Eric Allen Patton stabbed his victim to death with a set of knives, a barbecue fork and a pair of kitchen scissors. She was Charlene Kauer, a white, middle-aged businesswoman from Oklahoma City who had once hired him as a handyman. He was a black laborer in his 30s, with a long record for violent burglary.
In December 1994, he came to Kauer's door asking for money. She offered him US$10. He attacked her, ransacked the house, butchered her and made off with US$24. When her husband came home, he found Charlene lying naked on her back, smothered in blood, the scissors still sticking out of her chest.
The crime scene photographs presented in court resembled stills from a low-budget horror movie. It was the kind of monstrous killing that reaffirms in Oklahomans' minds the necessity and justice of capital punishment, and a jury duly sentenced Patton to death for first-degree murder. After spending the past decade on death row and exhausting his appeals process, Patton was scheduled to die at 6pm on Aug. 29.
The visitors' center at Oklahoma State Penitentiary is a squat little building in the shadow of towering white prison walls. On execution days it doubles as the media center, and peanut cookies and fresh coffee had been laid out on wooden tables alongside neat piles of factsheets detailing Patton's crime. When I arrived shortly after 3:30pm, nobody else was there.
In due course, two other journalists showed up. Executions were a fixture of their beat, and while we waited, the two men chatted idly about the nuisance of faulty air conditioning and the difficulty of giving up smoking. The key detail of this job, they said, was the prisoner's choice of last meal. Readers enjoyed comparing it with what they would choose for themselves.
A spokesman from the department of corrections arrived with the press release listing Patton's final meal request. A tall, lean southerner with a quietly thorough manner, Jerry Massie took evident pride in the dignity of an execution, and found the fascination with last meals faintly distasteful. After all, he sighed, this isn't a game.
"Besides," he said, "you can't get all that much for US$15 anyway."
Fifteen dollars? The budget for a last meal used to be US$50, he explained evenly. But when the public read about men getting steak and lobster, there was such an outcry that the state parliament passed a bill cutting it to US$15.
Patton chose a large pepperoni pizza with extra mushroom, and a large grape soda. It was served between noon and 1pm -- which meant that somewhere now inside that great white fortress he was sitting alone, waiting, with nothing left but his final statement to make in the death chamber. Executions, like awards ceremonies, prefer to keep the speeches brief, though, and his time limit would be two minutes.
What would they say to stop him if he kept talking?
"Well, nothing," replied Massie, puzzled to have to spell out the obvious. "We'd just start the execution."
By 5:30pm nobody else had arrived. The victim's relatives had decided not to attend. Patton's family weren't coming, either, having said their final goodbyes that morning by telephone through a glass partition. All visits on death row are conducted that way, and their last had been no exception.
A few years ago, protesters would have been staging a candlelit vigil at the gates, but they no longer turn up in any numbers. Death penalty supporters used to come along and taunt them by celebrating, but they don't show up anymore either. Massie did warn of a possible commotion from prisoners banging their cell doors as the clock ticked towards six. Not anymore, the reporters corrected him. They hadn't bothered to do that in ages.
A SLENDER ROOM
In the hot, late Oklahoma sunshine, a van drove us around the perimeter wall to a side entrance at 5:45pm. Guards with bristle moustaches and round mirrored sunglasses didn't say much, just searched us and led the way along a long, grey tunnel of a corridor. Halfway down, they pointed us into a slender room just deep enough to accommodate two rows of 12 metal chairs. These were facing a glass wall obscured by white blinds.
Patton's legal team of four sat in the front row, beside his priest. A few places away sat two officials from the department of corrections. Two men in navy blazers stood holding phones to their ears, lest a final reprieve were to come through. At the door, a pair of guards leaned against the wall, silently chewing gum. The two reporters and I sat in the second row. Nobody breathed a sound.
At 6pm the blinds slowly raised. And then there he was -- suddenly right before our eyes, so close that, were it not for the glass, I could probably have touched him. Patton lay strapped on his back on a gurney, an IV drip running from each arm to a hole in the wall behind him. He looked composed but intensely alert, like a patient about to go into theater. His was the first black face I'd seen all day. He turned to look at us and started to speak.
Most family pets are put down with greater sense of occasion than the execution of Eric Patton managed to marshal. You would be forgiven, therefore, for thinking US prisons must be killing their inmates every day. Before taking office, US President George W. Bush executed more than any other state governor, and under him the country's moral politics have shifted farther and farther right. One would expect the death penalty to be enjoying an all-time high. In fact, the figures tell a different story.
In 1999, the US executed 98 people -- a record total for a single year. The annual figure had been climbing steadily since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 -- as had the number of death sentences issued every year, which reached a peak in 1996. Public support had grown from an average of around 65 percent to more than 80 percent.
But in 2000 the numbers changed direction. Executions fell, and have continued to fall ever since, so sharply that this year's total may not even pass 50. Death sentences have more than halved, and support for capital punishment has slumped back to around 65 percent. The US Supreme Court has removed entire categories of criminals from death row. Two states have imposed moratoria while they review their death penalty, and moratoria legislation has been introduced in over 20 more. New York has abolished its death penalty altogether, and New Jersey is expected to follow suit. Even in Oklahoma, one of the more prolific states left, Patton was only the third inmate to be executed this year.
Quietly but unmistakably, the anti-death-penalty movement in the US has started to win. Less of a movement than a patchwork of pressure groups, its campaigners have no centralized leadership and no recognizable public face. Their offices are staffed largely by interns, in grey buildings housing warrens of lobbyists, some in Washington but most scattered across the country. They are chronically underfunded and unfashionable. How can they be winning when US' liberals are losing every other culture war?
Certainly not by telling anyone that killing people is wrong. The argument they prefer to employ, activists say, is that the US is killing the wrong people. Or it's killing people the wrong way. Or killing them at the wrong price. The US just isn't killing people properly.
Richard Dieter runs the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. A wry, soft-spoken activist in middle age, he has been fighting capital punishment all his life and remembers when they used to talk about its wrongness.
"The thought was, well, this argument is so right it'll catch on," he chuckles fondly. "We thought, you know, it's so obvious! And so people would go and hold candles at executions and what not. But it was found that an equal number of people would show up shouting for the execution, and it just got really rowdy. Nobody was moving. It was going nowhere."
"In the 80s, we started trying to persuade people about the system's arbitrariness," says Marshall Dayan, head of the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) death penalty project in North Carolina. "The racism, classism, the poor quality of counsel, the prosecutorial misconduct. But none of that had any traction either. People just said, Who cares if the system isn't perfect? These people are murderers."What changed everything was the emergence of the innocence movement. In 1998, Northwestern University's law school in Chicago hosted a national conference on wrongful capital convictions. It brought together 31 former death row inmates who had been found innocent and released. One by one, each man stepped forward on stage to introduce himself with the words: "If the state of such-and-such had had its way, I would not be here today."
"It was just an extraordinary event," Dayan recalls. "People all over America saw this on the evening news. And once exonerations started reaching their consciousness, all of a sudden all the things we'd been talking about for years started to gain traction. When they find out some of the people on death row aren't, in fact, murderers, but innocent people, then they ask how does a wrongful conviction happen? And the answers to that question are: racism, classism, etc -- all the things we'd been trying to talk about. Only now, everyone started listening."
Soon, students at Northwestern had uncovered 13 wrongful capital convictions in Illinois alone. One man had spent 15 years on death row and come within two days of being executed before the students found evidence that proved his innocence. By 2000, the state of Illinois had exonerated more death row inmates than it had executed, at which point its governor -- a Republican and long-time death penalty supporter -- declared a moratorium. After conducting a full review, he then commuted the death sentence of every prisoner in the state.
"Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error," he said frankly. "Error in determining guilt -- and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die."
"To be honest, no one thought of switching the argument to innocence strategically," Dieter admits. "We didn't plan on Illinois happening. It just kind of fell into our lap. But innocence has completely rewritten the political rules of the death penalty. What's an acceptable number of innocent people for a state to kill a year? None is the acceptable number. Politicians just can't say they support the death penalty no matter what any more."
He ticks off the victories with a kind of wonderment. Jurors have become reluctant to use the death penalty unless DNA evidence proves guilt beyond all doubt. In every state except one, they now have the option to sentence life without parole, instead of death. For the first time ever, the Supreme Court has overturned a death sentence because of the poor performance of the defendant's counsel.
"And his lawyer wasn't even that bad!" Dieter marvels. "He wasn't even one of the ones who've been caught sleeping through a trial or turning up drunk. That's how much the court has changed."
In the past three years, the court has made juveniles and the mentally disabled exempt from the death penalty. A new campaign is under way for the court to exempt the mentally ill as well.
Many states are beginning to wonder whether the death penalty isn't just costing too much already. A typical capital case costs at least three and a half times as much as lifetime incarceration. New Jersey has passed 60 death sentences, overturned 50 on appeal, and still not executed any of the 10 men left on death row. Having spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars executing nobody, it's expected to abolish its death penalty this year.
Other states have had to halt all executions while their method is challenged in the courts. Lethal injection, the method used in 37 of the 38 death penalty states, consists of three different drugs -- an anaesthetic, a paralytic and a potassium chloride to stop the heart -- and is supposed to be painless. But there is growing evidence that it inflicts an excruciatingly painful death. The American Medical Association has condemned the practice, many doctors now won't participate and practically every prisoner on death row is filing a suit. A court in Missouri has already ruled in one's favour, effectively outlawing lethal injection in the state, and a court in California will consider the next major test case next week. California has the largest number of people on death row in the US -- but, for now, it cannot execute anyone.
This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Part 2 will appear tomorrow.
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