It's your last day on earth. Of course every life has a timeline of sorts, but yours has been altered and stone-set. Today is all about you. What would you like to eat? Who do you want to see? Friends, family? Your attorney? Have you found God? If so, we have a team of spiritual advisors waiting to guide you with calming words and anecdotes of forgiveness and redemption. It will be like having your own personal tutor right before the test, your final final. The consultation is complimentary and, we assume, effective (though first hand testimony is scarce). These are your last moments, so make them touching (but no touching!). You are limited by nothing but space and time and many other things.
How do you want to die? Because in America you have options. If you live in Utah, consider death by firing squad. When Ronnie Lee Gardner was awarded this leisure, it was beautiful, almost cinematic. It's unclear why a man would choose to die this way (scared of needles?), but nonetheless we filled Gardner's belly with lobster tail, steak, apple pie, and vanilla ice cream before pumping his chest with lead, per request. Not to take anything away from Gardner, but credit must be given where it is due. We praise our executioners: five police officers who made this possible, who volunteered (kind of like the Make-a-Wish Foundation) to make Gardner's invocation reality. Brutal, you say? Such harsh words shall not be associated with civil servants. These officers weren't chasing fame; their identities remained completely anonymous. And who knows who actually killed Gardner? One of the five .30-caliber Winchester rifles was loaded with blanks to keep the consciences of our volunteer executioners unstained. We protect our own—you are living testimony of this. We asked Gardner if he had any last words, and he replied, "I do not, no." After bullets perforated his heart and he hit the floor, he unclenched his hand, a gesture to his shooters, before returning it to a fist.
In 2004, execution by firing squad was retired. Fortuitously, Gardner was sentenced before this law took effect. In 2010, Gardner's death, his final stand, was a true demonstration of a life choice, a life chosen. Outside of the prison, Gardner's family conducted a vigil. His brother, Randy, commented, "I love him to death. He's my little brother."
If you live in Washington or New Hampshire, death-by-hanging remains on the table. Most states have eliminated this method, which should certainly please our more avid spectators. The executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, Richard Dieter, once explained that America has drifted away from death by hanging in favor of new methods that make the act "more palpable to the public." In 1993, insensitive to the needs of his spectators, Wesley Allan Dodd chose hanging. We complied with his request and took the proper precautions within the boundaries of the system. We weighed Dodd for rehearsal's sake, testing the noose with a bag of sand equaling its future occupant's weight. We measured to ensure the rope was between 3/4 to 1-1/4 inches in diameter. We boiled the rope, making it easier to stretch, to avoid spring and coil. We lubricated the rope's knot to reduce friction and comply with the 1969 U.S. Army manual. As expected, few attended Dodd's spectacle. When Dodd's hands were bound and his legs secured, we pushed a red button to release the trap door (we won't bother you with the details of the electromagnetic forces at hand) and let his six-coil noose drop seven feet, a story below, his story below. A curtain reduced the event's viewers to silhouettes.
Do you live in Arizona? Were you sentenced to death before 1992? How do you feel about gas? Arizona, known for its innovation, abandoned the outdated hanging method in favor of the gas chamber in 1934. The first test subjects: 19-year-old Fred Hernandez and his brother Manuel, 18, proved that Florence, Arizona, was ready for progress. It took 65 years for Arizona to put an end to the gas chamber, thanks to reactions like KTVK-TV reporter Cameron Harper's, after witnessing the execution of Donald Eugene Harding. "I watched Harding go into violent spasms for 57 seconds. Then he began to convulse less frequently. His back muscles rippled. The spasms grew less violent. I timed them as ending six minutes and 37 seconds after they began. His head went down in little jerking motions. Obviously, the man was suffering. This was a violent death, make no mistake about it." Welcome lethal injection. Because Walter Le Grand was sentenced to death before 1992, he was allowed to go by way of gas chamber in 1999, his petty attempt to protest the death penalty. A week earlier his brother Karl chose lethal injection. Walter's protest lasted 18 minutes after the cyanide pellets were dropped into the acid and the smoke arrived. Unlike Le Grand, California's Robert Alton Harris embodied that chill surfer swag throughout his execution, choosing to be remembered by words from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, "You can be a king or a street sweeper. But everybody dances with the grim reaper."
Have you thought about electrocution? The electric chair is an American invention, a quintessential slice of our history. From 1890 to 1980, the electric chair was at the forefront of execution. We'd shave you like at a barbershop. We'd strap you to the wooden chair, a chair resembling the old rocker your grandfather enjoyed so much, the chair he died in, maybe. We'd fasten a conductive sponge saturated in cool water to your head, fitted with electrodes: Sit back, relax, we'll take it from here. Do nothing. Await nothingness. We'd add another sponge to your leg, to maximize the current, before placing the hood over your head. Imagine complete darkness. It's almost over. And with the flip of a switch, your body is filled with 2,000 volts of electricity. You feel a warming sensation, like a fever of 140 degrees. You are now unconscious. You are now dead, hopefully. As with anything, errors can be made. It is possible you are conscious, alive, burning.
Now back to your exit. You were convicted of murder or treason or raping a minor—again, depending on the state. Do not deny your crime. Do not insult the process, an American process. A process that has survived multiple decades, Supreme Court Justices, American presidents, defense lawyers, dismembered families. What good would it do, anyway? Your life is not complex. You are the antithesis of loose ends. You are objectivity. You are quantification personified, personification quantified. You are absolute. And don't you dare call this a copout, some backward way to save money. It is anything but—frugal we are not. The extensive appeal process you are afforded can barely be afforded. If you live in Texas, you have cost us 2.3 million dollars to get to this point. Since the death penalty was reinstated in California, as of 2011, four billion taxpayer dollars had been spent for the execution of thirteen inmates. If you live in Florida, it is six times cheaper to let you rot in prison, but you transcend fiscal responsibility. We deem your death worthy of the inconvenience; the price of justice is justified.
Statistically speaking, you are probably a man. Since 1976, we have executed 1,226 inmates—12 were women. And then you say, Of course there are more men than women on death row, more men commit violent crimes. Exactly. Women comprise a mere eight percent of America's serial killers, and male criminal defendants in America outnumber females 3.3 to 1. There's a strong chance you're black. The percentage of blacks (or African Americans, we're never quite sure) on death row is nearly four times greater than their national population percentage. You probably grew up poor, deprived, and fatherless. There's a chance that you at least started college, but there's a better chance you never made it past eighth grade. More likely than not, you were 28 (give or take) when arrested, which puts you at about 40 now, possibly older. Your mid-life crisis is not defined by greying hairs or a wrinkling face or failing dreams. Your crisis has been constructed and processed, soon to be implemented.
You have spent the last 30 days on deathwatch. We know this wasn't pleasant, but can you imagine how bad it would look if you killed yourself on our watch?
You have eaten your last meal. What did you choose? Fried okra like so many others? The warden and chaplain arrive for a visit. Maybe they offer their tender words. They will be with you for the rest of your life. In the 20-plus years you've spent on death row, you probably found Jesus within the seclusion of your cinderblock walls—who else were you supposed confide in? The guards? What do they know of forgiveness, salvation, and eternity? You need a certified representative of God. Someone to clear up, evaluate, reorganize, and find sense in the remaining mess that is your life; a chance to transform your narrative from a tragedy to a document of hope. You need to know that what comes after is more than a claustrophobic prison of wood and earth and nothingness.
It is time to get dressed. Don't forget to shower—we want this to be as clean as possible; you will arrive at your end smelling of soap (and fear?). Depending on your state, you might be offered new pants and a shirt. We have dresses for girls, but again, this is highly doubtful. In some states you may be asked to remove all outer clothing.
Executions are no longer a public affair; your audience is limited. You see your attorney, prison guards, medical personnel, members of the media, your family, maybe, your victim's family, probably. Or maybe you see nothing but a one-way mirror. But you know you are being watched. They might be silent. But maybe they are screaming. Do you listen?
We connect you to a heart monitor—your last beats will be recorded. You chose lethal injection, as most do. The cocktail used in most states has been outlawed for dogs by the American Humane Society. You are not cute or innocent like a retriever. You are pasty and withering; it has been many years since you've seen the sun. You are strapped to a gurney. We insert intravenous tubes into each of your arms. You are symmetrical. You are granted a final statement. What do you say? You have options. Try playing it funny or strange like Thomas J. Grasso's last words. "I did not get my SpaghettiOs, I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this." Maybe emotional, apologetic? You can ironically condemn your executioners by questioning their morality, like David Martinez did: "Is the mic on? My only statement is that no cases ever tried have been error free. Those are my words. No cases ever tried are error free. You may proceed, Warden." How's your philosophy? If being thought provoking is your goal, make sure to exercise subject-verb agreement, unlike the many unsuccessful stands before you. Do you say anything? Choose your words carefully, for they will be a Google search away from the public long after you are gone. They might be published by the New York Times, deconstructed and mocked on boingboing.net by user names: Tdawwg and Holyfingers and Hugemonkey and Anonymous, quoted on television, in conversation, in essay.
Where will your body go? Your family has the right to produce the funeral they deem suitable. They can bury or cremate you. Hell, they can take you to a taxidermist. Burial rituals are sacred—we will not interfere. But what if you have no family? What if they've died or disowned you? Fear not, inmate, you will be taken care of. On prison grounds there are a cemeteries reserved for cases such as this, for those who no longer have a family and therefore no longer have a name. Is this you? If so, you will join the others with corresponding fates: to be buried, restricted to prison grounds for eternity, marked by a number on a stone.
A call from the state, your last hope exists only in your hopes. The executioner is located in the anteroom, connected to you only by the tubes of your IVs. What can you feel? Probably nothing. Pentathol flows through the outer tubes, like soda through a straw, and now into your inner piping. The lines are flushed with saline. Pancuronium bromide or tobocuraring chloride or succinylcholine, our paralyzing agent, is administered next. You cannot feel a thing. You cannot show you feel a thing. More saline. Our monitor proves you are still alive. Finally, potassium chloride is delivered in a lethal dose. Your heart's electrical signals have been interrupted. Your cardiac has been arrested. You are arrested, resting.
We, your witnesses, stand awestruck, unarguably changed—some little, others more. We are separated from you by glass, unable smell your soapy scent. We are separated and different. We are not like you. Our process of taking a life is not like the one you chose. Our process of taking a life is more humane than our previous process. And our process before that. And, if history tells us anything, our future processes will continue to evolve and improve. There are protesters outside holding signs that read "Murderer!" etc., some directed at you, others at us. 68 percent of America believes this is justice, but the 29 percent, the radically mistaken, create a tension, an uncertainty. But some things are certain: you are lifeless, a life lessened to a life lesson. Your nothingness is permanent. Just remember, we did not do this. You did.
Several years ago I had the chance to visit three death-row inmates in Florence, Arizona, with my father—their lawyer. Those inmates are now gone, but I think about them often. As far as I could tell, they were all guilty.