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McClellan: Should a victim's family have the right to say yes or no to death?

McClellan: Should a victim's family have the right to say yes or no to death?

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Missouri executed John Middleton Wednesday afternoon. He was the sixth man put to death in Missouri this year. Only Florida and Texas have been as busy.

The flurry of executions, along with questions concerning the drug protocols, have led to serious and thoughtful discussions about the death penalty. Not in the Missouri Legislature, of course, but among the citizenry.

When the state was unable to procure one of the drugs in its three-drug cocktail, several people suggested we use heroin. A hot-shot, as they say on the street. That was an idea rife with philosophical undertones. Would it be right to execute somebody with an illegal drug? While we don’t want the execution to be painful — an interesting thought all by itself — would we want it to be euphoric? Should the condemned man’s last moment of consciousness be one of intense pleasure?

Then, too, there are people, mostly against the death penalty, who argue that we shouldn’t execute people behind closed doors. Make executions public like they used to be.

In some countries, they still are. Fred Wessels witnessed a public execution in 1984 while working at King Khalid University Hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He described it.

“Executions are held at noon on Friday, the Muslim Sabbath. The location was downtown on a parking lot near a large mosque. There were hundreds of people there to witness it, with military personnel present to keep the crowd in line. About noon, a tall black man, probably Sudanese, came out of an adjacent government building. He was in traditional Saudi dress, with a flowing white robe and a white gutra covering his head. He had a large sword and scabbard hanging from his right hip.

“At about the same time, a few men appeared from another building. All of the men were in Saudi dress and the prisoner was in shackles. The man with the sword and the prisoner and guards met on the parking area. The prisoner was tapped on the shoulder. He knelt on the ground, head bent forward. The executioner raised the huge sword high over the head of the prisoner and came down fast. The head was severed from the shoulder and hit the asphalt. Some blood surged from the neck or shoulders. The execution was over.

“The next day, I read that the prisoner was a foreigner (don’t remember the nationality) and had been convicted around 10 years earlier. He was held in jail until the son of the man he was convicted of killing was of legal age. At that point, the next of kin can decide whether the man lives or is executed.”

The notion that the victim’s family should have final say is interesting. I spoke about that the other day with Jim Hall and Susan King. Four months ago, Jeffrey Ferguson was executed for the murder of their daughter, Kelli Hall. Twenty-five years had elapsed between the murder and the execution.

The year before the execution, I interviewed Jim and Susan about what seemed to be a de facto moratorium on executions in Missouri. The state was unable to obtain sodium thiopental, one of the three drugs in its normal protocol, and the plan to use a single drug was tied up in court. What were their thoughts on the possibility of their daughter’s killer avoiding the death penalty?

Susan was the more upset. Jim had always been a bit ambivalent. He still thought the death sentence should be carried out, but he did not seem as bothered that Ferguson might escape execution.

The state got things squared away. Ferguson was executed. At the prison afterward, Jim met Lisa Boyd, who had made a documentary film called, “Potosi: God in Death Row.” Ferguson was one of the inmates profiled. Jim and Susan watched it. Susan told me, “If I had seen that before the execution, I would have asked the governor to commute his sentence to life.”

Jim was impressed, too. In the film, Ferguson was thoughtful. He was not the bully and alcoholic he had been 25 years earlier. He seemed to have changed.

That’s a problem with long delays. You might not be executing the same person you sentenced.

When we spoke the other day, Jim said he still believed in the death penalty, but only if it is carried out in a timely manner. It’s not a deterrent if it takes 25 years.

But then the person doesn’t have the time to change. Is that preferable? And, how do we know any change is real?

All families won’t have the benefit of a documentary. Maybe families should have the opportunity to meet the condemned.

“I wish I had met with him,” Jim said.

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