The rush to the death chamber
Like Timothy McVeigh, more condemned prisoners are in a hurry to die. Does the trend undermine justice?
Three days into jury selection, the legal strategy Barry Derryberry had spent months working on suddenly exploded in his face. His defendant, a man charged with killing his wife and two children, decided he wanted to forgo a trial, plead guilty, and ask the judge for a death sentence.Skip to next paragraph
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It was Mr. Derryberry's first experience with a client who was, in effect, volunteering to die. He was stunned. Though the defense team knew that Ronald Fluke wanted to be put to death, until then he had cooperated with their plans to mount a vigorous defense during sentencing to keep him from the execution chamber.
"It flew in the face of everything he had done," recalls Derryberry, an assistant public defender. "Our client was ... suicidal and ready to go to heaven and meet his Maker. Nothing could be done."
Oklahoma did execute Fluke, by lethal injection, on March 27, making him one of the most recent US convicts on death row to "volunteer" to die.
Inmates who ask to be executed, either by requesting a death sentence at trial or by dropping all appeals after their convictions, are a growing phenomenon in American jurisprudence. They each have their reasons for wanting to speed their own deaths - ranging from mental illness to the isolation of death row to, in the case of Timothy McVeigh, scheduled to die next Wednesday, a bizarre sense of martyrdom.
The trend is accelerating so rapidly that some legal analysts and human rights groups believe the criminal-justice system itself is being compromised. They say the courts are at risk of being used, in Derryberry's words, as "a suicide mill."
"Remember, the appeals are for society, not the prisoners," says Abraham Bonowitz, a death-penalty opponent in Florida, where two of the last three people executed were
so-called volunteers. "Appeals are for us to make sure we followed our own law. When appeals are waived, society is denied the full and fair review of a process filled with mistakes."
Others, not surprisingly, argue there is room in the capital-punishment system for the condemned to give up their appeals and be executed, rather than languishing for years on death row with no hope of freedom. They see it in terms of a prisoner's right to choose, as do many of the inmates themselves.
No one, though, agonizes over these points more than the lawyers who defend death-row volunteers. Their clients' rush to the death house gives them a stark choice: Scramble in a last-ditch effort to save a hostile, uncooperative defendant, or abandon their ethical moorings and allow their clients to die.
Derryberry, for one, is a death-penalty foe, but the Fluke case gave him occasion for much moral wrestling. The lawyer's instinct to save a man's life - and to do everything in his power to ensure a client is not executed unlawfully - collided with his respect for Fluke's wish to be executed.
"I can understand the pragmatic choice one has under a death warrant," he says. "What kind of life is that to lead?"
Since the US Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that capital punishment is constitutional, volunteers have accounted for more than 1 in 10 executions. But of the 90 who have willingly died, 60 have been executed in the past six years - a striking upturn, according to a recent report by the human-rights group Amnesty International.
In phone interviews, in their letters, and in court testimony, inmates on death row give a jumble of reasons for wanting to speed their executions. Some, not always coherent, said they wanted to die even before they were imprisoned - and that they committed murder as a way of committing suicide. Others cite the perceived painlessness of execution by lethal injection.