Talk for death penalty seminar, Nov. 13-14, 1998, University of Missouri-Columbia)

Killing People

By James A. Haught

As editor of the biggest newspaper in West Virginia, I strive constantly to prevent restoration of the death penalty in our state. I write the most logical, reasoned appeals that I can.
But deep in my psyche, logic and reason have little to do with it. It's pure emotion - visceral feeling. I get a horror reaction when educated, enlightened people take a fellow human, bound and defenseless, and deliberately kill him or her.
I realize that the condemned person's crime was heinous, the work of a twisted sicko. But why should the whole society stoop to the same level in retaliation? Why add gore to gore?
Somehow, it seems worse when the killing is done by intelligent leaders: judges, governors, legislators, prosecutors, wardens. Every society contains some sociopaths who kill people. Murderers are loathsome, vile, poisonous people. But judges and governors are not - so it seems more ruthless for them to kill.
When I was young, I didn't really think about these things. But I had a rude awakening one day in 1956, when I was a 24-year-old reporter. I was sent to cover one of West Virginia's last executions, in the ancient stone prison at Moundsville. Here's part of the article I wrote:
...All through the day, you can't escape the realization that they're going to kill a man. They're going, intentionally and methodically, to kill a man.
In the afternoon, the mortician calls and gives you the obituary. And you think: But he's not even dead yet. They've got his funeral planned and he's still alive.
When night comes and you drive to the prison, the looming stone walls add to the feeling that you're in a grotesque world....
Along the street, you see the morbidly curious standing in clusters on the sidewalks, like the first fragments of a crowd gathering before a parade. And they fill you with disgust.
At the gate, a grizzled guard carrying a short, pump-action shotgun peers through the steel mesh and asks: "Got a pass?"...
He slings open the gate and you head toward the lighted entrance where another barred door faces you. This one works electrically. It comes open in your hand with a faint sizzle of current somewhere in its latch mechanism. The sizzle gives you a sudden start.
(I described waiting in a room full of newsmen and witnesses, trying not to show the ominous strain that everyone felt. Then we were led to the death chamber.)
Almost before you realize it, things are happening very quickly. Right in front of you, separated from the witness area by only a metal railing, sits the chair, looking like a wooden throne with straps and buckles and odd attachments fastened to it.
At the same time, three powerful-looking guards are walking in, holding the man by the arms. They seem to be rushing him and handling him firmly, although he is offering no resistance.
You look at his face with an intense feeling of pity. But he is expressionless. His eyes remain fixed toward the floor, showing no fear, no concern, not even resentment at the guards' rough shoving and pushing as they move him into position on the chair.
Suddenly, a man in a clerical collar at the front of the room begins reading from the Bible:
"The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters."
The guards have rolled up the man's trouser leg and are wrapping a heavy strap around it.
"He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the path of righteousness for His name's sake."
They buckled down his wrists and now they're strapping a strange, round, black object to the top of his head, where a small spot has been shaved bare.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."
They're fitting a heavy black mask over his face, leaving only a small breathing hole at the mouth and nose.
"Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over."
All the guards have moved back from the still figure.
"Surely goodness and mercy -- "
A crackling, humming noise. A red light flashes on at the rear of the room. The figure in the chair tenses with a slight lurch. His hands curl awkwardly upward in an strained, purposeless move.
The humming continues. Nobody moves. The faces around you wear an intent, pained look. Finally, it stops. The figure slumps slightly and the clenched hands relax.
The red light is out and a green one is on. Still nobody moves. After several seconds, a guard steps up and rips away the front of the gray prison uniform. Three doctors climb over the railing and begin placing stethoscopes against the motionless chest.
They mutter and nod to each other, fold up their stethoscopes, and turn away. Everyone is ushered back outside again, where the summer night seems suddenly chilled.
"That was an easy one," one fellow remarks. "He didn't even fight."...
Back through the barred doorways to the bright waiting room. Then out to the main gate again. The little clusters of people still are watching along the sidewalks.
"They're waiting to see the body brought out," the guard with the shotgun mutters as he opens the gate. "We always take it out the back way."
Forty-two years have passed since that night, but the nightmare feeling never left me. I'm still incredulous that normal people can put another person to death. It makes me shudder.
A decade later, a few reformers in our Legislature succeeded in banning executions in West Virginia. And the ban has held, in spite of all the right-wingers and fundamentalist preachers who want to start killing again.
I'm proud that our little rural state is one of the few places in America that doesn't kill prisoners. It puts us in step with the many enlightened nations that have ended the death penalty. I wish all of America would join the humane part of the world.