Are some criminals too evil for maximum security? Are some crimes so heinous that they demand capital punishment? When governments exercise the death penalty, do they cede their moral authority on murder? The use of the death penalty is a thorny issue that comes connected to so many questions that it’s like a large display of dominoes – tip one over and it rapidly cascades out in a hundred directions at once.
Written for the 1995 movie Dead Man Walking, Steve Earle’s ‘Ellis Unit One’ is a chilling portrait of a death row guard and the guilt that attends his job. Following in the footsteps of his dad and uncle, this small town boy signs on at the prison after a stint in the service, but his job takes a turn for the worse when he’s transferred to death row. The execution chamber of Ellis Unit One comes to haunt his dreams:
Well, I’ve seen ‘em fight like lions, boys
I’ve seen ’em go like lambs
And I’ve helped to drag ‘em when they could not stand
And I’ve heard their mamas cryin’ when they heard that big door slam
And I’ve seen the victim’s family holdin’ hands
Last night I dreamed that I woke up with straps across my chest
And something cold and black pullin’ through my lungs
‘N even Jesus couldn’t save me though I know he did his best
But he don’t live on Ellis Unit One
In December of 2006, Ángel Nieves Díaz was executed in Florida for the 1979 murder of a strip club manager. Díaz took 35 minutes and two injections to die, and MSNBC reported that he “…was moving as long as 24 minutes after the first injection, including grimacing, blinking, licking his lips, blowing and attempting to mouth words.” This botched procedure caused governor Jeb Bush to stay all executions – an action that was followed by three other states.
When convicted, Diaz was already in jail for killing the director of a drug treatment organization by stabbing the man 19 times while he was asleep. Clearly this was not a nice person, but while his 35-minute ordeal of an execution became a rallying point for anti-death penalty activists, it’s unclear why Diaz was deserving of a more peaceful death than his victims.
While I support the death penalty in certain cases, I have some serious reservations about the practice, particularly how it’s applied in the United States. Religioustolerance.org reports several interesting facts on this subject, including these doozies:
• The vast majority of those executed were poor. About 90% could not afford a lawyer when they went to trial. They had to rely upon a court-appointed lawyer.
• The homicide rate in those states with the death penalty is almost double the rate in states without the death penalty.
Additionally, by 2006, 14 death row inmates had been proven innocent through DNA evidence. It’s fair to ask how many innocent people have died for the crimes of others, and that in itself is probably enough to give anyone pause about this irreversible form of justice.
Surprisingly, the United States, Japan and Singapore are the only three fully developed countries that still administer capital punishment. Tellingly, the following six countries execute the largest number of their citizens (in order, drumroll please):
3) Saudi Arabia
5) United States
Regardless of how you feel about the death penalty, that’s some pretty rough human rights company to be in. No tea party of civil liberties there, to be sure…
There are currently nearly 3,700 prisoners on death row in the 37 states that use capital punishment.
Listen: Ellis Unit One