Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Smaller Tail Wagging a Larger Dog (Otherwise Known As: I’m Not Going to Say I Told You So, Part II)

It is Christmas morning on Death Row in Texas.  Thus far, no fat men in red coats have been seen, though plenty of fat ones in gray coats are available.  In any case, I suspect that the Polunsky Unit is not exactly old St. Nic’s pre-planned route.  If those of us here don’t make the “naughty” list, I don’t know who does.  I always hang a gray state sock outside my door, just to see how the guards will react to it.  This is always illuminating, and I have actually seen several of them pause, connecting the dots leading them to places they had never wanted to go.  The female working the pod this morning, for instance, won’t look me in the face.  Just wait until I wish her a Merry Christmas later…In any case, I suppose the sock is also a bit of hedging on my part, just in case somebody decides to deposit some coal in there.   Very useful stuff, coal, especially when the heaters “break” again, an event which seems to occur with an alarming regularity.

The natives are restless.  Twice a year, the kitchen makes an effort on the trays, and today happens to be one of them.  I have it on good authority that for the appetizer course we will be having a torchon of moulard duck foie gras from Élevages Périgord of Quebec, served with a crystallized apple chip, some celery-branch batons, Granny Smith apple marmalade, candied walnuts, frisée and juniper-balsamic vinegar, spread thickly on brioche toast that the guards will replace every few minutes.  Brioche, you know, should never be eaten cold, which makes it grow heavy and stiff.  For the main course…you know, as I write this, the realizations strikes me that the misinformation available to the general public over all things carcereal is so broad and deep (not to mention ridiculous) that I might actually be believed for writing this crap.  Bloody depressing, that.  We are having baked chicken, I think.  So, like, relax, Senator Whitmire.  You can lay off the tedious something-must-be-donery until the end of the year, thanks.

Politics and the law tend to take a breather during December, but this is by no means absolute.  In a curious and lamentable coincidence, both of my neighbors received bad news from the courts over the past two weeks.  My neighbor on the left was denied relief by the Federal District Court, and my neighbor on the right got shot down by the 5th Circuit, the last stop on the road to the Supreme Court.  This was analogous to receiving an execution date, as the Roberts court has firmly and finally solved the centuries-old legal riddle about whether the SCOTUS was right because it was last, or last because it was right.  We found out about his ruling yesterday, on Christmas Eve.  I suppose that the ruling was probably issued on Friday, but the news media didn’t need filler material until Saturday evening.  Merry Christmas, convict.

This man’s case deals with a drug deal gone bad.  He was de-toxing something fierce (to hear him tell it), and was so jumpy that when his connection pulled a zip-lock bag from his pocket, it took on the form of a gun.  Ten seconds later, a man was dead and another set his first steps on the path to the execution chamber.  That’s what happens when you are a junky in America, I guess.

Unless your name is the state of Georgia, or South Dakota.  Or Texas. Or Nebraska.  A few months ago, I WROTE ABOUT the increasing difficulties that these cartels, er, states, were having getting their fix killing juice.  Georgia was caught red-handed skulking about the slums of London, purchasing smack from an illegal pharmacy operating in the back closet of a driving school.  Texas was busted using a DEA identification number for a hospital that had ceased to operate about the same time I was learning to say “bullshit”.  If these tales didn’t make you feel at least a little slimy, hold on.  When addictions or Americans are involved, it almost always gets worse before it gets better.

Call it a moral awakening, if you like.  Call it REPRIEVE kicking a little butt.  Whatever the reason, a slew of pharmaceutical companies have put their European-styled loafers down and refused to export execution chemicals to the US.  Words like “Nazi medicine” have been popping up in major Euro newspapers.  Teva from Israel, Sandoz from Austria, Kayem Pharma from India…the list gets longer every few weeks.  Earlier this month, the European Union officially banned the export of some barbituric acids, including thiopental.  What’s a poor state to do?

Well, they could start by having a frank and honest discussion over the arbitrariness of the current system, like, say, they are doing in Connecticut and Oregon.  Or, they could follow the lead of Nebraska and pay a shadowy operative to steal the chemicals.  Enter Chris Harris.  At one time, Mr. Harris was a broker for the Indian firm Kayem Pharma. Seeing a chance to make some spending cash, he illegally sold 500 grams of thiopental (enough to kill 166 human beings, by my count) to Nebraska and South Dakota, for the grand total of $2,000.00. (For those interested, that establishes the value of a human life at the astonishing sum of 12 dollars.  Uplifting, isn’t it?)  Keep in mind, Nebraska and South Dakota have managed to collectively execute precisely one person this century, so what exactly they thought they were doing buying 500 grams is an open question.  Well, it turns out we have these pesky laws against importing just any old chemical, and the shipment was seized by Uncle Sam, who may have been morally opposed to the actionor simply looking to re-stock their own supplies.  Kayem Pharma knew nothing about the sale, and expressed dismay over the whole affair, saying that executions violate the ethos of Hinduism, once again illustrating just how far behind the moral curve Southern Baptists are in the world of the theists.  Ganesh pwns j00!  Anyways, Kayem fired Harris, and fired off some emails that have become public.  Calling him a “piece of shit thief” does not, apparently, violate the Hindu ethos, a happy and entertaining footnote to this sorry act.

Like any good peddler of narcotics, Harris would not be deterred by something as trivial as the law.  He recently approached Swiss pharmaceutical company Naari, pretending to be in the market for thiopental which would be used during operations in Zambia.  The company shipped some off, which were then diverted by Harris back to the state of Nebraska.  This time around, he upped the price for 485 grams to $5,411.00.  Who pays nearly three times more for some stolen property only months later?  Addicts, of course.  It hardly needs to be mentioned, but all of the states thus mentioned as addicts of death are firmly entrenched in the Red State category.

The men back here speak about such developments in excited terms.  Hope is all too easy to grasp under these circumstances.  I killed myself in my head a very long time ago, so from my remove the antics of Chris Harris and these stammering, red-faced Repubs are, well, humorous, sort of like watching a bunch of clowns cram into a 1972 Yugo.  It is a little disconcerting to see the red, white and blue dragged through the mud like this, but after Iran-Contra, experimentation by US scientists on prisoners in Latin American prisons, Monica and her cigar, and eight years of Bush II, I have developed sufficient antibodies to protect me.  Thus numbed, perhaps it is easier to see that all of the hullabaloo surrounding the drug cocktail is mere window-dressing the power of death.  The polling numbers on this issue can be confusing.  How the questions are asked makes all the difference, so I am not sure if anyone really knows the true level of support for capital punishment in America.  I am painfully aware that America is basically a center-right nation, politically.  We make some stupid decisions as people, but we are not a stupid people.  Why is it that certain outcomes seem inevitable, when we move from polling small groups to large ones?  It’s something about the shift from individual conscience to a collective one, meaning that it is the nature of our political system to corrupt the true desires of the populace.  No matter what we believe individually, good ideas seem to die in House committees, while bad ones run rampant…

While the numbers of people who approve of the death penalty are dropping, a majority still supports it in most polls.  What we say we believe and what we actually support through action are two different things, though, a subject I have always found curious.  So I did a little number crunching on this subject, using 13 different statistical sources.  What I found surprised me not in the least.

I started by looking at the numbers of death sentences and executions on a state by state level. Then I delved further, down to the level of the counties.  What I found was that the death penalty in the US is actually a minority practice.  In one report (A Broken System, Part II: Why There Is So Much Error in Capital Cases, and What Can De Done about It, by James S Liebman et al.), I found that 34 states sentenced at least one person to death, yet over 60% of the counties in these states did not impose a single death sentence in the 23 period of review.  This, despite the fact that there were more than 332,000 homicides and 120,000 murder convictions occurring in these jurisdictions.  When you look at actual levels of executions (instead of merely imposing a death sentence, which in many states are overturned a high majority of the time), the numbers are even more alarming.  Only 454 (14%) of the nation’s 3,147 counties, parishes, and boroughs carried out an execution since 1976.  In other words, six out of seven counties in this pro-DP nation haven’t carried out an execution in 4.5 decades.

Fourteen counties – representing about .4 percent of all US counties, encompassing less than 5% of the nation’s population – carried out over half (53%) of all executions.  23% of all executions came from exactly 6 counties, accounting for fewer than 2% of all Americans.  28% of Americans account for over 95% of executions.  A clear majority (57%) of Americans live in counties that have not executed a single person in a half century.  Over 70% reside in counties that have executed one person or less during that period.

Texas has carried out almost 500 executions since the “modern” death penalty era began the wake of the Gregg decision.  The states competing for this dubious honor have a long way to go to catch up:  Virginia in the number 2 spot, has killed 108 human beings.  Next comes Oklahoma with 96, and Florida with 69.  Harris County (the main county of Houston, Texas) has sentenced over 290 men to die, meaning that the # 2, #3, and #4 states on the overall execution list would have to combine just to compete with one single county in Texas.  Adding to the confusion of all of this is that almost 2/3 of counties in Texas did not carry out a single execution in the past 35 years.

Zooming back out to the national level, I then focused on certain states where the death penalty seems to be in a state of suspended animation.  What I found was that a death sentence in California, Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Kansas, and Tennessee amounts to little more than a multi-million dollar cruel joke.  In Nevada, for instance, there are 77 men on death row.  They have executed 12 since 1976.  11 of these were volunteers – men who gave up their appeals.  This means that only 1.2% of death sentences actually adjudicated by state courts have been carried out.  The following chart will help drive this point home:

All of the numbers presented here cry out for an explanation.  I have already waxed philosophic (or idiotic, at times) over many of them for years, and I won’t tread over old ground here.  The main point that I am trying to make here is that whatever we claim, we are actually not a death penalty nation.  We are a nation of abstainers controlled by a few rabidly pro-DP counties.  If that doesn’t spell “arbitrary”, then I am badly in need of a new dictionary.

To my California-based readers:
For those of you on my side of the abolition issue, you will have an opportunity to participate in the death of the death penalty next year.  Unlike in most states, the Lege cannot abolish capital punishment – it must be killed at the ballot box.  The SAFE California Campaign will attempt to do this next year during the 2012 election cycle, and some polls indicate that this drive may actually have a chance.  Doing so would count as one of the greatest victories for our side in the history of this issue, and will set the trend for the entire Western portion of the nation.  The Act would replace capital punishment with life in prison without parole, require convicted murderers to work and pay restitution to a victim’s compensation fund and direct some of the money saved to solving more rapes and murders.  If you would like to support this movement, you can find the website for the SAFE California Campaign HERE.  Get to work!

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved


feministe said...

Thomas, this was a well-written post, with good use of statistics to make the point about just how arbitrary the death penalty is. As a California-based reader, this is why I signed the petition drive for SAFE California to appear on the November 2012 ballot. Fingers crossed.

Thomas_R. said...

Thomas - I do agree with your post exept for the conclusion at the end of this paragraph:

"This man’s case deals with a drug deal gone bad. He was de-toxing something fierce (to hear him tell it), and was so jumpy that when his connection pulled a zip-lock bag from his pocket, it took on the form of a gun. Ten seconds later, a man was dead and another set his first steps on the path to the execution chamber. That’s what happens when you are a junky in America, I guess."

The connection you are attempting to impress upon readership is not a true reflection of the cause and effect relationship between a junkie and his/her actions. Just as not all children of alcoholics become alcoholics themselves, prevailing number of junkies DO NOT murder for drugs...