take on such a lifelong burden. Ohio needs to get out of the execution business.”
You can bet that as they sat through between 10 and 19 minutes of watching and hearing Dennis McGuire suffer before he died, every one of those present was growing desperate for it to end.
Maybe this is a good thing. After all, we moved away from hanging, shooting, gassing and electrocuting prisoners because, inevitably, these methods were messy and hard to look at even when everything went right. Now it seems lethal injection may be the hardest to watch of all of them. So what do we do? As far as the method of execution, it will be challenged in court.
The drug manufacturers may continue to say, “But not with our product – that’s for saving lives, not ending them,” and refuse to sell them to prisons. The rest of us must speak up by asking Governor Kasich to stop the executions now.
But the fact is that the issue really isn’t how we execute prisoners. It’s that we execute our prisoners.
But the fact is that the issue really isn’t how we execute prisoners. It’s <i>that</i> we execute our prisoners.
We have a unique opportunity to make reasonable incremental changes that will reduce the use of the death penalty. The Ohio Supreme Court’s Joint Task Force on the Administration of the Death Penalty is expected to release its final report soon – perhaps as early as March.
The Task Force was established after Ohio failed to meet the American Bar Association’s criteria for fairness in a capital prosecution system 93% of the time. It was precluded from examining the death penalty itself, but the Task Force was charged with coming up with corrections to try to make Ohio’s death penalty more fair.
Some of the key recommendations the Task Force will make include:
- Disallowing the execution of the severely mentally ill;
- Eliminating the Felony Murder Rule, which would make it so that only the actual killer could be executed (not accomplices);
- Create a centralized authority in the Attorney General’s office to decide in which cases a prosecutor may seek a death sentence, which will go a long way toward removing the financial and political considerations that create vast county-level geographic disparities;
- Allow defendants to argue that race played a role in their receiving a death sentence.
Amnesty International is a partner with Ohioans to Stop Executions, the convening point for information and action on this issue in Ohio. Visit at www.OTSE.org to learn more. And click here to take action today.
Abraham J. Bonowitz is an Ohio native who has helped pass death penalty repeal legislation in New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland. He has joined the OTSE team as a consultant and serves as the State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Delaware & Ohio for Amnesty International USA. Follow him on Twitter @abrahambonowitz.