Death Watch

Death Watch

As two executions have been carried out in California in recent months, with several more due to take place shortly, these events have assumed a form as predictable as a Noh play. First comes the flurry of rejected legal appeals. The California Supreme Court—no longer a stickler for due process niceties, as it was under its deposed former chief justice, Rose Bird—regularly acknowledges errors in how capital punishment cases are conducted, only cheerfully to dismiss them as “harmless.” Next there’s the denial of clemency by Governor Pete Wilson, a man never known to agonize over an execution. Then comes the prayerful protest vigil and the noisy counter-vigil conducted outside the gates of San Quentin. Finally, at a minute or two past the chimes of midnight, the anonymous representatives of the State take another life in the name of the People.

Not just in California but across the United States, this is business as usual, the way capital punishment usually gets carried out. But the execution a few months back of a forty-eight-year-old convicted murderer named Keith “Danny” Williams was a little different. For one thing, the state has turned off its gas chamber and now injects poisonous chemicals into the prisoner’s sedated body. For another, reporters, who during the first execution by injection had been allowed
to witness only the moment when the lethal chemicals started to flow, were able this time to cover the story from the strapping down of a still-conscious prisoner until the pronouncement of death.

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Lima