Two executions

>> Friday, July 25, 2014

I read about an execution this week. 

The New Yorker has a lot of their content exposed and free-to-read this summer, part of a transition to what sounds like it will be a New York Times-style buffet paywall: read up to however-many articles a month for free and then if you want to go back through the line for another serving you have to have a subscription.  It's a good chance to glut while it's a free-for-all.

So I was reading an article about William Alexander Morgan, who I'd never heard of before, which is a bit embarrassing because some student of history I must be, to have not heard of one of the three non-Cubans who rose to the rank of Comandante in the Cuban Revolution, another being that guy from the t-shirts hipsters used to wear in college when I was a kid.  The New Yorker article is a pretty thorough bio by David Grann, "The Yankee Comandante", from back in 2012, and it's worth a read, because Grann's a solid writer, and he seems to have done his footwork, talking to Morgan's widow and others who knew him, and because William Alexander Morgan was a character.  That last bit, especially--Grann's piece is the kind of story where you start trying to cast the movie version while you're reading it, wondering who would direct, how you'd structure the story in the language of film, that kind of thing.

Morgan started his life by making a bit of a hash of it, getting into a bit of legal trouble as a teen, going into the Army after WWII (he apparently tried going during the War, but was too young) and getting himself dishonorably discharged for running off to visit his girlfriend, and ending up with Mob ties in the 1950s.  Seems he ended up as a gunrunner, and he was in Cuba in 1957 when, for reasons that may not have even been true, he decided to go up into the mountains where he joined the anti-Batista forces and reinvented himself as an action hero.  Convinced the guerrillas he wasn't a pro-Batista CIA agent provocateur, which is exactly what he looked like, taught them whatever fighting skills he learned in the Army, put his ass on the front line for them and suffered in the woods with them.

He wasn't a socialist, but neither were the anti-Batistas he hooked up with, nor were all the anti-Batistas communists or socialists; you may or may not realize it, but there's even some debate to this day as to whether Fidel Castro, who was commanding another revolutionary force on the island, was a communist or socialist at that point: his brother, Raul, was, and his main man Che was, but Fidel himself remained coy about ideology until after the Bay of Pigs invasion (my own hypothesis is that Castro was, at least up until that point, a pragmatist and opportunist, who probably would have been happy to be whatever brought in foreign aid, kept Fulgencio Batista in the Dominican Republic and the U.S. at arm's length, and shored up his primacy amongst the revolutionaries).

Morgan was a national hero in Cuba, a pariah in his homeland (his citizenship got revoked after the Batista regime, which the U.S. was in bed with, collapsed), but he ended up on Fidel's shitlist.  Possibly because he was an American, and some Cubans suspected Morgan was a double or triple agent even after he foiled an American/Dominican Republican/Batista counterrevolutionary plot in 1959; some people, here, there and everywhere, evidently still think Morgan might have been in cahoots with American intelligence, even though documents released through the Freedom of Information Act suggest the CIA and FBI independently decided Morgan was radioactive.  Possibly because Morgan was explicitly not a leftist, and whether or not Castro was, Castro's closest advisors and supporters were, and the Soviet Union was increasingly Cuba's meal ticket as the United States went a bit nuts over Batista's exile (even knowing that Batista was a total bastard and that Batista's Cuba was practically a fiefdom of American organized crime).  Possibly because Castro recognized Morgan as a viable rival; indeed, as Morgan slowly gave up on the hope that Castro was a non-ideologue or moderate, he started caching supplies in the mountains with an eye towards another possible revolt (I'm not sure you'd call it a counterrevolution, though Castro did, since Morgan sure as hell wasn't going to be inviting Batista back in).

Anyway, Castro had Morgan arrested.  And Morgan went to prison.  And then he had the obligatory show trial.  And then he went back to prison.  And then they hauled him out and stood him against a wall, and they shot him.  Grann writes:
According to a prisoner’s account, a voice in the distance shouted, "Kneel and beg for your life."

It was the last thing that Morgan could control. "I kneel for no man," he said.

One of the executioners shot him in the right knee. The Yankee comandante tried to stay on his feet, blood spilling around him. Then he was shot in the left knee. Finally, he collapsed, and was repeatedly shot in the torso and head. His face, a witness said, was "blown off."

"Many of the men in the patio were crying," the prisoner who had provided medicine recalled. "The rumbling, that almost rose to the pitch of a riot, was a tribute to William Morgan's popularity." [Morgan's wife, Olga] Rodríguez, sequestered in the safe house, did not yet know of her husband's death, but she felt a presence in her room. "I saw William," she says. “I felt him give me a kiss. No sound. Just the warmth of a kiss."

I have no idea how much of that account is true.  I don't mean that Grann invented it; I mean, for all I know this is what the prisoners told Olga Rodríguez when Castro's police finally caught up with her, the story she held onto for the years she was imprisoned in Cuba until she was (barely) allowed to flee to the United States in the Mariel Boatlift in 1980.  It may not even be a story that was made for her, it might well be the story the political prisoners told each other, embellished, cherished, clung to for their own sakes and not just for the sake of the martyred widow.

Hell, it may be exactly what happened.

I'm pretty sure, though, that whether or not it's what happened, it's how Morgan would have wanted to die.  It's epic, so epic I'm not sure how much credence to give it.  I don't know how much credence to give any stories about Morgan in Cuba, really, because he seems to have been revered by the non-Castro revolutionaries, and maybe the myth outgrew the man; but it also seems like Morgan aspired to be that myth.  And if he didn't say, "I kneel for no man," if he didn't try to keep on his feet even after he was shot in the leg, well: I'm pretty sure that's what he meant to do (and, again, for all I know, he did do exactly what he meant to, maybe the whole thing is surprisingly true; obviously, I wasn't there).

Just suppose you could go back in time, and visit William Alexander Morgan in his cell at La Cabaña (it's a crappy form of time travel, I know, that doesn't allow you to travel to a point in time where you could be actually useful, but that's just the kind of time travel you get in thought experiments like this one).  And you could say to him, "Comandante, I'm afraid your ultimate execution for crimes against the state is a done deal, but you get a choice.  Option number one is, we take you to a nicer cell for quite a long stretch of months or even years until just about everyone except a few government officials forgets you're here, and then what we'll do is, what we'll do is we'll take you to a room where we'll tie you down to something like a dentist's chair.  And we'll have a doctor swab your arm and put a needle in.  There may be a couple of guys there to watch.  And at a predetermined hour--we'll have told you in advance what time--some anonymous guy will press a button, and you'll be sedated.  You'll just go to sleep, and maybe you'll have a nice dream about your wife.  And then after you're asleep, you'll get two more injections, one that will paralyze your muscles, and a third that will stop your heart.  You'll go to sleep, you'll maybe have a nice dream (if that), and then you won't wake up, and we'll bury you somewhere.


"Or, option number two.  We take you out in the yard.  Not immediately, but soon.  We'll line you up in front of a wall riddled with bullet holes, and we'll tell you to kneel.  Which you may, or may not: if you don't, you may get to say something cool, something that states the code you lived your life by, and we'll shoot you in the leg.  And that's going to hurt, it's going to hurt terribly, but you're a pretty tough guy and you suffered some serious pain fighting beside your brothers-in-arms in the mountains, and maybe you've even been hurt that bad before.  So maybe you'll keep your feet, sort of, until we shoot you in the other leg.  And if you haven't passed out from shock, if you're still upright, or as upright as a man can be after his legs have been gunned out from under him, you can glare at us defiantly as we shoot the hell out of you, which is going to hurt, it's going to be the worst agony you've ever felt.  But maybe the last thing you're going to hear is the wailing of your brothers for the Yankee Comandante, as he's martyred to the vain hope of a free Cuba.

"Your call, Morgan."

C'mon, what do you think he's going to say?  Did you go and read the New Yorker story before you came back here?  Did you at least look at the Wikipedia entry I linked to?  Did you pay attention to my summary of his life, which was longer than I wanted but still far too short?

You think Morgan would have wanted to go out taking a final nap?

I read about an execution this week.

Not much, because I just couldn't handle it anymore.  And because, contrary to what some people will tell you and what you may think, it doesn't matter any more than any of the other executions that go on in this country, even the ones that don't take two hours.  That is, I don't want to disparage a man's death, which is an awful and terrible thing--but a man's death is always an awful and terrible thing.  Even when his last words are that he kneels for no man.

Arizona killed a guy named Joseph R. Wood III, and he wasn't a Cuban war hero who boldly fought to bring down a corrupt and repressive torturer and executioner named Fulgencio Batista and began laying plans to fight Fidel Castro when it started becoming clear that Castro was merely going to be a different kind of totalitarian nightmare; Wood was a guy convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend and her dad, all the way back in 1991, and for all I know he really did it, and for all I know it was horrible, and for all I know he didn't deserve to live (which isn't exactly the same thing as deserving to die, you know).  But apparently Arizona decided to try out some relatively novel procedure for killing guys--I don't know if they were able to get a real doctor to perform it, but I'm guessing they weren't, seeing as how medical boards have lately decided that killing patients might be a violation of the Hippocratic Oath.  And so it took two hours for Wood to die, and apparently it was noisy, and it may have been painful.  If any of that matters.

Because I kind of don't think it does, is the thing.

I mean, I can say this about the Wood execution: it's probably clarified to me that I've been mostly citing the wrong Constitutional amendment for all the years I've opposed the death penalty.  I'm sure that executing prisoners is barbaric, don't get me wrong.  But state violence is inherently barbaric, isn't it, even if you feel some kind of pragmatic obligation to engage in it.

You'd like to think that civilization is pacitropic, if you'll let me coin (I think) a word: that we grow away from violence and into becoming, increasingly, a creature that is clever enough to solve problems through application of reason.  And if state violence is required, if it just can't be avoided, you hope it'll be humane.  Maybe I'm presuming a bit here, thinking we're not barbarians or we don't want to be: I'm assuming that if we could unerringly kill terrorist cell leaders by pressing a button that causes them to magically die in their sleep, we'd do that instead of sending in heavily-armed drones that occasionally blow up weddings and funerals, because we want to take the terrorist cell leader out of circulation, the goal isn't to make the guy suffer and occasionally maim and kill civilians while we're at it; that the weddings and funerals are collateral damage, accidents, and not the goal.  And that if we could get a terrorist cell leader (let's assume he hasn't hurt anyone yet, he's just starting out and there aren't other justice issues at stake yet) to just quit by, say, talking to him, we'd do that, right, instead of just blowing him to bits and possibly taking out his neighborhood while we're doing it; because the objective is we don't want him to be a terrorist, not that we like the blood in the streets.

I hope I'm right about that.  (And if I'm not, what's it to you that Joseph Wood took two hours to die and may have hurt some while he was doing it?)

But, like I said, I've probably been quoting the wrong amendment.  What I probably meant to say, and maybe have said by accident now and then, was that I'm pretty sure that whether or not the state executes you has more to do with what color your skin is, and what color your alleged victim's skin is, and where you live, and how good your lawyer was, than it has to do with the nature and quality of the acts you supposedly committed that the state might be killing you over.  Which is basically a Due Process and Equal Protection issue.  If we could magically guarantee that every person sentenced to die really and truly deserved it... well, how do you finish that sentence?

I mean, if someone deserves to die, does it matter how they die?  And if there's inevitably doubt about whether or not they deserve it--I don't just mean doubt about whether they did it, which is already a huge problem, but also doubt about what's just and fair and merciful--does it matter whether the death is humane?  "Well, we don't know with utter certainty if this guy really killed anyone, but a jury thought he did, and then the jury decided he should die for it even though this other guy over here did something that sounds a whole helluva lot worse, and he only got life in prison for whatever reason--but at least he died in his sleep and didn't feel anything."

That probably makes sense to somebody.  I guess.  I'll be honest, I sure don't see it.

But, anyway, if you were already against the death penalty, I don't see how the execution of Joseph R. Wood makes you more against it.  It was already bad enough that Arizona was going to kill him.  They were going to kill him worse than?  I wasn't going to feel better about the execution if he went fast.

Meanwhile, if you're in favor of the death penalty, maybe you're glad Wood might have suffered.  He deserved it, right?  Was convicted of a brutal double homicide, had it coming to him?  You probably would have watched.  Probably should have been forced to watch all of it, then, without piss breaks.  But I'm sure it would have gladdened your heart.  Birds sing, sun breaks through the clouds, another miserable bastard bites the dust, I guess.  An eye for an eye, maybe it was too good for him.

It didn't matter, anyway, how he died.  It mattered that he did, whether you're for or against, and how he did is really just a detail.

But maybe there's a grey area in between those poles.  You're for the death penalty, if it's fair and merciful.  You're only against it because you're not sure it can be, otherwise you have few scruples about state violence.

William Alexander Morgan.

What I mean is, what would have been any better about the Yankee Comandante dying with a needle in a vein?  He got the death, I think, he would have wanted.  It was barbaric and bloody and cruel, if the account is going to be believed, with taunting executioners, a vicious maiming and unsuccessful attempt at a final humiliation, and then a fusillade of bullets that, more than likely, caused anything but an instantaneous death.  Maybe a bullet pierced the brain or the heart--we're told his face was shot off--but it's pretty likely he lay there on the ground--unconscious, I'd expect, but maybe not--bleeding out.  Killing a man is pretty hard.  Sometimes it takes as long as two hours, I hear.

And maybe you're thinking this is a cheap shot: a public trial in American courtroom is a lot different from a show trial in Castro's Cuba, right?  Well, I hope so.  Emphasis on hope.  Because I'm not sure some American capital trials are that much different; longer, maybe.  With more plausible pretenses.  But.  You know.  There's racial bias, and some prosecutors like hiding evidence, and some defense attorneys are morons, and some judges don't know the law, and sometimes juries get a little crazy, and even under the best of circumstances there are mistakes; memory is fallible, "scientific" tests aren't always reliable and accurate (especially under field conditions, where crime scenes are often exposed to weather and public traffic)--sometimes they turn out in retrospect to not even be all that scientific, hence the quotation marks.  But you're probably right.  Most of the time.  Well.  A lot of the time, anyway.

Hopefully more often than not.

But gosh, what if Morgan had had a fair trial, instead of a show trial?  Well, maybe crimes against the state shouldn't be capital offenses.  He was kinda sorta plotting what might be called treason, sure, and treason is historically a capital offense in many countries, even modern ones.  Maybe merciful and civilized states ought to be lenient, though, and not use lethal force unless they absolutely have to.

Or did I say that already?

But Morgan probably wanted to go out like that.  Not that he wanted to die, which I imagine he didn't.  But if he had to, he probably wanted the violent, hideous, gory death.  Did anyone ask Wood what he wanted?  Probably not.  I guess it doesn't matter.  I guess we don't let convicted criminals, however they're convicted, make those kinds of choices.  But it does make any kind of debate over whether Wood should have had a "cleaner" death seem a little, I don't know, silly, maybe?  Maybe he would have preferred the two hour death.  Or to be shot in the legs and then into little pieces.

I don't know, to die as he lived?

I guess the point is that the fact an execution may have been botched or otherwise cruel seems to me a little beside the point.  I have no idea whether it's more cruel to make someone sit in a cell for twenty-three years until they're eventually tied down in a lonely room and put to sleep like an elderly housecat, or more cruel to allow someone to strut out in front of a firing squad, give them a chance to tell you to go fuck yourself in so many words, and have them die on their feet.

There's worse things that could happen.  You could be sentenced to death in the first place.


Eric Friday, July 25, 2014 at 2:12:00 PM EDT  

It's funny: after I posted this, I read this ABA Journal piece about the 9th Circuit's attempt to stop Wood's execution. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote:

"Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful—like something any one of us might experience in our final moments. … But executions are, in fact, nothing like that. They are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should it. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.

"If some states and the federal government wish to continue carrying out the death penalty, they must turn away from this misguided path and return to more primitive—and foolproof—methods of execution. The guillotine is probably best but seems inconsistent with our national ethos. And the electric chair, hanging and the gas chamber are each subject to occasional mishaps. The firing squad strikes me as the most promising. Eight or ten large-caliber rifle bullets fired at close range can inflict massive damage, causing instant death every time. There are plenty of people employed by the state who can pull the trigger and have the training to aim true. ...

"Sure, firing squads can be messy, but if we are willing to carry out executions, we should not shield ourselves from the reality that we are shedding human blood. If we, as a society, cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad, then we shouldn’t be carrying out executions at all.

"While I believe the state should and will prevail in this case, I don’t understand why the game is worth the candle. A tremendous number of taxpayer dollars have gone into defending a procedure that is inherently flawed and ultimately doomed to failure. If the state wishes to continue carrying out executions, it would be better to own up that using drugs is a mistake and come up with something that will work, instead."


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