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Friday, Jun 22, 2018
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Making room for victims at the end of the Green Mile

Capital punishment is back on our minds these days, what with a drug company withholding a cocktail proven to dispatch the condemned efficiently and without apparent pain, and a substitute formula evidently having been the source Oklahoma killer Clayton Lockett’s prolonged and tortured execution — although “botched,” the term used in most news stories, seems ill-applied.

Maybe it took the best part of an hour for Lockett to die, and maybe he struggled and muttered, and maybe the cause of death was a heart attack caused by stress, and not the direct result of the replacement chemicals. But Oklahoma wanted Lockett dead, and that’s precisely what Oklahoma got.

Oh, yeah, sure. We’re better than that. Among the reasons a majority of Americans still support capital punishment is that we had eliminated the violence associated with the deed. No more hanging, shooting, electrocuting, gassing or beheading. We’ve just been putting them to sleep, permanently.

Then Clayton Lockett happened.

Well, honestly, only the irredeemably sympathetic weren’t at least a little pleased Lockett’s passage to eternity might have seemed a hellish eternity of its own. The rest of us reviewed the episode that landed him on death row, and marveled at karma’s patience. Hammurabi, the ancient Babylonian law-giver king famous for acknowledging the state’s right to extract equal measures, wouldn’t have flinched. Shouldn’t Lockett, too, have had a double-barreled shotgun unloaded in his chest and then been buried alive?

I mean, if it was good enough for Stephanie Neiman, saxophonist and recent high school graduate.

Now there’s a local tie. Gov. Rick Scott recently signed a death warrant for John R. Henry, condemned in the December 1985 stabbing murders of his estranged wife, Suzanne Henry, and his 5-year-old stepson, Eugene Christian. Henry slew his wife in Zephyrhills, then, having reflected on the situation, killed the boy in isolated Hillsborough County.

Assuming there are no further legal snags, Henry will be executed for his wife’s killing (but not, in one of those fascinating death-case twists, for Eugene’s) June 18, nearly 29 years after his murderous rampage.

Mike Benito, a former Hillsborough County Assistant State Attorney who, about the same time as the Henry trial, handled one of the area’s most grizzly serial murder cases — Bobby Joe Long eventually confessed to 10 murders and 50 rapes, though he hinted at others — rightly points out that the lapse between conviction and, finally, execution usually is so long, and the murderer so changed by decades on Death Row, the public tends to suffer a disconnect between the act and the shrunken senior citizen finally brought to the death chamber to be held to account.

Lockett, for instance, waited 15 years. Long, sentenced to death for the first time in 1985 for the murder, in Pasco County, of Virginia Johnson — did we mention his confessions? — somehow waits still.

“I can assure you,” writes Benito, “these 10 brutally murdered women, if they had been given the choice, would have each chosen 30 more years of life. Long decided they wouldn’t have that choice. ...

“[I]f he is ever executed, hopefully his lethal injection does not make him feel uncomfortable or cause him any pain. Then again, I had to show the jury the picture of one of Long’s victims with her throat slit.”

To be sure, when and if the details are cleared away and Long finally gets his appointment to walk the Green Mile, the news media will recount a good portion of his tale of serial horror. The 10 will not be forgotten.

But in the death chamber, where the procedure is preternaturally clinical, Benito notes there is no a physical manifestation of the deceased mandated by the state. It’s almost as though, at this moment of culmination, there’s no direct, acknowledged linkage between the victim(s) and the killer.

“With the victim’s family’s consent,” Benito writes, “I’ve always thought there should be a law which allows the state/warden to post photos of the victim when she was alive and photos of the victim at the murder scene on the glass visible to those witnessing the execution. This would help remind everybody very clearly as to why they’re attending an execution. Twenty to 25 years later, the victim always seems like an afterthought.

“In Bobby Joe Long’s execution (if ever), there would then be 10 photos of 10 brutally murdered women on the glass in front of him as witnesses watch him humanely put to sleep/death. May help to lessen talk of ‘barbaric behavior’ by the state.”