Saturday, May 17, 2014

Witness to a death

He was not a nice person.  He had committed at least five known murders, and probably at least twice that many more for which he had not been caught.  He killed for money, he killed for revenge, and he killed because he decided that he enjoyed killing.  As a journalist, I had interviewed him twice and been struck by the complete lack of emotion he projected; I may as well have been talking to a machine.

On the day of his execution, it took four guards to get him into the gas chamber, not because he was actively fighting, but because he was scared out of his wits.  The man who had committed multiple murders with the same emotional detachment with which most of us swat a fly had, when faced with his own mortality, suddenly discovered that fear and dread are real emotions.  One wonders if he had an epiphany and realized that he was feeling what his victims had felt.  That's probably hoping for too much.

The gas chamber is a contraption straight out of the Middle Ages.  It was built in the 1930s, and the first thing one notices about it is just how noisy it is.  The door screeched as it was opened.  The clang of the door slamming shut rang throughout the witness area.  There is the blub-blub-blub of the hydraulic seal hermetically shutting off the inside of the chamber from the outside world.  I thought it was odd to hear water running through the pipes until I realized it was hydrochloric acid being pumped into the pan beneath the chair.  And even though I knew to expect the sound of the cyanide pellets drop into the acid, I found myself jerking when the sound came.

The late Warden Clinton Duffy of San Quentin Prison, who supervised the gassings of 88 men and 2 women, said that gas is a quick, easy and painless way to die.  He lied.  Cyanide is a miserable, miserable way to make one's exit.

Essentially, oxygen's function in the body is to aid in the conversion of food into energy, somewhat like the catalytic converter in your car.  Without oxygen, the ham and eggs you had for breakfast cannot be converted to the energy needed to power your brain, heart, and other vital functions.  With no power to run those systems, your body shuts down.

Structurally, cyanide closely resembles oxygen, so much so that when your body encounters it, it thinks that it is oxygen, and it gets sent out through the bloodstream to perform the work of oxygen.  Only since it doesn't perform the work of oxygen, your body gets none of the vital energy it needs to continue to function.  Essentially, death from cyanide gas is being strangled without a rope.  Most poisons work as poisons because they are structurally similar to some other important nutrient necessary to the body.  Arsenic, for example, is structurally similar to potassium, without which muscles do not work.

But this does not happen quickly.  Pain is the body's way of telling you that there is a problem.  As one vital organ and system after another realizes that it is no longer being powered, sharp spasms of pain ricochet across the body.  The muscles are flooded with lactic acid, which causes severe cramping.  The lungs gasp for air, but this simply results in more cyanide being delivered.  Finally, the brain, the lungs and the heart all fail, and death results.  The unlucky ones may fade  in and out of consciousness a few times first.  I had a good view of the proceedings, and I have no doubt that the prisoner was fully awake, and in pain, for a good five minutes after the cyanide entered the chamber.

After it was over, another journalist and I went to get some breakfast.  We made small talk to pretend that we hadn't seen what we had just seen.  We then went back to our offices to write our stories, before going on to the next story, and then the next story, and then the next story after that.

I wish I could tell you that this was just another story, but it isn't.  More than twenty years later, I still think about it, almost every day.  If I could erase from my consciousness just one memory, that execution would certainly make the top five.

I am deeply, deeply ambivalent about the death penalty.  If I were a member of the state legislature I would probably vote to repeal it.  At the same time, I'm not really sure what the argument is for why society is better off keeping someone alive who killed a dozen people in cold blood.  Maybe some people are so badly broken that permanently removing them from civil society is the best alternative for dealing with them, I don't know.

I do know this: Actually participating in the execution process changed me, and not for the better.  I will never look at life and death the same way again.  Maybe there are some rituals we really are better off without.

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