If this isn't cruel, nothing is

June 03, 1994

We never thought we could say anything positive about Maryland's resumption of executing convicted murderers, but all things are relative, and relative to the State of Washington, what was done here to John Thanos looks positively humane.

When Washington executed Charles Rodman Campbell late last month, it chose to do so "by hanging by the neck." This method is only legal in three places in the English-speaking world: Washington, Montana and South Africa. Montana hasn't actually done it in 50 years, and South Africa is about to abandon it.

Why? Because it is clearly cruel. Here is how an expert described what happens during a hanging (cited in this case by Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and by a dissenter to the execution on the court of appeals for the Washington area):

"When the trap springs he dangles at the end of the rope. There are times when the neck has not been broken and the prisoner strangles to death. His eyes pop almost out of his head, his tongue swells and protrudes from his mouth, his neck may be broken, and the rope many times takes large portions of skin and flesh from the side of the face that the noose is on. He urinates, he defecates, and droppings fall to the floor while witnesses look on."

Did that happen to Charles Rodman Campbell? State officials say that he died instantaneously. But witnesses there were allowed to see the end result of the hanging only briefly. The prelude they saw not at all -- just shadows behind a screen. They thought there was a struggle as the guards tried to put a hood and noose on the condemned man. It was later revealed that guards had to spray him with pepper mace, bind his wrists and ankles, then strap him to a board to move him from his cell to the gallows.

John Thanos was executed by lethal injection in full view of witnesses. One said, "He showed no signs of distress." Of course, he wanted to die. The next person executed here may not go quietly -- causing a scene almost as grisly and inhumane as the one acted out in Walla Walla, Wash., last month. The fact is, that no matter how much more humane, relatively speaking, lethal injection is compared to hanging, any state-inflicted method of capital punishment on a non-willing victim is still inhumane in the overall scheme of things.

But hanging is so inhumane, so uncivilized, so cruel, that when Washington does it, it reflects badly on all states and all Americans. If Washington voters themselves don't know that, or don't care, the rest of the nation should pressure the state in every way available to change its law.

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