Hiding From the Death Penalty

Last month, Utah prison officials took a death row prisoner named Ronnie Gardner to a specially designed room, strapped him tightly into a chair, and draped a black hood over his head. By a prearranged signal, a group of five volunteer executioners aimed their Winchester rifles at a target placed over his heart, and opened fire.

I met Ronnie Gardner more than 10 years ago, when his appellate attorneys asked me to analyze his background or "social history" to see whether the early trauma and abuse that he had suffered helped explain the tumultuous path his life had taken, and to form an opinion about whether that kind of analysis should have been presented in his capital trial. This past June, I testified during a clemency hearing on his behalf. Our efforts were rebuffed, and Ronnie's request for clemency was denied. A few days later, the state of Utah killed him.

Twenty-eight people were put to death in the United States this year, before Ronnie Gardner's execution. Aside from the method by which it was carried out, his was unlikely to have drawn much public or media interest. But Ronnie's case garnered international attention when his words -- "the firing squad, please" -- spoken at a court proceeding in April, brought the true nature of capital punishment back into clear focus. For a short time, those words and the event they foreshadowed forced death penalty supporters and opponents alike to reflect on what it truly means for the state to take the life of one of its citizens.

Ronnie Gardner's choice to die by firing squad pierced what Albert Camus called the "padded words" with which we have smothered and hidden capital punishment in our society, preventing us from seeing clearly what it "really is" and honestly debating its legitimacy. "The firing squad, please," came as close as humanly possible to showing the nation, and the world, what Camus described as "the machine" of the death penalty, making us "touch the wood and steel" of it.

The truth is that many of the ugly realities of capital punishment are still covered up in our society, described with euphemisms that make the death penalty seem deceptively palatable. We understandably focus on the terrible crimes that capital defendants have committed, but we refuse to examine the origins of their violence. Thus, we are still a nation that largely ignores the plight of desperately poor children, does little to alleviate the suffering of those who are traumatized by neglect and abuse, and turns a blind eye toward underfunded, incompetent, and sometimes callously cruel juvenile institutions that frequently do more harm than good to troubled and vulnerable young people. Instead, we rise up in indignation when one of these profoundly poor, chronically ignored, and badly mistreated children grow up to become, as Ronnie Gardner described himself, a "nasty little bugger," only then paying much attention, with many clamoring for the death penalty to be imposed.

Although this part of his story got comparatively little media attention, Ronnie Gardner lived exactly the same kind of life that many capital defendants have, one filled with precisely the sort of turmoil, trauma, and tragedy that we now know leads to extreme forms of violence. He was exposed to virtually every form of child maltreatment there is -- including abject poverty, profound neglect, and emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. The state of Utah did little or nothing to prevent this maltreatment, and mostly exacerbated its mounting effects. When the cruelty, criminality, and institutional mistreatment to which he was subjected finally took their toll, Ronnie began to express his anger and pain outwardly, using aggression to keep a hostile world at bay.

By then, Utah authorities had thrown up their hands, claiming they had no alternative. They put Ronnie in adult prison, although he was still a teenager. With no help forthcoming from correctional staff and facing dangers from much older and stronger prisoners, Ronnie's problems only worsened. He was eventually sentenced to death for the 1985 murder of attorney Michael Burdell, whom Ronnie shot and killed during a courthouse escape attempt.

In theory, the jury that decided Ronnie Gardner's fate in his capital trial was supposed to hear the story of his life, presented as comprehensively as possible, and to take it into account in choosing between life and death. After all, as we are often told, our legal system goes to great lengths and spares no expense to insure that only the truly deserving are condemned to death. Our courts use padded words -- terms like "super due process" and "death is different jurisprudence" -- to describe these procedures, ones that death penalty proponents claim are so elaborate, careful, and time consuming that, if anything, they provide these worst criminals with "too much justice."

In fact, however, as is still true in far too many capital trials, Ronnie Gardner's legal defense was shockingly inadequate. His original lawyers badly botched the only part of his 1985 capital trial that really mattered -- the portion where they were supposed to explain the meaning and significance of their client's troubled life in order to mitigate his punishment. They proceeded haphazardly and incompetently, with no coherent strategy to save him from the death penalty. They called only a handful of ill-prepared witnesses and never bothered to place his criminal behavior in the larger context of the trauma he had suffered earlier. Ronnie Gardner's jury was never given a meaningful chance to weigh the horrible details of his life against the awful things he had done. The scales of justice, in this case and many others like it, were never remotely balanced. Indeed, just a few weeks before Ronnie was executed, several of his original jurors came forward to say that if they had known about the horrible upbringing that his trial lawyers' incompetence had kept hidden from them, or if they had been given the option of sentencing him to life without parole, they would never have voted in favor of the death penalty. But it was far too late to make any difference.

Ronnie Gardner's case was painfully instructive about another aspect of the death penalty that our society labors mightily to keep hidden. The term "lethal injection" describes the execution process now in widespread use in most parts of the United States, a method we have been reassured allows state-sanctioned killings to be carried out "humanely." It is a bland, denatured term, one that conjures the image of an antiseptic, medical procedure more than anything else. In this way, of course, the padded words with which we cloak the process -- "lethal injection" -- brilliantly belie the violent outcome it is designed to bring about. This seems to explain why the Gardner execution drew so much media attention and pubic interest. After all, why would someone reject an obviously more humane procedure in favor of one that seemed so brutal, even barbaric?

In fact, Ronnie had carefully read the Utah "lethal injection" procedure, one very similar to those in use in many other states, and it terrified him. He did not trust the procedure and feared it could not be carried out correctly. He worried that he would be left lying motionless on a prison gurney -- literally paralyzed -- and publicly put on display for a prolonged, perhaps unbearably long period of time, possibly in excruciating pain, but unable to move or express any feeling, as a group of strangers watched him slowly but imperceptibly die. For him, the firing squad seemed far less inhumane, degrading, and cruel. For those who witnessed the event, of course, and for others who stopped to contemplate what actually happened, it was another matter entirely.

And this seems to underscore the primary -- perhaps only -- advantage that lethal injections have over more seemingly primitive ways for the state to kill: their ability to hide the ugly truth of what we are actually doing. Yet, for a brief moment last month, the spectacle of a firing squad shooting to death a strapped down, hooded man in Utah reminded us of what the death penalty is really about.

Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is a leading expert on capital punishment and the author of Death by Design.

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