When the Supreme Court ruled last month that lethal injection didn’t
constitute cruel and unusual punishment, there was rejoicing from a
peculiar interest group: death row inmates who have been trying to get
the state to kill them quickly.
Many legal observers saw the court’s decision as a victory for those
who see the death penalty appeals process as a seemingly endless and
cynical abuse of the system. But it was also a
victory for that subset of prisoners who have waived all their appeals,
fired their lawyers and written letters to governors begging for an
execution date. These “volunteers” constitute 11% of executions
nationwide, and will continue to dominate both the headlines and the
execution schedules long after this ruling. Volunteers are a byproduct of the
tortuous slowness of the process, and the court’s narrow finding
ultimately will do little to speed up the works.
Gary Gilmore, the first man executed after the death penalty resumed
in 1976, was a volunteer. So were infamous inmates like Oklahoma City
bomber Timothy McVeigh and serial murderer Aileen Wuornos. Exactly three
years ago a Connecticut serial killer named Michael Ross became the
first man executed in New England in four decades after clamoring loudly
for his own death. In each instance the volunteers hijacked the justice
system, and Ross’s case was no different: he engaged in a long and
public opera of narcissism, self-pity and, in essence, self-promotion.
His victims were all but forgotten. The state was no longer in control
of the timing or even outcome of the sentencing. It became all about
Volunteers make all sides of the debate uncomfortable. Death penalty
supporters are uneasy with the idea that some prisoners may see their
death sentence as a relief from a tortured life. Anti-death penalty
activists are discomfited by anyone who doesn’t want their solidarity,
much less their legal help. The courts don’t want their appeals process
short-circuited by the inmates’ suicidal ideations.
So it’s a bad sign for justice that last week, in the wake of the
Supreme Court ruling, Kentucky death row inmate Marco Allen Chapman
announced again that he wants to his lawyers to stop fighting for his
life. “I guess it’s kind of my Christian upbringing,” he told an AP
reporter. “Suicide is unforgivable. I figure if I’m not doing it to
myself, it’s not a suicide.” The Beltway sniper John Allen Muhammed also
raised his hand briefly, asking in a letter for the state to go ahead
and “murder this innocent black man.”
Why are there so many volunteers? The main reason is that the process
has become so interminable that death, to some, seems a better choice
than life in appeals. The death penalty was originally designed to be
carried out in three to six months, and housing and services for inmates
were accordingly shabby, meant for a transient population. “Nobody wants
to spend money on a dead man,” is how Robert Nave, who helps coordinate
Amnesty International’s Program to Abolish the Death Penalty, puts it.
And yet the process has become so sclerotic that execution is now just
the third most common cause of death on California’s death row.
Prisoners there are more likely to die of natural causes or by suicide
in their cell than by lethal injection. If the D.C. Madam committed
suicide to evade a potentially brief jail term in comparative comfort,
the same option must be far more attractive to those facing a dozen
years or more on death row.
The Supreme Court ruling has had some immediate effect: those who
were near their dates before the seven-month moratorium are now being
quickly lined up for execution. Georgia put murderer William Earl Lynd
to death on May 6. But this resolution of the lethal injection fight
won’t speed up the system in the long run. There will still be a deep
well of public and legal opposition that will fund new challenges to
capital punishment, just as there were decades of challenges and
moratoriums long before questions arose about lethal injection.
In fact, the death penalty is dying its own de facto death in most
places around the country, due to concerns about everything from death
row exonerations to the high costs of capital punishment. As Nave points
out, since the start of the 1990s, the number of death sentences handed
out and actual executions have declined, as have the number of
death-eligible crimes being charged. Death row populations themselves
have also dwindled, through commutation and attrition as much as through
actual execution. New Jersey abolished the death penalty outright last
fall, while other states have simply stopped exercising it.
As it loses momentum around the country, the wait times become
longer and the resources to speed the appeals process becomes scarcer,
the ones who are actually put to death will increasingly be the ones who
beg for their own execution. It’s a vision of the future of justice that
should make everyone uncomfortable.