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Three Women Working Against Cruel and Unusual Punishment


As the nation is horrified by another botched execution, a capital defense lawyer in Texas, legal scholar in New York and the former warden of San Quentin work against capital punishment.

There were only three people in the room: Jeanne Woodford, the chaplain and the man strapped to a gurney with tubes coming out of his arms. After hearing the man’s last words, Woodford signaled the corrections officer who was “working the chemicals,” which means in prison argot that he started infusions of lethal chemicals that flowed into the man on the gurney. As warden of California’s San Quentin, Woodford presided over this high-tech ritual of punishment four times. After a stint as Executive Director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, she threw in the towel to become Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus, the abolitionist organization that sponsored the 2012 SAFE referendum seeking to replace the death penalty with life without parole. Though the referendum failed to pass, Woodford is still hard at work in the movement to abolish capital punishment in California.

Meanwhile, across the continent, in the gentility of Fordham University’s school of law, Arthur A. McGivney Professor Deborah W. Denno writes scholarly articles about “working the chemicals” that are published in the nation’s leading law journals and quoted at death penalty hearings before the United States Supreme Court.

Until lately, the chemicals Denno wrote about were sodium thiopental, an ultra-short acting barbiturate that, given intravenously, is supposed to deliver almost instantaneous sleep so that the condemned person will be impervious to the rest of the evening’s proceedings; pancuronium bromide, next on the menu, which is related to curare, plant extract poisons from Central and South America traditionally used on arrows which paralyze the body’s skeletal muscles (including the muscles of breathing); and for the coup de grace, a jolt of potassium chloride, which stops the heart. This deadly mixture was known as Carson’s Cocktail, so named after the Oklahoma pathologist, A. Jay Carson, MD, who concocted it as a “humane” alternative to the electric chair.

Since the early 1980s, the Carson Cocktail was the gold standard for dispatching society’s sinners (and the innocent too, if recent exonerations are factored in). But since thiopental supplies have dried up because of the EU’s resistance to the death penalty states embracing the death penalty have been forced by the courts to seek other drugs with results like this week’s botched execution in Arizona. Now Professor Denno must address the ghoulish new and often secretive lethal chemicals in use even as states calls for bringing back the electric chair or firing squad.

In Texas, attorney Kathryn Kase despaired as the Lone Star State executed its 500th person since the resumption of the death penalty. Kase wears three hats. She is Executive Director of the Texas Defender Service, where she supervises a staff of ten lawyers. She is herself a courtroom lawyer specializing in death penalty cases. And she and her staff mentor Texas lawyers in need of capital litigation tactics.

Kase’s organization was founded as a public-defender body with a focus on the death penalty, but not specifically an abolitionist organization dedicated to ending the death penalty. When she puts on her administrative hat, Kase must play hardball as a politico, convincing fellow politicians of the importance of the Texas Defender Service and wringing money out of the state government and foundations.

Woodford, Denno and Kase could not be more different in personality and background, yet all have thrust themselves into the battle against capital punishment. There was a time when working in capital punishment was considered men’s work that was too gruesome for women. Not anymore.

Jeanne Woodford, whose manner is crisp and to-the-point, took a BA degree in criminology and worked her way up to the highest rank of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Woodford told us that she chose criminology because there were few women in the field and because she wanted to bring a more even-handed standard of justice to criminology as practiced in California.

Woodford is dismayed that, since the 1950s, penology has been dominated by a punitive rather than rehabilitative philosophy; people want their pound of flesh, even though punishment deepens sociopathic behavior, she says. Mere confinement accomplishes nothing and rehabilitation is essential whenever possible, says Woodford.

An unabashed abolitionist, Woodford says she is not “soft on crime” but as a “policy person” she finds no respectable evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent. By the time the legalities are done, it also costs more to execute a person than to incarcerate him or her for life she says. There is, she adds, a small element of the criminal population that it is so dangerous that it requires lifelong incarceration.

Woodford’s demeanor is so crisp that we felt a little trepidation about asking her how she felt about overseeing the execution of four men when she was warden of San Quentin in light of her views on the death penalty. “That,” Woodford replied, “Was a policy issue.”

We asked Woodford what, specifically, changed her mind about capital punishment and she told us she has always opposed it on moral and practical grounds and that nothing has changed her opinion. Woodford says she sees hope that behavioral science is beginning to change peoples’ minds about the issue.

One could not imagine a woman more different from Jeanne Woodford than Kathryn Kase. Funny, streetwise and a gifted lawyer, Kase started out as a journalist in San Antonio, Texas, got bored covering police court, and craved the action on the other side of the bar. Kase went to law school and moved to New York, where she worked for brief periods for private law firms. She then returned to Texas, where she says she found her calling in the Texas Defender Service, of which a more thankless labor could not be imagined.

By most accounts, Texas really needs Kase. By 2011, Texas governor Rick Perry had presided over more executions than any governor in modern history–234. The numbers continues to grow.

Speaking to Randi Hensley of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty in an internal memorandum, a Texas lawyer agreed. “Once guys get on death row in Texas, there’s about a 90% chance they will die,” said the lawyer: “There are no public defenders, no money, no experienced death penalty lawyers.”

While the lawyer’s observations are somewhat exaggerated, not by very much: organizations like the Texas Defender Service and the death penalty “clinic” at the University of Texas are so short staffed that they find themselves desperately filing appeals moments before the chemicals began to flow. Press reports of Texas executions have been chilling.

As Kathryn Kase dukes it out in the rough and tumble of Texas courthouses and the statehouse, Deborah Denno continues to highlight the cruelty of lethal injections in her academic work. Soft-spoken and poised, Denno says her turning point was the electrocution of Willie Francis, who walked the long road twice because the first execution was bungled.

When lethal injections supplanted the “hot squat” (the electric chair) as a more “humane” means of extinguishing human life, Deborah Denno made the cruelty of lethal injections her academic focus. Denno’s work is invaluable in helping to paint for the public a complete picture of executions, from electrocution to the death gurney says Steve Hall, executive director of the Texas abolitionist group StandDown.

In a field once dominated by men, Kase, Denno and Woodford are bringing new passion to the fight against the death penalty along with a small pool of capital defenders like Judy Clarke and Maurie Levin. This week’s shocking botched execution may bring more Americans to their side of the issue.

Robert Wilbur is a psychopharmacologist who also writes semi-popular articles on capital punishment, prison reform, and animal rights. Martha Rosenberg is a regular CounterPunch contributor.


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