South Carolina recently became the fourth state in the nation to offer the firing squad as an alternative method to a lethal injection execution.

The change created considerable consternation among death penalty opponents and some media outlets. The general consensus of opinion is that any alternative method of execution reinforces the inherent barbarity of the death penalty itself.

I agree … but to a point.

There is nothing cruel and unusual about giving a condemned person the choice of execution method.

In fact, giving the condemned an alternative to lethal injection is actually humane. Lethal injection is the cruelest execution method ever employed in the United States—worse than hanging, the electric chair, and, yes, even worse than the gas chamber (the second worst execution method in America).

Facts bear on the tree of truth.

There have been more than 1300 lethal injection executions carried out in the U.S. since it was first used in Texas in 982. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, roughly 7 percent (or 75 altogether) of these needle executions were horribly botched inflicting immeasurable but certainly excruciating pain to the condemned person. That’s the highest botched rate of any other method of execution used in this country, with the gas chamber coming in second with a 5 percent botched rate.

Compare that to the 0% botched rate of firing squad executions—not a single botched firing squad execution over the past 140 years. The DPIC does point to an 1879 firing squad execution carried out in territorial Utah during which the shooters missed the condemned man’s heart creating a 27 minute death cycle.

The traditional firing squad involves five shooters, each armed with a 30-caliber Winchester rifle. The shooters stand behind a wall with rifles pointed through holes in it. Four of the rifles are armed; the fifth is not. This practice is done so no one in the firing squad will know for sure which fired the fatal shot. The condemned person is restrained in a chair in front of a wooden panel 25 feet from the wall. A target is placed over their heart. Four bullets, any one of which is capable of killing, will simultaneously rip through the heart, producing an almost instantaneous death. The condemned person will never hear the explosion of the rifles.

It is virtually impossible to botch a firing squad execution—even with three blind shooters. The 30-caliber Winchester rifle was not made until 1895—some 16 years after that 1879 botched execution in the Utah territory.

There will be more executions carried out in this country. The appetite for violence, especially state-sanctioned violence, is rooted in the American DNA.

Giving a person facing execution a choice in how that execution will be carried out is not cruel or unusual.

It is a humane grace.

There is ample space in the public marketplace for a continuing honest debate about either the humanity or morality of the death penalty.

The firing squad issue in South Carolina is rather simple: a condemned inmate is given a choice of how they want to die. There is no cruel or unusual debate in the exercise of that freedom. No one to my knowledge has ever argued the cruelty of a Last Meal. It has always been considered an societal acknowledgement of a condemned person’s humanity in their final hours. The individual choice of execution method should be viewed through the same social lens.

I am opposed to the death penalty. I spent six years on Louisiana’s death row followed by another 34 years in the state’s prison system. Had I been given a choice in 1966 between death in the electric chair or 40 years of imprisonment, I may well have chosen the electric chair.

Somehow, through the grace of God, I survived both fates. I entered death row in 1966 at age twenty and walked out of prison in 2006 at age sixty-one. I know about which I speak. All anyone must do is research the 1983 electric chair execution of John Lewis Evans in Alabama to know that the firing squad is a more humane method of execution.


The siege mentality

I was placed on Louisiana’s death row in November 1966. The state’s last execution had occurred in June 1961.

The state’s death row in 1966 had gained international attention because of the Edgar Labat and Clifton Poret case—two black men convicted of the 1950 rape of white woman in New Orleans. The convictions of the two men were reversed that year by a federal appeals court. They had spent more time on death row than anyone in the U.S., eclipsing Caryl Chessman’s previous record of 12 years.

One execution was carried out in the U.S. in 1966. James French was put to death by Oklahoma in August that year. Two executions were carried in the U.S. the following year—the last being Luis Monge who was put to death by Colorado in June 1967. That execution marked an “unofficial moratorium” on the death penalty in the U.S. that would last until Gary Gilmore was executed in Utah in January 1977.

There were roughly 30 men on death row when I arrived. I was one of seven white inmates housed there. It was a dark, dank world in which inmates lived in a perpetual limbo between life and death. Execution was not an imminent threat but it hung over every thought each day like a Damocles Sword.

The long term cell confinement of death row produced its own sources of madness—one inmate severed his penis, another slashed himself dozens of times with a razor, and two men daily engaged in a “fart war” with animus in their hearts. One inmate believed the Russians were monitoring his thoughts through Sputnik satellites while another 350-lb inmate went naked all the time as a form of “protest.” Another inmate, convicted of rape, believed that every time the word “rape” was spoken it was somehow directed at him.

This is what life and death uncertainty in a closed custody confinement can produce—so much more than a “low grade depression” Michele Obama recently spoke about.

Home confinement because of the Covid-19 pandemic bears some resemblance to that period when the nation’s condemned inmates lived in a world suspended between life and death as the unofficial moratorium played itself out. This pandemic crisis has created its own unofficial moratorium on living life in a normal manner.

We all now live with a siege mentality under Damocles Sword—knowing that the suspended sword could drop at any moment. One mistake, one miscalculated step could lead to infection and a horrible execution.

Covid-19 is now our death row custodian. We can try to escape it by pretending it does not exist or that its threat is not as imminent as experts tell us.

But we really know better.

One death row inmate would scream out in the middle of the night, “fuck, please hurry something.”

We all know that feeling of frustration. Life as we knew it has receded. Our relationships, our work, our play have all changed dramatically—and we don’t know when, or if, they will ever come back.

I was 21 years of age when I heard that death cell door slam behind me. Six years later, in November 1972, it opened and I was released from a death sentence to a life sentence. I had survived the siege mentality of death row.

Now in the twilight of my life, I must navigate myself and my wife through the siege mentality produced by social isolation. That fucking sword hangs suspended over our lives—masks, gloves, goggles, face shields, and six foot social distancing between us and all other forms of human life keep us safe in this uncertain world between life and death. Family communication is done through Zoom, face time, or cell phone—artificial contacts.

Michele Obama is right.

This nation is suffering from low grade depression—and so much more; more than we could ever have possibly imagined.

We now live, and survive, with a siege mentality.