Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Old Sparky

Old Sparky

Adult nonfiction

"I am innocent, innocent, innocent. Make no mistake about this:
I owe society nothing. Continue the struggle for human rights,
helping those who are innocent. I am an innocent man, and something
very wrong is taking place tonight. May God bless you all. I am
ready." [last words of Leonel Torres Herrera before he was executed]"
I don't know if it's still there. I have no idea why it was
there in the first place. I'm not sure I want to know the answer to
the second question.
During the years I tried unsuccessfully to earn a PhD from Maine
(develomental psychology) Little Hall had a rather unusual artifact:
a no longer in use electrical chair. On or near Halloween (remember
this was three decades and three children ago) a couple of fellow
first year students and I were shown it by I think third year students
who asked if we wanted to sit in it. I don't think any of us did.
This may have been some kind of tradition.
I was reminded of this event when I started reading Anthony
Galvin's Old Sparky: The Electric Chair And The History Of The Death
Penalty in which the above quote was found. This is a fascinating
book. I consider it a must read for anyone creating policy involving
capital punishment. However, it will not be everyone's cup of tea.
More sensitive readers, in particular, will do well to pass. I'm not
gonna lie to you. It was almost too graphic for me.
In the late nineteenth century the idea arose that electricity
might be a more humane method of executing criminals than hanging
which, when not well carried out, made for a drawn out, painful
death. More recently lethal injection has taken over as the method of
choice. In the intervening decades the electric chair, also known as
Old Sparky, had a quite nightmarishly colorful reign. Old Sparky
gives you a vivid picture, interspersing historical information on
this device's creation and evolution with the stories of some of the
people who died in it. There is also a time line going back about
four thousand years showing the various alternatives that have been
used around the world to carry out the death penalty. Warning:
nothing is left to the imigination.
If that was all there was to the book, however, I would have
returned it to the library after reading a few chapters. It provides
a non didactic format for discussing the ethical issues surrounding
the death penalty. As you read through you see that:
*not all executions went off as planned and the ones that didn't led
to agonizing deaths;
*some people were executed who never should have been by virtue of
circumstances such as youth and diminished mental capacity;
*executions were and still are disproportionately carried out on
people of color;
*executions were sometimes traumatic not only to those executed, but
to witnesses and those who carried out the act;
*and there were people in every time who questioned the right of the
state to end lives.
And you will see where innocent people were killed. It happens
a lot more often than we'd suspect. At the time the book was
published 3,100 people were on death row in America. Statistically it
is estimated that 127 of them are totally innocent.
Now here's the real evil. Even if a person is later proven
innocent, thanks to our friends on the Supreme Court, it's still OK to
execute him or her. Herrera (quoted at the top of this review) was on
death row when evidence that could exonerate him was discovered. In a
six to three decision in his case SCOTUS decided that "'Few rulings
would be more disruptive of our federal system than to provide for
federal habeas review of free standing claims of actual innocence.'"
despite the minority opinion that, "'Nothing could be more contrary to
contemporary standards of decency or more shocking to the conscience
than to execute a person who is actually innocent.'"
Huh? Who are these people in black robes who put expediency
ahead of justice?
America's use of the death penalty is just another way this
nation is out of step with the civilized world. It is the only
country doing so in the Western Hemisphere or the G8 nations. We
execute with such zeal we are being out killed by China, Iran, Iraq,
and Saudi Arabia. (Galvin, p.245). Is this what we really want?
Life imprisonment protects the public while costing less than capital
trials. And if exonerating evidence turns up it's a sentence that can
be reversed.
On a personal note, I am losing respect for and becoming quite afraid
of the Supreme Court. They're also the gang that gave us the concept
of the personhood of corporations. Might it not be time to examine
their life time appointments? Just saying.
A great big shout out goes out to all who fight to end the death
Jules Hathaway

Sent from my iPod

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