Thou Shalt Not Kill. Unless . . .

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Ken Light /
The state of Texas' execution chamber in Huntsville

A good friend told me something startling. She said that, barring some unforeseen event, a good friend of hers was going to be poisoned to death by the state of Texas.

Her friend’s name was David Lee Powell, and David was a convicted criminal who was sentenced to death for the vicious, evil murder of a police officer named Ralph Ablanedo.

I recognize that David Lee Powell’s crime was heinous. And yet I don’t believe he was a heinous man. I don’t believe the state had the right to kill him. I also doubt, very much, that any of this–the shooting of a police officer or the poisoning of a convicted murderer–would have registered as more than a passing blip on the radar screen of my mind if I hadn’t been personally affected, albeit in an extremely indirect manner, by this sorrowful series of events.

But because I was personally affected, because I was challenged by conversations I had with my friend–about David Powell and the death penalty, about the state’s right to kill American citizens, and about my own obliviousness to political issues that don’t directly affect me–I volunteered to write a series of posts for the Texas Observer‘s website. Excerpts from some of them follow.

During the two weeks I wrote these posts, which took the form of a daily countdown to David’s death, I found myself profoundly confronted by the experience.

Twelve Days Left to Live
June 3, 2010

Here’s something that David Powell, the man who’s scheduled to be killed in Huntsville on June 15, has set me to thinking about.

What does it mean, as a matter of public policy, to give up on the idea of redemption?

Here’s a man who is 59, and has been in prison for 32 years. His whole life–even according, it seems, to his jailers and prosecutors–has been virtuous, productive, and gentle, with the enormous, glaring, terrible exception of the horrible crime he committed.

One of the things about the death penalty is that, because convicted killers (for a whole variety of reasons) aren’t typically white, middle-class honor students, with reputations for being kindly, wholesome people, it’s very easy for middle-class people like me to presume that folks on death row are people from “over there.” Folks from another, meaner America–that hard, irredeemable underbelly of the nation’s poverty and crime. You know, the kind of place you see on Cops.

Of course, there are so many things wrong with this presumption that it’s hard to know where to begin. But imagine if one of the sweet, golden kids of your local high school–who made good grades, and volunteered for local charities, and got into a great college–got hooked on meth and, in a blind fog of addiction, killed a cop who pulled him over for a traffic violation. For this is what David Powell did.

What do you do to a kid like that?

Do you have to kill him?

I mean, of course, you’ve got to send him to prison. That goes without saying. But is the only purpose of his existence, now, to wait around until the state kills him? Is that really our only option?

Even if that kid, like David Powell has during his 32 years of incarceration, turns his life around? If he never receives a single demerit? If he’s awarded a prison “humanitarian prize,” and is a model of leadership and nonviolence for his fellow prisoners?

My more basic question is this: Do people who commit terrible crimes have no use or purpose in our world, regardless of what they could do in the future?

If a person murders somebody, does it really mean that nothing that person could possibly offer the world will ever be as valuable as our right to kill him?

And if that’s the case, what’s the moral implication of having a criminal justice system that’s strictly punitive? A system that in no way believes in, fosters, or promotes redemption? Because, folks, that’s pretty much what we’ve got on our hands at the moment.

And aside from the moral implications of that system, what are its practical implications? Even for those of us who live cosseted, cushy, middle-class lives.

Because if the purpose of prison, for people who haven’t committed murder, is just to lock up criminals, treat them like animals, and then release them on the general, unsuspecting population, then I fail to see how that serves the public interest.

And if the purpose of prison, for folks who have committed murder, is to keep them around, as in David Powell’s case, for 32 years, just in order to kill them, then again, whose interest is this system serving?

For one thing, what is the incentive, for the prisoners, of being nonviolent, if their good behavior has no bearing on their eventual punishment?

And for another, what does it mean that we, the American taxpayers, are subsidizing a prison system that seems like the closest possible thing to a PhD program in criminality? Because it seems to me that if you’re not an ace criminal by the time you enter prison, you sure as hell will be by the time you leave it.

What does it mean, for a society, to judge a person’s life by the worst thing he’s ever done? And to essentially give up on the 1 percent of our nation’s population who are now behind bars?

To me, it just seems that our current policy is, inevitably, self-destructive; harmful to our national life; and driven by a perfectly natural desire to punish “the bad guys.”

And to me, a country that’s given up on the idea of promoting goodness, especially among people who’ve committed the most terrible acts, seems like a dangerous place to live in.

Eleven Days Left to Live
June 4, 2010

People believe or they don’t believe in the death penalty for a whole bunch of reasons, many of them based on their personal and religious values. But I think the very best argument against the death penalty might have nothing to do with morality. It might have to do with government incompetence.

I happen to be among the last of the New Deal liberals. I actually believe that government can be a positive force in people’s lives. I mean, Social Security and unemployment benefits and Medicare, though they are completely inadequate and frustrating and flawed, do provide pretty convincing proofs of the advantages of the government’s involvement in everyday life.

And I was also in favor of passing the recent health care reform bill, as completely inadequate and frustrating and flawed as it was.

But of all the arguments against health care reform, the one that I found most persuasive was that government bureaucracy screws up everything it touches, and do we really want politicians and bureaucrats making decisions about our surgeries and prescription drugs?

That really hit home with me, folks. I mean, just because I have a certain amount of faith in the potential of government doesn’t mean I actually trust our government.

Maybe that’s because I’m Texan, and I think there’s a libertarian streak in your average Texan that’s about a mile wide. But it’s also because, if the people who are gonna be running health care in any way resemble the folks working at the post office, the IRS, or the DMV, then we’re all in big, big trouble.

So I have some big concerns about the government’s judgment in deciding which of its citizens to kill. And these concerns are not unfounded, especially because, since 1973, 138 Americans who were convicted of murder and sentenced to death have been exonerated–found to have been innocent and wrongly convicted.

And it’s extremely likely that Texas executed an innocent man in 2004, as described in “Trial by Fire” in The New Yorker (Sept. 7, 2009). These mistakes give me pause, friends. Because if one of the arguments in favor of the death penalty is that human life is incredibly precious, then I’m not certain how you can proceed confidently with a system that’s imprisoning and killing innocent people.

David Powell has taken responsibility for his crime–the murder of police officer, husband, and father Ralph Ablanedo–but nobody really knows what happened on the night the crime occurred. Partly because Powell was stoned out of his mind on methamphetamine that night. But also because proven prosecutorial misconduct worked to obscure the truth. That misconduct, along with other legal issues, caused David Powell’s first two sentences to be overturned. That’s why he’s been awaiting execution for 32 years.

And no matter which side of the issue you’re on, any American taxpayer has to be frustrated at the enormous waste–of time, money, and life–involved in taking the same man to court three times for the same crime, partly because elected officials worked to prevent the truth from being discovered in the first place.

Nine Days Left to Live
June 6, 2010

I’ve been thinking about the family of Ralph Ablanedo–the man David murdered on May 18, 1978, who was a police officer, husband, and father of two small children.

And I’ve been trying to imagine what they must be thinking about and feeling today, knowing that David has nine days left to live. I mean, I know there’s no way for me to know or feel what they’ve gone through.

And I know that it would be unspeakably vulgar for me even to pretend to know.

But I’ve been thinking about them. And the lifetime that’s passed between the night of Ralph Ablanedo’s murder and now. Thirty-two years. That’s a whole generation; four different decades; six different presidents. Birthdays, christenings, weddings . . .

And since David Powell’s first two sentences were overturned, that means the Ablanedo family has lived through three different court trials against the man who murdered a man they love(d).

So, for more time than I’ve been alive, Ralph Ablanedo’s family has been grieving over his death. And David Powell has been in prison. And the state of Texas has been saying they’re going to kill him.

Nothing about any of that sounds like justice to me.

In fact, for everybody involved, it sounds like slow torture. Imagine having to get up and get dressed day after day, year after year, and go to some horrible courthouse in order to listen to total strangers argue over the murder of somebody you love(d).

And then having to see the man who murdered him sitting there. And his mother.

And then having to listen to it all being discussed on TV, and read about it in the newspapers, and maybe even on blogs like this one.

I wonder if the Ablanedo family just can’t wait to get past June 15, or if they’re looking forward to it, or if by this point, the whole thing just feels totally irrelevant to what they’ve lived through. I wonder if they feel like the past 32 years have all been leading up to June 15. And if they do, what do they want from that day? Closure? Revenge? Catharsis?

Again and again, I read quotes in the newspaper from people whose loved ones have been murdered, and who attend the executions of their killers. And so often, they express this tragic, tragic feeling of disappointment about what they’ve seen. Just the other day, for instance, in the Dallas Morning News, a family member was quoted as saying that his nephew’s killer’s death was too easy. “It was like laying down and going to sleep,” he said. “My nephew suffered.”

I can only imagine that–beyond losing a beloved family member, and all the unknowable torture and agony that entails–living through the execution of a loved one’s killer, and then being disappointed by it, would be one of the saddest things life could ever hand you.

Particularly if you’ve been waiting for it for 32 years.

Because just think, for decades, you’ve been looking forward to this one day, which you’ve wanted desperately, but you can’t really be happy about. You’ve wanted the satisfaction of watching a loved one’s killer die. And then, just like that, it’s over, and it wasn’t good enough. Like a horrible, horrible version of that hollow, sad way you felt as a child on Christmas morning after you ripped open your presents, and then Christmas was over, and you’d never really felt it.

Because here’s what’s really going to happen to David Powell: He’s going to be strapped to a gurney and given a few injections by a strange crew of trained medical personnel, government bureaucrats, and prison guards. He won’t ever wake up again. And everybody’s going to go home knowing they’ve seen a man die.

And what will they go home with?

You have to really, truly hope that the Ablanedo family, at least, goes home with some measure of peace, and a sense that a horrible part of their life is finally, finally over.

Eight Days Left to Live
June 7, 2010

Why is it that the American justice system can’t have you whipped? Or pinch you? Or knock you upside the head? Or have you caned? Or raped?

But it can kill you.

I’m being absolutely serious, folks.

In America we like to think of ourselves as a civilized country, where criminals face humane punishments, like going to prison or doing community service. Not to mention a whole variety of constitutional protections we Americans have–like freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

But honestly, I want somebody to explain to me why it’s appalling and uncivilized for the state to slap you, or have your pinky finger cut off–no matter what evil, despicable, vile, child-molesting, unforgivable act you might have committed–but it is appropriate and civilized for the state to kill you?

How is it “cruel and unusual” for the government to pull your hair real, real hard, but not for them to have you strapped down and injected with a bunch of lethal chemicals?

I think that if we rephrased the question–if we stopped asking folks if they believe in the death penalty and started asking them “Do you feel that government employees should have the right to kill you?” then we wouldn’t have a death penalty in this country anymore.

Because who in their right mind would ever agree to that?

Seven Days Left to Live
June 8, 2010

If the death penalty is merely another form of justice that the state metes out, just another means of punishment that the American judicial system has at its disposal, then why can’t we see it?

I mean, it makes sense that we can’t watch people doing time in prison–because a key element of a prisoner’s punishment is his or her isolation from the world.

But other things–like community service, for instance–you can absolutely see. In fact, a key element of the punishment of community service is that it’s so public. The experience is meant to shame you. That’s one of the reasons they make you wear that horrible orange tracksuit and pick up garbage on the side of the road rather than, say, work in a recycling plant. Because the whole situation’s intended to be so completely mortifying that you’ll never again land yourself on the wrong side of the law.

Even though I don’t buy the concept of the death penalty as a crime deterrent, lots of other people do. So, here’s my question: If it’s meant to deter crime, as making people pick up garbage on the side of the road is meant to do, then why is it hidden away from the public eye?

Why don’t we have public executions, like most of the other countries that kill large numbers of their own citizens every year? You know, wonderful, progressive democracies like Yemen and Saudi Arabia and Iran and Iraq.

Why don’t we behead people in public squares, like they do in Saudi Arabia?

Why don’t we televise executions and put them on the evening news?

If the death penalty is meant to deter crime, then why don’t we really publicize it?

And if the reason for not televising it is that to do so would be uncivilized, and grotesque, and barbaric, then boy, that’s really something to consider.

Because how could witnessing the administration of justice be barbaric, if the means of administering that justice is not?

Five Days Left to Live
June 10, 2010

The Pew Research Center recently released a survey about how hacked off we all are at the government. National Public Radio did a great story on it, and here’s a quote from their report:

“Only 22 percent of Americans surveyed by Pew say they can trust government in Washington ‘almost always or most of the time’–among the lowest measures in the half century since pollsters have been asking the question. And an increasing number–almost one of every three people–say they believe government is a major threat to their personal freedoms and want federal power reined in. Pew asked people to say whether they were content, frustrated, or angry with the federal government–and three of every four people said they were either frustrated or angry.”

Well, it’s easy to understand why. The waste, the loose spending, the incompetence. And of course, while this poll refers specifically to the way Americans feel about the federal government, none of us seem all too thrilled about our state governments, either.

Anyway, regarding the death penalty, the general frustration with government makes me think three things. First: Why oh why would we let these bureaucrats nobody trusts have the power to kill their own citizens? Meaning us.

Second: If one of the reasons folks are ticked with the government is wasteful spending, then look no further than the death penalty. California spends about $250 million per execution, and in Maryland, homicide cases that result in the death penalty triple the cost to taxpayers. So the next time we’re trying to solve a budget crisis, we should know just which pantry to raid.

Third: We’ve got to be real careful, y’all, that we don’t take our understandable frustration with the government out on the folks who are least able to protect themselves. Like the poor, and people of color, who pass through the death chamber in overwhelming numbers. Did you know that 95 percent of people on death row can’t even afford to pay their own attorneys?

I think we’re veering dangerously close to a system of justice here in America in which the folks we’re really, understandably angry with–like our politicians, and the good, good folks of Wall Street and BP–get off scot-free, and we end up taking out our ire on society’s low-hanging fruit. America’s too good a country for that, folks. We’re too good a country to have a justice system in which, if you’re rich, you escape justice, whether you’re guilty or not. And if you’re poor, you “get what’s comin’ to you,” whether you’re innocent or not.

Four Days Left to Live
June 11, 2010

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the first known death penalty laws date back to the 18th century B.C.E., under the government of King Hammurabi of Babylon. And from that time till this, governments have been sentencing their citizens to death for crimes that have included such grave offenses as cutting down a tree and robbing a rabbit warren. In the Old Testament, crimes that were said to deserve the death penalty included cursing your parents, breaking the Sabbath, perjury, contempt of court, having sex before marriage, having sex with someone of your own sex, having sex with animals, incest, and adultery. As of 1612, they could kill you in Virginia for stealing grapes or killing a chicken. And under the seventh century B.C.E.’s Draconian Code of Athens, death was the punishment for everything–which is a criminal code that manages to make even Texas’ look progressive.

Various methods that governments have used to execute their own citizens have included boiling, hanging, drowning, stoning, burning, beating, beheading, impalement, electrocution, and, of course, crucifixion.

It may or may not surprise you to learn that the idea of democracy has gone hand in hand with efforts to cut down on governments killing their citizens. In fact, the great brains of the Enlightenment–folks like Thomas Jefferson and Voltaire and Montesquieu, and particularly a fella named Cesare Beccaria, who wrote an influential treatise on the subject called “On Crimes and Punishments” in 1763–were among the first people in world history to seriously begin questioning the state’s right to kill its people, no matter how rotten they were. This all makes a lot of sense, when you think about it–kings and emperors and such had always argued that they were infallible, because they had a divine right to power. And Enlightenment philosophers were among the first to say that since governments often got stuff wrong, government power should be checked and scrutinized. Which tends to put a serious curb on killing citizens.

Anyway, speaking broadly, over the past three centuries there’s been a significant historical trend that’s gone like this: democracy up, death penalty down. Today, over half the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty. And the number of folks who are executed by their governments keeps going down.

Which is one of the reasons that Texas’ continued use of the death penalty is so extraordinary–we’re executing folks at a rate that, to quote a terrific article by Ned Walpin on, “has no parallel in the modern era,” and is terribly, terribly out of step with the overall trend of democracies around the world.

Now, we stopped electrocuting people partly out of courtesy to them, but also out of courtesy to the folks who had to watch, since it was super disgusting. Here’s a description of death by Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, collected from execution accounts and included in a 1985 dissenting opinion:

“The prisoner’s eyeballs sometimes pop out and rest on [his] cheeks. The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool. The body turns bright red as its temperature rises, and the prisoner’s flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking. Sometimes the prisoner catches fire. . . . Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh permeates the chamber.”

That, folks, was our government’s principal method of executing people for decades, and it was ruled unconstitutional by Nebraska, the last state to use it, only in 2008!

Today, we inject people with poison, because that’s supposed to be a lot more pleasant–for the folks being poisoned, and also for the folks who have to watch them get poisoned. Which I suppose is a sign of progress–that our government’s now trying to kill people as attractively as possible. It gives us a stronger claim to being a civilized country.

David Lee Powell was poisoned to death on June 15, 2010, by the state of Texas. 

Excerpted from the website of The Texas Observer (June 3-11, 2010), a nominee for best political coverage in the 2010 Utne Independent Press Awards.

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