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Witness to an Execution

by BARBARA BECNEL

Federal Judge Jeremy Fogel is conducting hearings in San Jose this week to examine California’s lethal injection procedure. The intended outcome of these hearings is to determine whether condemned prisoners in this State are being properly anesthetized so that they do not experience excruciating pain during executions. Execution protocols that provoke extraordinary pain violate the U.S. Constitution’s provision against cruel and unusual punishment of prisoners.

This challenge was brought before the court by lawyers for condemned prisoner Michael Morales. Morales was scheduled to be killed in February 2006 but was saved when State officials were unable to meet new conditions set by Judge Fogel involving medical professionals’ participation in the execution process. The judge wanted to ensure that prisoners stay asleep as they are being poisoned, given that the investigation of recent executions shows Stanley Tookie Williams, killed by the State on December 13, 2005, likely died a slow and very painful death.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger considers such an effort on the part of Judge Fogel as no more than the federal court having “interjected itself into the details of the state’s execution process.”

While I appreciate Judge Fogel’s willingness to consider such challenges to California’s killing process, I already know the truth of what prison officials did to Stanley Tookie Williams on December 13th. I know how he suffered because I saw Stan die in San Quentin State Prison’s death chamber and it was the most horrific experience of my life-and no doubt the most horrible for Stan.

It began as I awaited the killing of Stan, when prison guards told me that “the whole thing”-the execution of my friend-would only take a few minutes.

It took a total of 35 minutes, during which Stan was tortured virtually every second before he stopped breathing.

Stan’s so-called quick and painless death was first botched when it took 25 minutes and many needle “probes” into Stan’s arm to find a viable vein for the insertion of a lethal cocktail of three different drugs.

Stan’s death process was botched again when Stan most certainly awakened after being put to sleep by the first drug. I say that because I saw Stan’s body writhe in pain and desperation-though he wasn’t supposed to be able to move at all after the second drug, pancuronium bromide, a paralyzing agent, was administered. That drug did prevent him from crying out, opening his eyes and flailing his arms so that we, the witnesses to his death, would not be made uncomfortable by the discomfort of a dying man in terrible pain.

But during the “humane” execution, as advertised by the State, Stan’s stomach heaved so mightily that it distorted itself, as he apparently awakened to the terror of slowly suffocating to death from lungs that could no longer move and to agonizing pain caused by a third drug that induces a heart attack.

I walked into the death chamber praying to God to save Stan. I prayed that the phone would ring, that the execution would be stopped. But as I watched Stan suffer, as I watched his 250-pound body contort so that his rib cage looked as if it belonged to someone dying of starvation, I begin to pray that God would take Stan right away by speeding up his death, to stop him from being tortured by the State of California.

President George W. Bush recently stated that “the United States does not torture. It’s against our laws, and it’s against our values.” But what happened to Stanley Tookie Williams on December 13, 2005, was, in fact, torture and does reflect our true values.

An execution is the planned murder of another human being. The 35-minute scenario of torture that occurred during Stan’s “civil” ritual of death was just an extra dose of inhumanity. If prevailing public sentiment supports-or is even indifferent to-the torture-murder of any one of us, then we are allowing ourselves to be dominated by vengeance, not justice; by cruelty, not compassion; by barbarism, not morality.

I was a witness to an execution. I saw close-up the “details of the state execution process,” as minimized by Governor Schwarzenegger’s comment. But those mere “details,” from the Governor’s point of view, are now my forever nightmare.

Judge Fogel’s hearings will provide Californians with an opportunity to look at facts that reveal the gap between our idealized values and our reality: people are being periodically tortured to death at San Quentin. What are we going to do about that?

BARBARA BECNEL was Stanley Tookie Williams’ advocate, co-author and editor. Portions of this article first appeared in The New Abolitionist, September 2006.

 

 

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