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The Horror of the Death Penalty and Three Women Working Against It

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Robert Wilbur and Martha Rosenberg

 

As the nation is horrified by another botched execution, a capital defense lawyer in Texas, legal scholar in New York and the former warden of San Quentin work against capital punishment.

 

 

There were only three people in the room: Jeanne Woodford, the chaplain and the man strapped to a gurney with tubes coming out of his arms. After hearing the man's last words, Woodford signaled the corrections officer who was "working the chemicals," which means in prison argot that he started infusions of lethal chemicals that flowed into the man on the gurney. As warden of California's San Quentin, Woodford presided over this high-tech ritual of punishment four times. After a stint as Executive Director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, she threw in the towel to become Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus, the abolitionist organization that sponsored the 2012 SAFE referendum seeking to replace the death penalty with life without parole. Though the referendum failed to pass, Woodford is still hard at work in the movement to abolish capital punishment in California.

 

Meanwhile, across the continent, in the gentility of Fordham University's school of law, Arthur A. McGivney Professor Deborah W. Denno writes scholarly articles about "working the chemicals" that are published in the nation's leading law journals and quoted at death penalty hearings before the United States Supreme Court.

 

Until lately, the chemicals Denno wrote about were sodium thiopental, an ultra-short acting barbiturate that, given intravenously, is supposed to deliver almost instantaneous sleep so that the condemned person will be impervious to the rest of the evening's proceedings; pancuronium bromide, next on the menu, which is related to curare, plant extract poisons from Central and South America traditionally used on arrows which paralyze the body's skeletal muscles (including the muscles of breathing); and for the coup de grace, a jolt of potassium chloride, which stops the heart. This deadly mixture was known as Carson's Cocktail, so named after the Oklahoma pathologist, A. Jay Carson, MD, who concocted it as a "humane" alternative to the electric chair.

 

Since the early 1980s, the Carson Cocktail was the gold standard for dispatching society's sinners (and the innocent too, if recent exonerations are factored in). But since thiopental supplies have dried up because of the EU's resistance to the death penalty states embracing the death penalty have been forced by the courts to seek other drugs with results like this week's botched execution in Arizona. Now Professor Denno must address the ghoulish new and often secretive lethal chemicals in use even as states calls for bringing back the electric chair or firing squad.

 

In Texas, attorney Kathryn Kase despaired as the Lone Star State executed its 500th person since the resumption of the death penalty. Kase wears three hats. She is Executive Director of the Texas Defender Service, where she supervises a staff of ten lawyers. She is herself a courtroom lawyer specializing in death penalty cases. And she and her staff mentor Texas lawyers in need of capital litigation tactics.

 

Kase's organization was founded as a public-defender body with a focus on the death penalty, but not specifically an abolitionist organization dedicated to ending the death penalty. When she puts on her administrative hat, Kase must play hardball as a politico, convincing fellow politicians of the importance of the Texas Defender Service and wringing money out of the state government and foundations.

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