From the Nashville Scene we learn that there’s just been an execution in Tennessee (why is it always the Red States that execute people?). The details are given in this article in The Nashville Scene (click on screenshot):
The details are horrific, and nobody claims that Stephen West is completely innocent. He did have an accomplice, however, and claims that he was incited by the accomplice. But the crime, in which both killers were found complicit, was horrifying:
Stephen West has been executed in the electric chair 33 years after he was sentenced to death for the 1986 murders of Wanda Romines, 51, and her 15-year-old daughter, Sheila, near Knoxville. West, who suffered from severe mental illness, was also convicted of raping the teen, and while he confessed to that crime he maintained that his accomplice stabbed the mother and daughter to death.
The curtains opened at 7:15 on Thursday night, revealing West, who appeared to be crying, sitting in the electric chair. Warden Tony Mays asked West if he had any last words. He responded by referencing scripture.
“In the beginning, God created man,” said West, pausing as he continued to weep. “And Jesus wept. That’s all.”
After West’s final statement, members of the execution team fastened a helmet to his head and placed a shroud over his face. At 7:19, West’s body jolted upward from the chair as the first current of electricity was administered. His body returned to the chair for a matter of seconds, before rising once again with a second jolt of electricity.
West was pronounced dead at 7:27 p.m.
Give the nature of the stab wounds, it’s likely that the killing was prolonged, with some of the wounds meant to torture rather than kill. The lawyers asked for clemency, and two jurors recommended it since West appears to have been mentally ill, but that didn’t stop the electrocution.
In West’s petition for clemency, his attorneys write that then-17-year-old Ronnie Martin had tried to date Sheila Romines and was humiliated when she rejected him. They say Martin coerced West, who was 23 years old at the time, to rape Sheila before Martin stabbed the women to death. The attorneys also note that West was tried first, and that his jury never heard a tape recording of Martin admitting that he was the one who had killed the two victims. They also write that Martin threatened to have West and his then-pregnant wife killed if West didn’t keep quiet about the crimes. Martin ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and is currently serving a life sentence.
Two of the surviving jurors from West’s trial, both of whom had originally voted for the death sentence, told his attorneys they supported clemency in his case. Gov. Bill Lee announced Wednesday afternoon that he would not stop the execution.
There’s a forceful plea to end state-mandated executions in today’s New York Times written by Margaret Renkel:
Her Biblical “Thou shalt not kill” argument, which is simply a diktat without supporting arguments, doesn’t move me as much as other arguments, some of which she makes as well:
There is nothing about Mr. West’s case that would move staunch supporters of the death penalty to rethink their position, but the reasons for ending state-sanctioned murder are manifold: It fails to deter crime; it is far more expensive than life in prison without parole; it is racially biased. Perhaps most tellingly, death sentences are too often dealt to innocent people. Any one of those reasons, by itself, makes a compelling argument for ending executions altogether.
The death sentences given to innocent people is perhaps the most powerful of these arguments. You might say, “Well, we’ll give the death penalty only to people who confess, or whose guilt is absolutely certain,” but confessions can be false, and too often convictions and sentences are based on fallacious eyewitness evidence. But even beyond that, Renkl is right. The death penalty is not a deterrent, it costs more (given the lengthy appeal process) than life without parole, and (Renkl doesn’t mention this), life without parole effectively sequesters the criminal from society forever, so he poses no more danger.
Further, some cases killers can actually be rehabilitated and reformed, and in such cases, however rare, why should they be killed, or even stay in prison forever? There’s some suggestion that West might have been at least partly rehabilitated:
People who knew Mr. West said he had become a different man, and isn’t true rehabilitation justification enough for commuting his sentence to life without parole? As Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty tweeted a few days before the execution, “When an inmate’s severe mental illness is undisputed by the state’s own doctors, what does it take to show that life without parole is the appropriate sentence?”
Remember that even convicted killers like Anders Breivik in Norway, who killed 77 people, get a maximum sentence of only 21 years, and then are reviewed to see if they’ve changed enough to mandate parole.
Further, West appears to have been mentally ill, perhaps severely. That may have contributed to his crime. If he couldn’t help himself (and, in fact, no criminals can), what is achieved by punishment that is certainly retributive? Retributive punishment for crimes that were inevitable—for which the criminal had no choice—makes little sense to me. Yes, it may satisfy the blood lust of the victims’ friends and family, but that caters to our lowest and most primitive emotions.
From the Nashville Scene:
Prison officials have been treating West for severe mental illness for years, giving him powerful antipsychotic drugs that one psychiatrist described in a court filing as “chemical straitjackets.” In an extensive 2002 psychiatric evaluation, Dr. Richard Dudley writes that, in his opinion, West “was suffering from a mental disorder” at the time of the killings that sent him to death row. Dudley also says West’s “mental disorder was of the type that would have been relevant to his defense during the guilt phase of his trial and also relevant as mitigation during the penalty phase of his trial.” West’s mental health was not discussed during his trial.
I should add that electrocution is a particularly barbaric way to kill someone. Yes, if West did torture, rape, and stab the women, his own killings were far more barbaric. But do we have to be as inhumane as those we execute?
Here are some data that Renkl links to in her piece:
Public opinion in the U.S. appears to be against the death penalty:
Finally, out of all the First World countries on the planet, only the U.S. and Japan have the death penalty and use it (figure from Wikipedia):
Is it possible that all of Europe, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Colombia, and many other countries don’t see something that America does? Possibly, but I highly doubt it. We won’t regulate guns, and we execute people. Both bespeak a primitive mentality that needs to be changed.