CONTRA O GOLPE CIVIL EM CURSO E A FAVOR DA DEMOCRACIA

sábado, 24 de maio de 2014

A Specter of Past Executions Resurfaces in Tennessee



A man who had shot to death his four young children, for reasons known only to him, sat in the wooden chair reserved for him at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. His body was strapped tight and his head was freshly shaved, to enhance the conductivity.
I could see him, but he could not see me. We sat perhaps 30 feet apart, on opposite sides of a one-way glass partition that separated those who would walk away that September night in 2007 from one man who would not.
The electric chair had not been used in Tennessee since 1960, a reflection of a nation’s discomfort with a procedure that had come to be seen as gruesome, if not cruel. But the condemned man, Daryl Holton, 45, had been given a choice between lethal injection and electrocution. To the dismay of prison officials, he had chosen the latter — again, for reasons known only to him.
After he imparted some final, cryptic words, his scalp was dampened with salted water that dripped down his impassive face and onto his white cotton shirt. A leather cap lined with copper mesh was placed on his head. A power cable was attached to that cap.
Then a small black shroud was affixed to that leather cap, covering his face. I still do not know whether this was to protect a last shred of his dignity, or to keep us witnesses from seeing the face of a state-administered death.
Soon, 1,750 volts shot through the inmate’s body; it lurched and dropped, as the shroud faintly fluttered. Another jolt followed. Then flutter-free stillness.
For a generation now, the electric chair, dogged by gruesome accounts of botched electrocutions, has been generally displaced by lethal injection as this country’s preferred form of execution. But the recent scarcity of lethal-injection drugs has prompted some death-row states, including Utah and Wyoming, to consider retro-style solutions. Firing squads, for example.
But Tennessee made the first concrete move this week by effectively dusting off its electric chair, which has not been used since the execution of Mr. Holton, and which is said to contain oaken pieces dating to the gallows.
On Thursday, Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Haslam, signed into law a bill that allows for electrocution if the drugs for lethal injection are not available. The governor has not elaborated on his reasoning. But his spokesman, David Smith, said in an email that the bill had passed overwhelmingly in the Tennessee General Assembly, with the legislature feeling strongly “that the state should have an alternative option if lethal injection was not available.”
Electricity, by contrast, is never in short supply.
Tennessee’s decision is breathtakingly regressive, according to Deborah W. Denno, a professor at Fordham University School of Law and a national expert on capital punishment. States have historically gone to new methods of execution, she said, from hanging to electrocution, to lethal gas, to lethal injection.
“But they’re going backwards,” Ms. Denno said of Tennessee. “They’re going back to using a method of execution that was basically rejected because it was so problematic. That’s never happened before.”
The first execution by electrocution was of a convicted murderer, William Kemmler, in New York in 1890. News accounts described the singeing of hair, the charring of flesh where electrodes had been attached. It was botched.
Still, for generations afterward, the electric chair loomed in the public consciousness as the ultimate deterrent, so powerful that lights dimmed when the switch was thrown. The Chair: a piece of furniture designed without comfort in mind, and nicknamed “Old Sparky” even by many of those who had to take a seat.
But society grew uneasy with The Chair. When the method of lethal injection was introduced in the late 1970s, states began rushing to this death-penalty alternative — in part because it was considered to be cheaper and more humane.
The troublesome electrocutions continued, with flames shooting out of one man’s head in Florida, and blood pouring from another’s eyes and nose in Virginia.
In 1999, Florida’s electrocution of Allen Lee Davis — convicted of murdering a pregnant woman and her two young daughters — caused blood to pour from his face and burned his head and body. When the United States Supreme Court made plans to explore the case, Florida quickly passed a law to allow death-row inmates to opt for lethal injection.
And, in 2008, the Supreme Court of Nebraska — the last state in which electrocution was the sole form of execution — declared the electric chair to be cruel and unusual punishment. Writing for the majority, Justice William M. Connolly said, “The evidence shows that electrocution inflicts intense pain and agonizing suffering.”
Electrocutions, by choice of the condemned person, have continued in a few states. Since Mr. Holton’s death in 2007, there have been four: the last in January 2013, in Virginia.
But in recent months, lethal injections have fallen under increasing scrutiny. States have had difficulty obtaining the necessary drugs — a scarcity created in part by European drug manufacturers that are declining to have their medications oil the apparatus of death.
Just last month, Oklahoma halted a lethal injection in mid-execution when the condemned man, a convicted killer named Clayton D. Lockett, began writhing in pain. He died a short time later.
Even against this disturbing backdrop, Tennessee’s decision to revert to the electric chair seems regressive, given the practice’s long, ugly history.
“This is a method that the states themselves got away from, and I think for good reasons,” said Richard C. Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “They were seen as barbaric, and this could lead to more censure, more public discomfort, more legal challenges.”
“The attempt is to keep executions going,” he added. “But it might have a reverse effect.”
On that long-ago night in Nashville, procedures were followed to the script of a 68-page document called “Execution Procedures for Electrocution.”
The blinds to the witness room dropped. The power cable was disconnected. A physician confirmed the death. And a disembodied voice announced that the sentence had been carried out, so please exit.
The witnesses filed out into the hazy, early-morning darkness. We gathered in a scrum to compare notes on what we had seen and, in my case, not yet comprehended.

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