George Stinney, the youngest person to be executed in the 20th century in the United States. He was age 14.
As I write this I am sitting in a small room waiting for death. I am not on death row, but it gives me some insight into the feelings that must be going through the head of a convict, and of his family, waiting for the needle or the chair. It allows me to glimpse into the mind of Robert Glossip, scheduled to die on November 6.
I am sitting in a hospital watching my father in his final days or hours. The family are gathered, sitting down together for a while, then going about the daily chores of living, then coming back, the impending death looming over us all the time. We can do our work, we can smile at friends, but it is there all the time at the backs of our mind. Death is in the room, and there is no escaping it.
That is what it is like to be on death row. A cancer patient is told that they have a certain period to live, but there are no guarantees. They may go into remission and outlive their doctor. They may pass at any moment. There is uncertainty. But there is also a tiny spark of hope. When you are on death row you have been given the date of your death. You know that no matter how healthy you feel, how optimistic about life, it all ends on a certain day at a certain time. That knowledge is a terrible burden to bear.
Robert Glossip was convicted of the brutal murder of Barry Van Treese, the owner of the Oklahoma City motel where he was employed. Van Treese was beaten to death with a baseball bat on January 7, 1997. Glossip did not swing the bat. In fact he wasn't there when it happened. All sides agree on that.
The man who swung the bat was Justin Sneed, who has a violent past. He did a deal with prosecutors to escape the needle. Part of the deal was implicating his co-worker Glossip. The entire case against Glossip was based on Sneed's testimony. Sneed is now doing life, while Glossip sits on death row. Leaving aside people's thoughts on capital punishment, can anyone be comfortable with the actual killer living while the man who didn't kill Van Treese is executed?
Most death row inmates are not monsters, though many have done monstrous things. Glossip had never broken the law before his conviction. He finished school and got a job. He was an upstanding, tax-paying member of the community. He proves that death row inmates are just people, like the rest of us. They have loved ones who care for them. They have mothers, children, friends, spouses. There are people whose lives will be torn apart once the switch is thrown, just like my life will be torn apart in a few hours or days. It is easy to forget this because of the crimes they have committed, but every inmate on death row is going through a personal hell with their family and friends.
It is a huge responsibility to take a life. As Clint Eastwood said in Unforgiven: “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everything he’s got and everything he’s ever gonna have.”
Leaving aside the morality, which is difficult, we must be absolutely certain that the person sitting in the chair is guilty. And the harsh reality is that one in twenty five executed in the United States is not guilty (Rate of False Conviction of Criminal Defendants who are Sentenced to Death, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014). They are innocent. And the Supreme Court has ruled that being innocent is not enough to get you a free pass out of jail (Herrera V Collins, Supreme Court, 1993). To execute someone who is innocent does not violate their constitutional rights. And states have done it. Several times.
Children as young as fourteen have been executed. George Stinney was barely into his teens when he was strapped into Old Sparky in 1944. Guards had to put a stack of cushions on the seat because the chair was not designed to kill children. George was one of the 4% of executed people who are completely innocent. The little boy’s only crime was being black in the forties.
This is not liberal reinterpretation of history. On December 17, 2014, Stinney's conviction was vacated by Judge Carmen Mullen after a retrial. She found that he had not been given a defense at his original trial, his confession had likely been coerced, and his Sixth Amendment rights had been violated. He was innocent. The decision came seventy years too late to save his life.
America is one of only a handful of countries in the world still taking the lives of people in retribution, instead of trying to rehabilitate criminals. And the methods the country has chosen to carry out the dirty work are among the most prolonged, painful and torturous available. This was not the intention when the methods were introduced. They were genuine attempts to make executions more humane. But they don't work. Both lethal injection and the electric chair can result in slow and agonizing deaths.
The electric chair has run its course. It is unlikely to be used again. America has run out of the drugs used for lethal injection. The EU, where they are manufactured, will not export them. Richard Glossip will be given an experimental cocktail of poisons because of this. Will it work well or will it prolong his pain?
Perhaps the time has come to revisit the question of capital punishment. In Old Sparky I tried to give a history of the chair. But more than that, I tried to put the chair into a wider historic and social context. I hope it can help spark a very important debate.
My wait in the death room has ended. Richard Glossip's will end in a few weeks. But there are 3,002 prisoners across America who are still waiting in small rooms with death for company. My thoughts are with them.