Eye on the Courts: Wrong Us, Shall We Not Revenge?

death-penaltyIt was years ago I read about an individual who was put under anesthesia but was fully aware of everything going on around  – a terrifying experience where the patient is unable to alert the medical staff of their awareness.

I remember once, during a criminal trial here in Yolo County, the District Attorney wanted to illustrate just how long an attack of five minutes was and made the courtroom sit in silence for five minutes – what seemed like an eternity. Try it yourself if you’re skeptical – now imagine what two hours of terrible pain and agony might feel like if you are unable to move.

Is that possibly what Joseph Wood went through in his final two hours of life last week? We may never know the answer to that. There are some who would argue that they have no sympathy for a convicted murderer. We can read what Mr. Wood did, and we can all agree that he committed a horrible act, an atrocity.

There is a school of thought that we best honor the victims of crimes by exacting the worst possible punishments for the perpetrators in the hope that we both punish the criminal and deter further crime. While I am fortunate enough not to be a victim of crime myself, I have read enough accounts to know that there is no uniform response.

In her book, “Killing McVeigh: The Death Penalty and the Myth of Closure,” author Jody Madeira tracked the lives of the victims of Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing (some family members of those killed and others who were survivors of the bombing) through the trial and ultimately the execution process. There were a broad array of responses to his death.

However, my philosophical views bend toward the notion of restoration and redemption. In early 2013, when Sujatha Baliga came to MLK Day in Davis, she spoke of a story covered in the New York Times, where she facilitated in a first degree homicide case where a young man in Florida took the life of his fiancée.

She sat around the table with the victims, the authorities, and the offender. Instead of wishing to punish the perpetrator, the family came to the position that he needed to redeem himself.   She explained, “They didn’t think that his taking their daughter’s life somehow severed him from humanity.”

A few months earlier I had spoken on the phone with Linda White. Her 26-year-old daughter was raped and murdered 25 years before by two 14-year-olds.  Ten days before I spoke with her, she did what many people would think was unthinkable – through a restorative justice process, she sat face to face with one of the assailants and spoke about the ending of her daughter’s life.  She would ultimately forgive him.

She told me that the victims’ groups, while helpful at the beginning, brought her into this state of despair, and they were filled with people who would talk about “about making people suffer more and more and longer.”

But that wasn’t the way she wanted to go on with her life, and she ended up going through a process where the she was able to express to him her loss and he was able to express his remorse.

In the process of this mediation, the killer, Gary, was no longer a nonperson.  She explained, “I was actually thinking of him as a person, which it kind of shocked me that I was able to convert them into non-people.”

I raise these two responses because it is easy for us as a society to write off people as non-persons. It is easy to believe that acts committed are so horrible that people lose their humanity.

On the other end of the spectrum we have the commentary from Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton who wrote about details from cases he had covered over the years about “evil … criminals” who, he argued, “cannot be rehabilitated or saved.”

He argued that, while he understands why the Sacramento Bee cannot publish details of some of these cases, “by sanitizing these events, we in the media distort them. Our intentions are good, but we distort them nonetheless.”

He writes, “Perhaps if the public had a greater understanding of death penalty cases, there would be more public pressure to fix a system in which hundreds of men languish on California’s death row.”

Still, I wonder more and more why this is an argument for the death penalty rather than for life in prison. And while I’m sure there are irredeemable souls languishing on death row, I also wonder how many people we could at least redeem with a different approach.

I bring these issues up as a backdrop to what has emerged as the current debate. Last week, ironically days after Judge Alex Kozinski warned us that the lethal injection was merely a façade to cover the brutality of executions, we see the third botched execution by lethal injection in the past six months.

The debate is covered exceptionally well by Associated Press writer Paul Elias. Mr. Elias writes, “Death penalty opponents say any killing is an unnecessarily cruel punishment. Proponents may favor the most humane execution method possible, but many reject the idea that a few minutes or hours of suffering by a criminal who caused great suffering to others should send government back to the drawing board.”

Thirty years ago, he notes, there was little thought given to the comfort of those that the government would execute. At that time, most executions involved the use of electric chairs, but death row inmates were also hanged, put to death in the gas chamber or faced a firing squad.

He writes, “Mistakes occurred. Inmates appeared to suffer in the gas chamber. Electric chairs caught fire or malfunctioned and didn’t kill. So a growing number of law enforcement officials, legislators and advocates began searching for a foolproof, constitutional method for executions.”

In 1977, an Oklahoma medical director, Dr. Jay Chapman, struck upon a three-drug combination that he believed would put the inmate to sleep before painlessly and quickly drifting off to death. Since then, about 1200 inmates have been executed in this manner and the Supreme Court in 2008 ruled the method constitutional.

“Execution by lethal injection should be a humane way to die,” Arthur Caplan, head of medical ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center told the Associated Press. “But it isn’t.”

Dr. Caplan notes that there have not been problems with physicians who legally help people in assisted suicide. “So we know it can be done painlessly,” he said.

Politics and ethics, however, complicate administering the death penalty. The AP reports, “Medical ethicists and professional licensing boards for doctors and nurses forbid their participation in executions, which are carried out by lay workers who sometimes struggle with administering a lethal injection.”

Further, they add, “Pharmaceutical companies are refusing to ship prisons the three drugs necessary to mimic Chapman’s mixture. That has caused prison officials to scramble to find alternative drugs that may not kill as quickly. Anesthesiology experts say they’re not surprised that the two drugs Arizona used Wednesday took so long to kill Joseph Rudolph Wood.”

They write, “Previously, non-medical personnel had trouble delivering the lethal injection or had trouble finding veins on longtime drug abusers. When doctors were called in to assist, the American Medical Association objected that it was unethical for physicians to be directly involved in executions.”

In his dissent, Judge Kozinski, a death penalty supporter, wrote, “If we as a society cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by a firing squad, then we shouldn’t be carrying out executions at all.”

However, Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, and a death penalty opponent, believes that lethal injection is here to stay. He notes that not only did the US Supreme Court rule it constitutional in 2008, but the public would not stand for a firing squad.

“It is far too gruesome,” the Dean said.

On the other end of the coin, Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, said that the lethal injection process can be fixed. He told the AP that, while he is unsure whether Mr. Wood suffered pain in those two hours, it is more than his victims can say.

For death penalty opponents like myself, the answer could not be more clear – there are plenty of ways to teach people that killing is wrong, other than continuing the killing cycle. There are plenty of ways to protect society through the use of incarceration. And, increasingly, I’m far from convinced that many of these individuals are beyond redemption.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Offering Balance

    The pain under anesthesia while undergoing surgery would be horrible . Good thing Joseph Wood was not having surgery. Death penalty opponents who are unwilling to compromise at all and have done everything to completely end the death penalty are the ones to blame for Joseph Woods prolonged death. Processes are perfected over time and having to change the drugs used on a somewhat regular basis isn’t helpful.

    The death penalty system need to be fixed because it is broken right now, especially in California. I think it is time to narrow the scope of who is eligible and increase the evidentiary requirements. The individuals who are saying the death penalty is broken beyond repair are ideologues and exaggerating the problem. Systems can always be repaired by those who are willing to work together.

    Opponents and proponents need to work together to find a solution.

    1. David Greenwald

      “Opponents and proponents need to work together to find a solution.”

      As an opponent, my solution is get rid of it. I’m not sure we get very far that way. Why should I who believes that the death penalty is immoral be obligated to work together to repair it?

      1. D.D.

        Why should I who believes that the death penalty is immoral be obligated to work together to repair it?
        Agreed. There is no way I would “repair” killing another human being by planning the death ahead of time.

    2. Davis Progressive

      i’m with the others, don’t see why opponents are bound to work to make the system work. it’d be like asking abortion opponents to make abortions more accessible.

      1. Matt Williams

        Your parallel does not work for me. The “system” of abortion has at its core and as its end result “life vs. no life.” The “system” of ObamaCare has at its core and as its end result “people with access to healthcare vs. people without access to healthcare.” Those respective choices are not moral equivalents.

  2. Tia Will

    The debate over the means of administering the death penalty and all the expense of maintaining this debate could be solved in one stroke. Abolish the death penalty with the following caveat. Provide those condemned to life in prison with an out. Allow them the means to end their own life in a painless manner such as that used in assisted suicide. Have them sign a form that indicates that this is their intent and serves as a do not resuscitate order so that prison officials are freed from the directive to save them so that they can be executed at a later date decided upon by the state.

      1. Tia Will

        Offering Balance

        I am not in agreement with that either. The death penalty is fundamentally unacceptable to me unless chosen by the individual whose life is being ended.

  3. D.D.

    In prison the guards sometimes give razor blades to sex offenders. The subtle message is one I don’t need to explain to any of you.
    I doubt that some of the prison “suicides” would be real suicides.

    1. WesC

      Beards are not allowed in prison. Inmates are required to be clean shaved at all times. To accomplish this they are issued disposable plastic shavers just like you see in stores everywhere. If an inmate is exhibiting suicidal behaviors, gestures, or indicating he wants to harm himself he will not given a razor blade until evaluated by mental health providers who would be the ones to decide if he could be given a razor to shave or not.

      1. D.D.

        Not really. Many county jails immediately place all arrested sex offenders in solitary and do not allow them to have a razor for the first night they are there. I will not be providing evidence of this. Go get arrested, and find out for yourself if you do not believe me. There is no way I’ll name names of prison guards.

        1. WesC

          Do you mean they are given a razor in the first night? Nobody in any county jail that I have ever worked at or known about gives razors to anyone in the first night they are there. When the detainee is first booked into jail they are often still under the influence of drugs/alcohol, angry that they got arrested, can be pretty impulsive, and are with an unknown mental health history. Giving someone like that a razor would be inviting a disaster. Sex offenders are considered to be at high risk for self harm, especially if their victims were children, and are generally routinely referred to mental health and evaluated at intake and booking. Putting them in a single cell would not be unusual.

          I think I’ll pass on the invitation to get arrested.

    2. Tia Will


      I am wondering not why you are surprised, but why you are dismayed. I also favor doctor assisted suicide for those who are in the process of dying and want to deliberately end both their own suffering and that of their family. I believe that the individuals life belongs ultimately to themselves and that it is not up to others to decide whether or not to end it.
      You’ll notice that I advocated this only for those who the state has decided will be killed. If this is the fate that the state has opted for ( which I do not believe should be an option) but let’s suppose this is the reality, then why not allow the condemned to decide when to enact the punishment.


      I am not advocating “encouraging” suicide. I am advocating it as an alternative if we do no do away with the death penalty. I perhaps was unclear. If what we want is societal protection, and we have determined guilt, and we insist on having a death penalty, then why not allow the individual the time of their own choosing ?

  4. WesC

    From “Theanasthesiaconsultantblog”. This comment was posted by Richard Novak, MD who is a Stanford faculty physician board-certified in anesthesiology and internal medicine. Dr. Novak is the Deputy Chief of Anesthesia at Stanford University Hospital, the Medical Director at Waverley Surgery Center in Palo Alto, California, and a member of the Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group in Palo Alto, California.

    “On January 16, 2014, the New York Times reported that Dennis McGuire was executed by a lethal intravenous injection of midazolam and hydromorphone. McGuire was previously convicted of the 1994 rape and murder of a 22-year-old pregnant woman.

    The lethal injection occurred at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. It was the first time any state used the combination of midazolam and hydromorphone for an execution. It was reported that McGuire took 15 minutes to die. A reporter who witnessed the execution described McGuire as struggling, gasping loudly, snorting and making choking noises for nearly 10 minutes before falling silent and being declared dead a few minutes later.

    What happens to a human when you inject midazolam and hydromorphone? Anesthesiologists use these drugs every day to provide safe anesthesia care in operating rooms.

    Midazolam (Versed) is a benzodiazepine, a drug commonly given immediately prior to surgery to relieve a patient’s anxiety. A typical adult dose is 2 mg. Midazolam is also commonly used for conscious sedation for colonoscopy procedures, when repeated 1 – 2 mg doses are titrated for relaxation.

    Hydromorphone (Dilaudid) is a narcotic similar to morphine. Physicians inject Dilaudid to relieve pain. A typical adult intravenous dose is 0.2 mg. Doses may be repeated and titrated to effect if the patient continues to hurt.

    Both midazolam and hydromorphone are respiratory depressants. When administered together in high doses, these two drugs will (1) cause unconsciousness, and (2) depress breathing, and perhaps cause breathing to cease if the doses are high enough.

    When anesthesiologists inject doses of midazolam and hydromorphone we routinely administer supplemental oxygen, and monitor the patient with a pulse oximeter, an ECG machine, an end-tidal carbon dioxide monitor and a blood pressure cuffs. Anesthesiologists give moderate doses of midazolam and hydromorphone safely every day.

    Can you kill someone with mega-doses of these two drugs? Absolutely. I have no idea what doses were used in the Ohio execution, but let’s assume an executioner administered massive overdoses in the range of 50 mg of midazolam and 5 mg of hydromorphone. The mechanism of death would be hypoventilation and hypoxia. In layman’s terms this means the patient’s ventilation will decrease markedly, and because of this decreased breathing the patient’s oxygen level will decrease. If the oxygen level decreases to a lethal level–a level low enough that the heart and brain will have inadequate oxygen–the patient will have a cardiac arrest. Can 10 -15 minutes pass by before the inadequate oxygen levels cause cardiac arrest? Yes, they could.

    Would a patient dying in this fashion suffer? No, it’s unlikely they will suffer. If the doses of midazolam and hydromorphone are large enough, the patient will be unconscious before and during their cardiac death.”

    The dose given to Woods in Arizona was 50mg midazolam and 50mg of hydromorphone. It appears very unlikely he was suffering during his execution.

    1. Davis Progressive

      “The dose given to Woods in Arizona was 50mg midazolam and 50mg of hydromorphone. It appears very unlikely he was suffering during his execution.”

      and yet, the length of time and the appearance of struggling by most of the witnesses suggests otherwise.

  5. DavisBurns

    I opposed the death penalty but if we have to have it I’d go for the assisted suicide option. People want some control of how they die. No one wants the public spectacle and would welcome a quiet private death. But then I’d want the same option for non-criminals. When faces with death, most of us want to have a say in when and where and how it happens. Some people might think the process of dying a long slow death is a part of life we have to accept so let’s let them take the long road, but many people want the option of checking out while they still have their wits about them. I don’t believe we have the right to kill others but I do believe each individual has the right to end there own lives.

    1. Tia Will

      Offering Balance

      “I’m sure the victims of the murderers on death row would agree.”

      I agree with this statement. However, it seems as though you are using this as an argument in favor of retribution.
      So if the individual had tortured his victim, is it your position that he should be tortured before he dies ?

  6. Just Me

    I am concerned about how everyone is worried about how much pain he was in but I am not seeing comments abotu the pain or discomfort his victims must have been in!! I could not honestly care less what his discomfort was!!!! call me evil, call me unsympathetic, call what you like but I really dont care about his pain!

    1. Davis Progressive

      then you’ve dehumanized him just as much as he dehumanized his victims. we have no control over what happened a long time ago to his victims, we can only control our own actions.

      1. Just Me

        While I have never been the “victim”, my mothers close friend was murdered and left on a river bank many years ago.. I love her family and I see to this day how much pain they were left in… She was as dehumanized as any one person can get. I had no sympathy when her murderer committed suicide in prison after being raped by other inmates… C’est la vie!

        1. Tia Will

          Just Me

          “I had no sympathy when her murderer committed suicide in prison after being raped by other inmates”

          For me it is the action itself that is moral or not moral. His action was not moral….and neither was theirs. These crimes against humanity are equivalent. Their brutality is not justified in my eyes by his brutality. Each act carries its own moral burden.

          1. Just Me

            Not sure who that is directed at… Guessing Barack since I have no idea who those names are…

          2. Just Me

            Sorry, was thinking of commentors on here….

            I give them credit… They have much more forgiveness in them than do I.

    2. Tia Will

      Just Me

      I care about his pain. But much, much more importantly I care about our humanity. It was precisely because he dehumanized his victim in some way that allowed him to take their life. How are we then any better if we dehumanize him in return ?

  7. tj

    Marcos Breton: He’s the Bee writer who was thrilled that the child molester priest gave Marcos’ father “last rites”.
    What superstitious nonsense, while he forgets the line about “thou shall not kill”.

    We’re victims in a “murder” case and never wanted the death penalty for the defendant.
    Now the defendant has served 25 years, I recently acquired the autopsy report and discovered that the defendant isn’t guilty after all.

  8. Tia Will

    Just Me

    People have many different reasons for believing that it is wrong for one human being to kill another. I am wondering what you feel is the underlying reason that we feel it immoral for a human to take the life of another ?

    1. Just Me

      I do not feel it is immoral to take the life of a murderer, especially child murderers… I am a parent first and one way to help ensure the safety of my own children is to make sure that souless criminals who have no value of others lives never walk the streets again… Although, while I am very pro-death penalty, I do wish a way to make positively absolutely sure the person being put to death is in fact the guilty party…

      All-in-all, I have zero sympathy for people whio live their lives terrorizing other people and families…..

      1. Tia Will

        Just Me

        I understand the comments that you responded with. However, you did not address the question that was asking. I am curious about what you feel makes it wrong for one human being to take the life of another in the first place. For example is your belief based on religion, on moral principle, on promotion of social stability ? What makes it fundamentally wrong in your mind to take the life of another ?

        1. Just Me

          Are you asking me why I find it wrong for a heartless cold blooded person to just walk up to an innocent person and kill them? Seriously? Or why I am OK with said heartless cold blooded person to be put to death??? If you have done something so heinous that you deserve to die, so be it…. Those of us just out living our daily lives, deserve to go home at night… Those of us out making life a living nightmare, not so much..

          1. Just Me

            For example… Did that mother in Stockton deserve to die? Absolutely not! She was simply trying to get cash to get a hair cut… Does the douchebag who used her as a human shield deserve to die? Absolutely! Put him in front of a firing squad as he did to her!

  9. Tia Will

    Just Me

    No, I wasn’t asking you any of those things. I was asking you what moral or religious or social principle that you are using when you make the decision that it is wrong for one human to kill another ?

    I share your seeming abhorrence of the choice to kill another human being. I fail to see how any human being can feel that they have the right to decide whether another is worthy of death. For everyone who murders another human, surely they have decided at some level that the other is not deserving of life. The difference in our positions would seem to be that I feel that since that is my underlying premise, that humans to do not have the right to condemn others to death, that this applies equally to everyone. What I am asking is what principle you use to decide that some are more qualified than others to judge the worth of a human life .

    1. Just Me

      The only principle I use is common sense… If you kill an innocent person for no good reason, you should be put to death.. If you are that heartless and calculated that you do not value a loved ones friend or family member and just cold blooded kill them, be done with you…. No religious backing, no political backing, just my opinion…

  10. La pace sia con voi.

    The same mindset that legalized the death penalty put a 14 year old to death.
    Per Wikipedia, George Stinney was the youngest person in our country to be executed:
    The execution of George Stinney was carried out by Old Sparky at Central Correctional Institution in Columbia, on June 16, 1944. At 7:30 p.m., Stinney walked to the execution chamber with a Bible under his arm, which he later used as a booster seat in the electric chair.[5] Standing 5 foot 2 inches (157 cm) tall and weighing just over 90 pounds (40 kg),[4] his size (relative to the fully grown prisoners) presented difficulties in securing him to the frame holding the electrodes. Nor did the state’s adult-sized face-mask fit him; as he was hit with the first 2,400 V surge of electricity, the mask covering his face slipped off, “revealing his wide-open, tearful eyes and saliva coming from his mouth…After two more jolts of electricity, the boy was dead. During the execution, the surges of electricity made Stinney’s body shake, and his left hand broke free from the buckle holding him down.”[6][7] Stinney was declared dead within four minutes of the initial electrocution. From the time of the murders until Stinney’s execution, 81 days had passed.[5]

    Latest evidence[edit]
    On October 25, 2013, Steve McKenzie, Ray Chandler and Matt Burgess of Coffey, Chandler & McKenzie, P.A., filed a Motion for New Trial Pursuant to South Carolina Rule of Criminal Procedure 29(b).

    South Carolina lawyers Steve McKenzie, Ray Chandler and Matt Burgess are supporting George Frierson in an attempt to obtain a posthumous pardon, if not a complete judicial exoneration, for Stinney. Frierson is a historian from Alcolu who came across the case in 2004 while doing historical research. McKenzie in an interview in 2011 said he has no doubt this case was an injustice. He said that the lack of preserved evidence made clearing Stinney’s name difficult, but he hoped that the affidavits of three new witnesses, one of which could provide an alibi, would be enough to re-open the case.

    If we can get the case re-opened, we can go to the judge and say, ‘There wasn’t any reason to convict this child. There was no evidence to present to the jury. There was no transcript. This case needs to be re-opened. This is an injustice that needs to be righted.’ I’m pretty optimistic that if we can get the witnesses we need to come forward, we will be successful in court. We hopefully have a witness that’s going to say — that’s non-family, non-relative witness — who is going to be able to tie all this in and say that they were basically an alibi witness. They were there with Mr. Stinney and this did not occur.

    —Steve McKenzie
    George Frierson stated in interviews that “…there has been a person that has been named as being the culprit, who is now deceased. And it was said by the family that there was a deathbed confession.” Frierson said that the rumored culprit came from a well-known, prominent white family. A member, or members of that family, had served on the initial coroner’s inquest jury which had recommended that Stinney be prosecuted.[6]

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