Pick your poison

Should those awaiting execution get a say in how they die?

By Ron Kozar

Lethal injections, gas chambers, electric chairs… whatever the method, the prisoner still ends up dead. So what difference does it make?

To hear Alva Campbell tell it, it makes a big difference.  Years on death row, awaiting lethal injection for a 1997 murder, have left Campbell a gaunt, wheezing geriatric case in need of daily care. He is so withered, he says, that nurses have trouble just finding a vein in which to stick an IV. He figures a few men with rifles will have an easier time hitting a big bullseye on his chest than a phlebotomist would have hitting a tiny bullseye on an artery in his boney arm. So, Campbell has asked for death by firing squad instead.

So far, the courts have said no.  Campbell argues that he’s in danger of becoming the latest in a long line of botched lethal injections. One such was Ohio’s own, Romell Broom, whose 2009 execution was called off after guards poked needles into him for two fruitless hours in search of a usable vein. Prosecutors respond that firing squads are not legal in Ohio. Indulging Campbell would require the General Assembly to enact a law—“Alva’s Law”?—to allow that method of execution. But courts cannot compel legislatures to enact, or governors to sign, such a law.  And, as one judge opined last week while denying Campbell’s request, “There is no constitutional requirement that executions be painless.”

Those in favor of letting Campbell and others like him pick their method of execution have plenty of arguments to choose from. Those who think lethal injection cruel might point to Justice Sotomayor’s observation in a recent Supreme Court dissent that shooting is “comparatively painless” and that the firing squad “has yielded significantly fewer botched executions.” And those who think lethal injection too soft, with supine, cushioned prisoners drifting too comfortably into the sleep of death, might welcome a revival of the swifter, colder practices of old. And still others might observe that letting the inmate choose the method could mitigate the supposed inhumanity of capital punishment. After all, it’s harder to call the sentence cruel and unusual when the prisoner gets a say in how to carry it out.

Those against giving death row inmates a choice are not lacking in arguments either. They might observe that harshness and inconvenience to the prisoner, far from being reasons to back off, are the whole point of any punishment, capital or otherwise. Campbell did 20 years for one murder, was paroled, and committed a second, which landed him on death row. He didn’t give his victims a choice, so why, an opponent might ask, should we give him one?

While the City Paper considers these questions, readers can rest assured that Campbell’s attorneys will be hard at work.  He is presently scheduled to meet his maker on Nov. 15.

Ron Kozar is a lawyer in Dayton. Reach him at RonKozar@DaytonCityPaper.com.


Violence with a conscience

Execution alternatives are humane for everyone involved

By Don Hurst

According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s statistics, lethal injection has the highest rate of failure among execution methods. The state should allow reasonable alternatives for administering the death penalty. I’m not sure if that should be a firing squad, but after horrific, botched lethal injection executions, death row inmates need to have some say in how they die.

Alva Campbell’s medical history makes a strong case that lethal injection will not be a quick end to his miserable and wasted life. A prison nurse couldn’t find a suitable vein to administer IV medicine earlier this month. What makes the state believe that they will find one on the big day?

Difficulties inserting IV needles have led to prolonged executions in past Ohio cases. In 2006, Joseph Clarks’ veins collapsed after the technicians worked for half an hour to insert the needle. Thirty minutes after he should have been dead, witnesses could hear Clark still moaning and crying out. The Department of Corrections did not pronounce him dead until 90 minutes later. Christopher Newton clung to life for two full hours in 2007. Most recently in 2014 Dennis McGuire writhed and gasped for 15 minutes before finally dying.

These are convicted murderers and rapists so who cares? That extra suffering is just a little more worldly justice before they pass to whatever final judgment awaits them.

I understand that mentality. I truly do. I’m not speaking from a place of sympathy for these killers. I’m arguing for death penalty alternatives for the sake of those tasked with ending the lives of the condemned.

Throughout my career in the military and law enforcement, I have witnessed a lot of death and I have helped end the lives of very bad people. I don’t say that with joy or with the goal of puffing up my bravado. I write that to give you the proper context for what comes next.

Violence and death are necessary tools to keep others safe. Sometimes, bad people have to die to protect the innocent. That’s a fact. That doesn’t mean administering violence doesn’t take a toll on the person employing it.

I was once asked, by an extremely pacifistic friend, how I can sleep at night knowing the things I’ve done. You can ask my wife. I sleep very well. As soon as my head hits the pillow, I’m out.

Why? Am I sociopath? Not at all.

The violence was righteous. Meaning not only was it lawfully used against people who needed it, but also it was done right. We didn’t prolong suffering. We employed violence because it needed to be done and that was it.

I’ve sat with murderers and rapists in their last moments. Their hands quivering while they impotently attempt to hold in the blood gushing out of them. I’ve watched Islamic militants crawling in the dirt blindly groping for safety with their final breaths.

In almost all these cases I’ve witnessed one thing that picks at my brain. The pain, confusion, and desperation of dying violently burn away the man that was, and all that’s left is a tortured soul reeling in horror at what awaits them on the other side. The head knows that this is a killer, a predator who preys on the weak, and deserves this pain. But the spirit is different. It’s difficult to watch that transformation and not feel a stabbing in the soul. The expression the damned wear reminds me of what my son would look like after a nightmare woke him screaming and crying from his crib. It brings out instinctive pity.

An execution usually doesn’t have the intensity of a combat fatality. The first drug renders the convict unconscious and sedates him while the second administers the killing dose. In a perfect world, it’s painless and actually kind of peaceful.

I believe this is more for the prison workers’ benefits than the convict’s well-being. The guards who escort the condemned. The medical staff who prepares him. The governor who can offer clemency. The warden who gives the order. The executioner who pushes the button. All of these people are accessories to killing a human being. We need to make sure they can do their jobs with clear consciences.

The convict is locked in a prison where the likelihood of him hurting anyone else is low. We’re not killing him to protect others. The crimes he committed happened years ago. While the atrocities are still fresh in the minds of the victims’ families, to the executioners, they have all the immediacy of a dusty history book. All of this makes it even more important that executions are done correctly and in a way to preserve the souls of those who have to administer this final justice.

If the State of Ohio goes through with the lethal injection for Alva Campbell and it doesn’t work, it will cause immense suffering to the condemned. More importantly, it will cause immense suffering for the men and women of our correctional system.

I may sleep soundly at night, but that doesn’t mean the faces of the men who died aren’t seared in my mind like a movie I wish I could forget. The image of Campbell writhing in agony, fighting for breath, and staring in terror at what is to come is not something our correction officers need to carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at DonHurst@DaytonCityPaper.com.


We the people

Everyone is equal under the law

By Patrick Bittner

In the blazing heat of the Pennsylvania summer, a handful of wealthy, educated, well-to-do men sat in a hall and debated one of the greatest documents to come from the hands of humankind. The Declaration of Independence was more than just a call to arms for the fledgling revolution, and more than a list of grievances with a monarchy some 3,500 miles away; it was a statement of new ideas about the way societies should treat their members. And with the opening line of the second paragraph, the world was forever changed. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Perhaps the most famous and popular idea to come from the mind and pen of Thomas Jefferson was this: that all men, no matter their creed, code, status, or wealth, were created equal and should be treated as equals by their government. And while this sentiment may not be in full effect in all aspects of our society yet, it is mostly true when concerning the law. All citizens are equal in the eyes of the law. This, more than any idea, is what this country believes in. No matter your background, there will be consequences for your actions; this has been shown repeatedly, but still gets called into question on a regular basis.

Alva Campbell has experienced the equal justice of the American criminal system for the past 20 years. After carjacking a man and eventually shooting him in the head, twice, Campbell has been in custody for the past 20 years. He has been on death row since March of 2013 when the Ohio Supreme Court set an initial execution date of July 15, 2015. Long since passed, the state has scheduled his final execution date for later this month. Now, ultimately, this is not a debate about the issue, morally or legally speaking, of capital punishment. The State of Ohio has decided that it will allow the execution of its citizens when the crime is severe enough and the argument for guilt is beyond a reasonable doubt. Campbell has gone through these processes and is now at the final point of the system, or so it seems. Campbell is arguing not that he shouldn’t be put to death, but rather that the method of his execution be different than what is currently administered by the state. This idea rejects and proposes to trump the fundamental American idea of equality, and thus should itself be rejected.

Campbell argues that he is different, that the veins in his arms are not suited for needles, and that he is allergic to one of the drugs in the lethal cocktail the state uses. A federal judge has ruled that Campbell has not given sufficient evidence to support these claims and that using a method other than lethal injection, notably that of a firing squad, is rightfully unacceptable. Campbell must be executed in the manner deemed acceptable by the State of Ohio and none other. Using a firing squad, or any other method, would pave the way for a precedence of inequality among death row inmates. Simply put, allowing this group of condemned people to choose the manner of their execution is illegal because it is not equal.

While equality may be a noble idea on paper, it is nothing if it is not enforced in practice.  Everyday this country walks a fine line between what is good and acceptable and what is evil and against all the principles the Founding Fathers put forth in their hallowed documents. And while these documents were made with the ability to be amended, the idea that their very foundation is cemented on cannot be. Equality in the eyes of the law. This alone is what pushes the very idea of being American. It is what drives us to do great things and what entitles us all to those unalienable rights. To allow Alva Campbell, a man who in effect has given up his claim to these rights, would be to shatter the entire heart of our American society. He, and any other citizen who commits such a horrendous act, will be treated with equality under the law. This concept must be the dictating force from the beginning to the very end and while someday we should all hope to be rid of the practice of executing our citizens, the present situation would lead us to believe even more in the power and process of equality.

Reach DCP freelance writer Patrick Bittner at PatrickBittner@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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