Death by lethal injection: An inhumane way to die

Lisa Montgomery
This undated file image was provided by attorneys for Lisa Montgomery – AP She was the first and only woman to be put to death by the federal government since 1953.

Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders – Albert Camus

What could be worse than death? The answer perhaps would be to know exactly when one is going to die. Locked up in a condemned cell, time crawls like a snail for someone who is on death row. Every waking hour of the day and night, the thought of death consumes them. On the early hours of the night of January 13th, 52 – year- old Lisa M. Montgomery, a Kansas woman, and a death row inmate in a Texas federal medical center knew it was her final night. In her last hours, it was reported that she stayed calm as she was being transported in shackles to the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. The fight to save the life a person in death row is often dramatic up until the last moment. All the 11th hour appeals by her lawyers on her behalf had failed against the lawyers of the US Justice Department. The final appeal was sought on the grounds of Lisa’s mental incompetency. Outgoing President Donald Trump had the power to grant Lisa clemency. Her request for clemency remained before Trump but he did nothing. Ultimately, the Supreme Court cleared the way for her execution to be carried out by rejecting all three appeals. Montgomery became the second woman to be executed in 67 years in a federal execution for a horrific crime in December 2004. She was sentenced to death in 2008. Lisa Montgomery got a single lethal dose of Pentobarbital through IVs in both her arms. At 1:31 a.m. Lisa  was pronounced dead. This chemical is usually used to euthanize animals.

Montgomery was convicted of killing Bobbie Jo Stinnett in the northwest Missouri town of Skidmore. She went to Bobbie under a false pretense that she was there to adopt a puppy. Instead Lisa used a rope to strangle Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant at the time. She then cut the fetus from Bobbie’s womb with a kitchen knife, authorities said. Prior to her visit, Lisa researched online how to perform a C- section. Due to her meticulous planning, her crime was perceived as premediated murder. The baby that Lisa took from Bobbie was named Victoria Jo. Last month on the anniversary of her death Victoria turned 16.

I am wondering what went through Lisa Montgomery’s mind when she found out that the US Supreme Court had turned down to halt her  execution? Subsequently the chaplain came to pray with her and told her not to be afraid. He was supposed to be in the death chamber during her final moments holding her hands and he was going to sing, “Jesus loves you,’ but later he was not allowed to be in the room for some unexplained reasons.

In the still of the night, two female prison guards of the execution squad had brought Lisa to the prison. They strapped her into a gurney and wheeled her to the execution room. She let go of herself and tried to focus inwardly. A female prison staff bent over her and after removing her face mask asked if she had anything to say, according to local journalists and prison officials who had witnessed the execution from a window after the curtain was raised. They had heard her say, “No,” in a muffled voice. After that she got the Pentobarbital injection and was pronounced dead after her breathing stopped. It was reported that the mid-section of her body moved for a second before becoming still. She had kept her glasses on as she lay dying.

In response to the execution choice, Montgomery’s attorney Kelley Henry called out a “failed administration” for allowing the execution of a woman who is “unable to rationally understand her execution.” “The craven bloodlust of a failed administration was on full display tonight,” Henry said. “Everyone who participated in the execution of Lisa Montogmery should feel shame.”

Lisa Montgomery’s execution reminded me of America’s famous death row inmate Mumia Abu- Jamal. For the last 39 years he is fighting one appeal after another for the 1981 murder of a police officer. To stay preoccupied through his numerous appeals to be exhausted, he had nothing but time on his hands. He studied law and wrote a book titled “Live from Death Row.” He wrote several articles that were published in prestigious Law Journals in America. In one article he wrote, “Unlike other prisoners, death row inmates are not doing time. Freedom does not shine at the end of the tunnel being extinction. Thus for many here there is no hope.”

Lisa Montgomery’s lawyers said, she had been born brain-damaged, gripped by bouts of psychosis and was too mentally ill to be executed. I am opposed to death penalty both on philosophical and ethical grounds. Even in the case of the most heinous murder, my natural reaction is never to impose the death sentence. I simply do not know how to justify murder for murder. The aim of capital punishment is to vindicate a crime. How does murdering a murderer serve justice?

In the final days of Trump presidency, Lisa Montgomery’s execution shows Trump as an ardent supporter of capital punishment and a supposedly tough guy in upholding the law. Lisa’s life could have been spared according to her attorneys if Supreme Court did allow a little time until Joe Biden took oath. Biden opposes the federal death penalty and has already indicated that he will stop execution at the federal level. As the glass palace is crumbling around Donald J Trump, two more executions are scheduled before President-elect Joe Biden’s 20 January inauguration. This drastic move is definitely breaking with a 130-year-old tradition.

Lisa Montgomery’s execution was the first federal execution of a female since 1953. Since 1976, 16 American women other than Lisa have been executed by individual states. There is a precedent of pausing executions while a presidential transition is taking place. Out of five, three have already been executed. Since July 2020, Lisa was the third and only woman to be executed by the federal government. The Trump administration oversaw the executions of 13 death row inmates since July of last year. And if the other two take place in the next couple of days, Mr. Trump will be the country’s most prolific “execution president” in more than a century. The five federal executions started with convicted killer 40-year-old Brandon Bernard who was put to death at a penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. The execution of 56-year-old Alfred Bourgeois took place on the evening of 11 December. Lisa Montgomery’s execution on Jan 13 was the 11th execution since Trump administration resumed federal capital punishment in July 2020 after a hiatus of 17-years. Next in line are Cory Johnson and Dustin Higgs who are set to be executed on Thursday (tonight) and Friday. Both men reportedly tested positive last month for COVID-19.

According to the Criminal Justice Project of the NAACP, there are 2,620 people on death row in the United States as of January 1, 2020. Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated by the US Supreme Court, states have executed 1,516 people (as of July 2020).

After the Supreme Court legalized lethal injection, 34 US states execute death row inmates by it. Only the state of Nebraska executes by the electric chair.

Lisa Montgomery did not receive the surgical version of a lethal injection that most states had used so far either in a federal or state execution. Death row inmates are now being commonly used as an experiment of a single shot lethal injection. The state of Ohio moved to such a decision first after the US Supreme Court declared using of such an injection is not a violation of the constitution, nor does it fall under “unusual and cruel punishment.” Up until ten years ago, a three drug cocktail was used on a death row inmate. Ohio is the first state in the US to adopt the single injection after a drug manufacturing company announced that they are not going to produce sodium Thiopenthalin. Research shows that it is the first chemical that used to be injected to paralyze the inmate. Then the second drug Pancuronium bromide (Pavulin) was used for immobilizing the inmate. Finally, a lethal dose of potassium chloride would paralyze the heart muscle and the inmate would die from cardiac arrest.

Ohio simply didn’t care about what the death penalty opponents were saying about their decision of switching to this drug Pentobarbital. However, the single drug lethal injection approach for capital punishment was met with a lot of debate. Both sides of the spectrum have been arguing all the pros and cons ever since this drug was given to death row inmates. Some states had been delaying their executions now and looking for other feasible substitutes. But the death penalty supporters have no qualms about this single drug approach, because according to them it is full-proof. Their argument is that an inmate with a three drug method may be paralyzed, but can still be conscious. It has happened in one case, where a prisoner didn’t die for half an hour and suffered. After that, there had been legal ramifications which culminated in further delay of some of the executions.

The manufacturer of Pentobarbital is a Danish company. They initially said they had no idea how this drug was used in the United States. They condemned Ohio’s decision to use it on its inmates. Since the Ohio execution they had moved their US plant to Italy. The Italian Parliament had demanded that the drug company give “assurances that this would not be used in any execution.”

Since then some of the US states went to Great Britain for supply of sodium Thiopenthalin. They also have wanted assurance that the chemical shouldn’t be used in execution. They were supposed to be monitoring future shipments to the United States.

In its rush to execute its death row inmates, Ohio had acted too quickly in administering Pentobarbital. They perceive death penalty as warranted knowing the New Testament doesn’t support lex talionis (the law of retaliation, whereby a punishment resembles the offense committed in kind and degree) or “eye for an eye.” In the states where they have capital punishment, they are generally indifferent to the fate of a convicted murderer. As soon as the jury comes out with the verdict to die, the state wants to move very quickly to carry out the execution. But the appeals process to stop the execution sometimes takes years in both federal and state cases.

Once someone gets the death penalty, that person is considered gone. They are kept isolated from the rest of the prison population. Usually, twice a week, they are escorted to the prison yard where they can walk or play basketball. Sometimes they are allowed in the day room where they can watch television. The family members visit them from behind shattered proof glass windows and gradually the visits start to sever. Friends abandon them. The correctional facilities try to execute them as quickly as possible. After a death row inmate named Johnnie’s execution, the lethal injection supporters were boasting what better way there is to execute than a single drug, if it can take care of the job? Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center said, “This might very well be the wave of the future in capital punishment in the Unites States.”

The opponents of death penalty law do have a different view. They have been vehemently objecting to the fact that because of drug shortages, using Pentobarbital to kill an inmate just like an animal is inhumane. There has not been much study done on the single-shot drug, and too little is known about how this drug works on a person, according to researchers.

Society’s need to avenge would have served better if they put the convicted murderers behind bars for life, without a possibility of parole. With no hope for freedom, locked up in a cell for twenty-three hours a day, the offender would have nothing but time on his/her hands to contemplate and consider about the enormity of the crime that he/she had committed. What can be more fitting as a punishment?

The debate over crime and punishment is an ongoing issue. Lisa Montgomery’s supporters and attorneys argued that a history of trauma and repeated sexual abuse by her step-father had led to the crime. The debate will be continuing over the role of past trauma in criminal sentencing. The death penalty opponents will say execution does not really deter crime. In all the states where they have capital punishment—there are pedophiles and murderers killing people every day. Death penalty is sought because of a desire for retribution. It is a form of punishment that can also potentially kill an innocent person. An execution only serves as a quick relief. A life sentence in prison is much worse than the ending of a miserable life. Was executing Lisa justified when her attorneys had repeatedly said that she had severe mental disorder and was being treated for bipolar disorder? In this millennium, should the premise that execution is cheaper than keeping people in prison be used for killing someone? Two wrongs don’t make it right. Vengeance never should feel sweet.

Postscript: At the time of filing this article at 11:58 p.m. (Thursday night) Cory Johnson, 52 is still alive. His lawyers filed emergency motions for a stay of execution. According to the Associated Press, the Supreme Court justices turned down his request before 10 p.m., clearing the way for his execution. People continue to gather outside the Terre Haute, a federal prison in Indiana where Johnson is waiting to meet his maker.

Zeenat Khan is a columnist and fiction writer. She lives in the USA



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