One Vote Away From Ending Executions

We may be one Supreme Court Justice’s vote away from ending executions in the United States. The Supreme Court’s decision to hear Glossip V. Gross later this year gives death penalty opponents that hope. This case challenges the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocols on the grounds they violate 8th Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. Attorneys will likely cite Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett’s April 2014 execution to exemplify why Oklahoma’s current form of lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment. That execution’s observers witnessed the grisly spectacle of Lockett choking and gasping, writhing and grimacing for 43 minutes before he expired. The Court’s four liberal justices will likely rule Oklahoma’s form of lethal injection unconstitutional. Changes in lethal injection protocols since 2008 when the court upheld lethal injection’s constitutionality may convince one other judge to side with the liberal justices and rule lethal injection unconstitutional. Since 2008, European drug companies’ refusal to sell US prisons drugs formerly used in executions such as Sodium Thiopental and Nembutal has compelled states to develop new untested drug combinations to execute death row prisoners. As a result, executions have been carried out without any good idea how these new drugs would interact or their impact more significantly upon the persons on the gurneys. We have witnessed the horrific consequences of states’ ill-considered decisions: persons have become lab rats in states’ grotesque experiments in the putative name of justice. You would think states pursuing justice would want to act transparently. The opposite in true, however. A recently passed Ohio law protects the anonymity of persons involved in carrying out executions and of pharmacies, which provide drugs used in executions. The Virginia Senate has also passed legislation, which would shroud everything about Virginia executions in secrecy and bar Freedom of Information inquiries into executions. The Virginia House hasn’t voted on this legislation, which Minority Leader Richard Saslow (D) sponsored. He acknowledges he doesn’t want to return to the electric chair, and believes secrecy will ensure humane executions. His reasoning belies what most reasonable persons know is true: people act secretly because they know they’re wrong and don’t want to get caught. As officials in Virginia and elsewhere calibrate the right drug combinations to carry out lethal injections, more death row offenders will likely suffer cruel and unusual punishment, which will likely increase the public’s opposition to executions. Growing opposition will compel more states to conclude there isn’t a humane way to kill another person, and states will abandon the death penalty. The Court’s Glossip decision may forestall states’ scrambling to find elusive humane execution methods before concluding they can’t, and I hope Pope Francis and Chief Justice Roberts’ wife Jane influence Roberts to vote to end lethal injection. I hope as a Catholic Roberts is influenced by what the Pope said in October 2014: “It is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend people’s lives from an unjust aggressor. All Christians and people of good will are called today to struggle … for the abolition of the death penalty.” Furthermore, I hope the man behind the words, who has inspired Catholics and non-Catholics, will also inspire Roberts to strike down lethal injection. If Pope Francis’ words and examples aren’t enough, perhaps his wife Jane will influence Roberts to do the right thing. For many years she has been involved with Feminists For Life, and currently serves as the group’s legal counsel. Feminists For Life opposes capital punishment because they connect it to abortion and euthanasia as “inconsistent with the core feminist principles of justice, nonviolence and nondiscrimination.” If the Pope and Roberts’ wife influence Roberts to side with the Court’s liberal justices to outlaw lethal injection, their decision would likely end executions in the United States because states wouldn’t want to revert to execution methods they don’t view as humane as lethal injection. In almost 40 years since capital punishment’s 1976 reinstatement, the vast majority of the more than 1,400 executions nationally have been carried out against the poor and persons of color in 13 southern states. These state killings haven’t made society safer or better, or brought closure to murder victims’ families. Executions have cheapened human life and degraded all. It’s past time we ended this inhumane practice. I hope Roberts concludes, he, as former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said, “shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death.”


Done With Football

The author as a young football fan, circa 1972.

The author as a young football fan, circa 1972.

“If it’s the ultimate game,” Duane Thomas, the enigmatic former Dallas Cowboys star running back once famously said, “why do they play it every year?” That’s the decidedly minority view, but count me among those who didn’t watch the Super Bowl. I stopped following football a few years ago.

It wasn’t easy to walk away from the game I loved, but I couldn’t be party any longer to the traumatic violence that has precipitated incidences of the brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which has tragically derailed and in some cases ended an increasing number of football players’ lives.

I have also become alienated from the culture that surrounds football, which is marked by excessive drinking, vulgarity and hostility, dangerously misplaced vicariousness, and arrested adolescence, which encourages adults to dress like ten-year-old boys. Although this behavior is also associated with less violent sports such as soccer and baseball, the interaction of our current fan culture with football’s extreme aggression is a particularly volatile and disconcerting mix.

My stance on football may surprise and perhaps disappoint some whom recall I was the Sports Editor of my college newspaper THE FAIRFIELD MIRROR and loved the game.

I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s as a fan of Washington’s pro team (I won’t use their nickname).   My experiences rooting for Washington’s team shaped me as a person and writer, and I wouldn’t exchange them for anything.

My fall Sundays then were spent at RFK rooting for Washington. From the third grade until I finished high school, I scarcely missed a game there. Especially as a young child being amid the RFK crowd impressed me greatly.

I don’t mean to discount the real problems and divisions DC had then by over-sentimentalizing RFK’s glory days, but our team if superficially and fleetingly pulled together our city in a way other institutions couldn’t. When the team did well, and the bleachers swayed, it was easy to get caught up in the exhilaration.

I reveled in Washington’ s Super Bowl victories in the 80’s and 90’s, and retain my affection for Washington’s greats- Sonny, Billy, Riggo, and many others whose exploits I cheered, but the hit on Ravens’ running back Willis McGahee in the January 2009 AFC Championship game disaffected me from football.

A vicious helmet to helmet hit laid out McGahee. There was a time when these injuries happened when the crowd would grow library quiet, waiting anxiously to find out if player would be okay.

That night in Pittsburgh however, the stadium loudspeakers blared CCR’s BAD MOON RISING, and the fans whooped and hollered as if to say, bring out the stretcher already; let’s get on with the game. The hit was bad enough but the crowd’s unseemly reaction convinced me I didn’t want to be part of a culture that encouraged that kind of behavior.

While this culture factors into my decision to stop following football, CTE’s devastating impact most critically affects my choice not to follow football anymore. Dave Duerson, Mike Webster, and Junior Seau’s stories highlight that impact.

Dave Duerson was an all-pro safety on the Bears 1986 championship team. He experienced extreme headaches and dizziness during his career. After 10 concussions, in retirement the bright, articulate man couldn’t put together coherent sentences and suffered short-term memory losses. At 50, he committed suicide, shooting himself in the chest.

The center on the great ‘70’s Steeler teams, Mike Webster, after he retired became prone to short-term memory losses and uncharacteristically violent outbursts, which distanced him from his family and led to his divorce. After bad investments exhausted his savings, Webster was reduced to living in his truck before a heart attack at 50 ended his misery.

Linebacker Junior Seau was recently elected on the first ballot to the Hall of Fame after a 15-year career with the Chargers and Patriots in the ‘90s and ‘00s. During his career he experienced dizziness and insomnia, but grew more erratic after he retired. He withdrew from his family. He abused alcohol and pills, made bad business decisions and gambled attempting to reverse losses. Only 43 Seau, like Duerson, committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest.

Although I still admire players who make one hand catches or jump over the line to block kicks, I don’t want to derive pleasure and joy when others suffer gratuitously. I don’t however judge others who remain football fans.

I only hope to give persons something about which to think. Sometimes, that’s all a writer can do. And if persons think twice about letting their kids play football or develop qualms about watching football because of what I said, that’s lagniappe.