A DEATH PENALTY EXPERIENCE
Whatever your views on capital punishment, you may wish to know more about the inside story of Life On Death Row. This exposition from the heart of Arizona’s death row is a unique and enlightening journey into America’s ultimate sanction.
This thought provoking book provides an uncommon glimpse into the woeful life of a death row prisoner. The reader will observe the inner operations of one of America’s foremost Super-Max prisons. You will share in the first hand experience of being served a death warrant for execution and confront the inconceivable choices open to you. You will explore the reality of the "humane" execution procedure. And, you will follow the rise of the infamous "Death Row Chain Gang" conceived by Arizona’s Governor amidst his political posturing, which was brought down with the shotgun deaths of a prisoner and his wife in a bizarre escape attempt.
This is an in-depth examination of life on death row. It is drawn from the personal experience of a death row prisoner. It is filled with insightful revelations and delivers an unvarnished perspective on death row and capital punishment. And it challenges the conventional conceptions in a dramatic, unflinching style.
|About the Author
Robert W. Murray is a published, freelance writer. At 38 years old he has been in prison, along with his brother, Roger, on death row in Arizona for ten years. They maintain their innocence and they continue pursuing their appeals in court, seeking exoneration.
While shying away from the angst of prison writing, he followed the traditional path of a freelance, magazine writer. The execution warrant in 1999 changed all of that. After many anguished years on death row, he endeavored to achieve something more substantial in his writing. In 2000, Harper’s Magazine published his essay on lethal injection, entitled, "It’s Not Like Falling Asleep."
Since then he has dedicated his efforts to writing about his experiences in, Life on Death Row.
The book you are about to read was written by a death row inmate. The inspiration for which goes all the way back to the dawn of communication. I had something thoughtful to say, hopefully interesting, and I found a way to say it.
The endeavor is to present an informative, thought- provoking look inside the realm of capital punishment. Each chapter is a self-contained exposition around a particular topic or set of circumstances. Most of the features put forth, cover subjects that are not commonly explored in the daily flow of media information. When they are, it is often a condensed, mis-characterized narrative convenient for an hours worth of programming and rarely depicted from a prisoner’s point of view.
If only things were as benevolent as a supernatural fantasy or an abbreviated television play. Unfortunately this is real stuff. Real people die. Lives on both sides of the issue are eternally changed, death is brutal and absolute.
It is very much a frustrating experience to say the least. The desire to rant, rave and harangue the system with condemnation was an incessant distraction throughout the project. Occasionally some of this aggravation made an appearance, though for the most part, things remained within the boundaries of straight forward commentary and rational observation. Under the circumstances, it was not easy.
My brother and I arrived on Arizona’s death row in October, 1992 after an 18 month legal battle which pitted us against an unscrupulous ring of law enforcement officials. They were underhanded in manipulating the circumstances, and unprincipled in destruction of evidence. Some of them were thieves, others liars, and a couple are very clever perjurers. At every scheming opportunity they sabotaged avenues of defense, suppressed witnesses, and planted portions of the evidence.
Through a series of circumstances we encountered some unidentified individuals out on the interstate highway. Upon our arrival they abandoned one vehicle and drove away in another. We searched through a tow truck they had left behind. Some items were found and transferred into the rear seat of our car. It was a sack of money, weapons, clothing and other incidental items.
The following day police officers stopped our vehicle and discovered these items. They were connected to a crime scene. The items in our car, were from a crime scene. The police hastily concluded we must have been at the crime scene. The ring of law enforcement officials went into action, without any consideration that perhaps we had not actually obtained the items from the crime scene, they went about proving what did not happen.
We don’t know the people involved. We were not at the crime scene. Our vehicle was never at the crime scene. We passed through the area on vacation. We encountered some displaced individuals, and without harming anyone, have arrived on death row facing some pretty daunting odds. We were wrongly convicted, the trial was a waste of time, the legal system is designed to accept the law enforcement position on circumstances and the fight goes on until someday we hope that we will prevail.
This book is not about the underlying circumstances of our case, that is something being pursued in the courts. Drawing from ten years on the row, it was inevitable that it would be necessary to use my experiences to help illustrate some of the various subjects. In this regard, I have touched upon the legalities and procedures surrounding my conviction.
This book is about life, death, the rigors of capital punishment and the legal system that keeps it all in motion. It is not a profile of crimes, or a rambling dissertation on the "guilt versus innocence" debate, though circumstances require the occasional comment. Nor is this a wholesale assault on the death penalty establishment. However, it does take a fairly substantial lashing. After all, when the state is in the business of killing people, it is very difficult to make it look good.
The objective is not to embarrass state bureaucrats here in Arizona. They have handled that wonderfully well for themselves. Additionally, individuals were not singled out for ridicule merely to have someone to ridicule. Those who have drawn critical attention have done so based upon the merits of their own actions. If some less than stellar behaviors are highlighted, it was deemed relevant and necessary.
What do I hope to accomplish with this book? I hope to educate the reader to aspects of the criminal justice system which might not have been considered. There is a lot happening in a system designed to store human beings with the intention of some day putting them to death. A majority of the population in America sanction the death penalty without ever having the opportunity to see for themselves what it is all about. And those who actually want more information are often given a watered down explanation. I hope to add a bit of color and reality to the debate.
Each of these chapters represent a story, a telling of events and circumstances from a front line point of view. It is not a comprehensive legal guide. That would be boring. It is practical information about serious matters, addressing areas of contention, concern and curiosity about the death penalty experience. It is a simple look inside this conglomeration that decrees itself a humane killing machine, that never makes an error, and dispenses justice for the good of society.
The idea of death and dying is never far from my mind. Before coming to death row, I hadn't given much thought to my own demise. I've come very close to death a couple of times, but they were mere moments.
Now not only does the state of Arizona intend to kill me; they want me to participate in the process by deciding the method they will use. It's a strange form of polite behavior. For years, state officials have determined every aspect of my existence. Now, in a sudden burst of good manners, they want to add a bit of civility to my death by offering me a choice.
They've given me 2 methods to consider: lethal injection and lethal gas. I often imagine myself in the gas chamber and try to guess at the difference between dying there and dying by lethal injection. But I just keep coming back to the outcome. I wanted to ask someone's advice about which method I should choose, but dead is dead, and the handful of people I might have consulted are testaments to this finality.
Lethal injection is now paraded about as the easy way to die. Most of the public is under the impression that since lethal injection seems simple and painless it somehow makes killing more acceptable. Witnesses to injection executions come away with the illusory perception that a patient has fallen asleep. Typical witnesss testimony goes something like this: "Well, he just seemed to fall asleep."
"Could you better describe the event?"
"We were standing there, and suddenly the curtain opened and there he was, just lying there."
"What happened next?"
"Well, like I said, he was just lying there looking at the ceiling. His lips were moving a little, and he...well, you know, he just closed his eyes and went to sleep. I wasn't expecting it to be so easy and fast. He just went to sleep."
Easy as going to sleep. I have thought about this for literally hundreds of hours. Easy as falling asleep. I guess everybody wants to die as easily as they fall asleep.
The state of Arizona has given me a description of the 2 methods of execution from which I am allowed to choose:
One (1) pound of sodium cyanide is placed ina container underneath the gas chamber chair. The chair is made of perforoated metal which allows the cyanide gas to pass through and fill the chamber. A bowl below the chair contains sulfuric acid and distilled water. A lever is pulled and the sodium cyanide falls into the solution, releasing the gas. It takes the prisoner several minutes to die. After the execution, the excess gas is released through an exhaust pipe which extends about 50 feet about the Death House.
Inmates executed by lethal injection are brought into the injection room a few minutes prior to the appointed time of execution. He/she is then strapped to a gurney-type bed and two (2) sets of intravenous tubes are inserted, one (1) in each arm. The three (3) drugs used include: Sodium Pentothal ( a sedative intended to put the inmate to slleep); Pavulon (stops breathing and paralyzes the muscular system); and Potassium Chloride (causes the heart to stop). Death by lethal injection is not painful and the inmate goes to sleep prior to the fatal effects of the Pavulon and Potassium Chloride.
These descriptions do not begin to illustrate the overall reality of an injection. The claim "Death by lethal injection is not painful..." is far fram accurate, and "going to sleep" with an overdose of sodium pentothal isn't all it's cracked up to be. It's death by any definition. The pain lies in the years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds leading up to the moment of execution. The pain lies in choosing your own method of execution. Going to sleep while strapped to a table is the least of it; in fact, it ends a great deal of pain-- the terror, nightmares, and constant internal struggles.
The gas chamber was introduced to Arizona in the 1930s. Before that, the state hanged people. Nooses from every execution were saved and displayed in glass cases on the walls of the witness chamber of the death house. Hanging was discontinued after a woman was accidentally decapitated in 1930.
On April 6, 1992, at 12:18 A.M., Donald Harding was pronounced dead after spending a full 11 minutes in the state's gas chamber. It was Arizona's 1st execution in 29 years, and state officials were somewhat out of practice. The spectacle of Harding gasping in the execution chamber was a little too hard for people to handle. In response, a movement grew to make executions more "humane."
Suddenly there was a new political crisis.
People were outraged. Politicians
took to the stump. State execution was curel, ghastly,
horrid. It took a prisoner 11 minutes to cough up his life to the gas. Of course, if executions could be made to seem more humane, that was something else altogether.
It was a wonderful political banner to wave come election time: Arizona would continue to execute people, but they would be 'nice' executions. The politicians went about their task with glee. They preserved their rights to kill people by coming up with a new way to kill people. Lethal injection was their new champion, and champion it they did.
Several months after Harding's execution, a new law was born: "Any person sentenced to death prior to November 23, 1992, is afforded a choice of execution by either lethal gas or lethal injection. Inmates receiving death after November 23, 1992, are to be executed by lethal injection."
As it happened, by brother Roger and I were sentenced to death on October 26, 1992. We were among the lucky few who were given a Hobson's choice about how we should die.
Offering prisoners a "humane" execution seems to be the latest strategy to keep capital punishment alive. But the notion that any execution could be humane eludes me. People today seem generally happy with the idea of lethal injection, as long as it is done in a neat, sanitary, easy-to- watch fashion. I'm not sure what this says about our society. However, I am sure most people don't grasp the reality of the "sleeping" death of which they so widely approve. Indeed, many witnesses leave an execution with a serene look on their faces, as if they'd just seen a somewhat pleasant movie. To my mind, it's actually the witnesses who are falling asleep at injection killings, lulled by the calmness of it all.
As I see it, death by injection is very like being tossed out of an airplane. Supose I'm told that on November 3, someone will escort me from my cell, take me up in an airplane, and, at 3:00 in the afternoon, toss me out without a parachute. After a few minutes, my body will hit a target area, killing me immediately. It's an easy, instant, painless death. The impact of hitting the ground after falling several thousand feet will kill me as instantly and effectively as lethal injection.
Killing inmates by tossing them out of airplanes would of course be unacceptable to the public. But why? It's as fast and effective as lethal injection. The terror of falling 2 minutes isn't all that different from the terror of lying strapped to a table, and neither is physically painful. There's a similar waiting process before each execution. If an airplane is used, you wait for the time it takes the aircraft to take off and reach the target area at the proper altitude. For lethal injection, you wait in the death house until everything's ready and all possibility of a stay of execution has been exhausted. In an airplane, a cargo door is opened; in the death house, a curtain across the viewing window is drawn back. In an airplance, you are thrown to an absolute death and witnesses watch your body fall. In the death house, you are strapped to a gurney and witnesses watch state officials inject you with sodium pentothal. In both cases, death is sudden and final.
To me they are the same. I will feel the same powerful emotions and chaotic anxiety either way. But the public would never describe my death by falling from an aircraft as "simply falling asleep." They would be outraged. Politicians would rush to give speeches about giving prisoner a "choice," and the law would be changed.
The public would cry out, not because the prisoner died an agonizing and painful death but because most people feel that the anxiety of being tossed from an aircraft without a parachute would be too terrible for an inmate to bear, and the spectacle of death would be too terrible for observers to bear. In this case, the public would be forced to understand the emotions an inmate feels before execution; when lethal injection is used, all such emotions are hidden behind a veil that is not drawn aside until the moment before death.
This airplane analogy is as close as I can come to illustrating the fallacy of the humane execution. There is much more to death by injection than just falling asleep, beginning with the long wait on death row (where execution is a constant presence), the terror of being taken to the death house, the helpless panic of being strapped to a table, and finally the sense of utter loss as the curtain is opened. All of the fear and anxiety of falling from an aircraft is present when the injection begins. Both are horrible by any measure. And neither is anything like falling asleep.
(source: Robert Murray, in Harper's
Magazine, November 2000)
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