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Witnessing a Federal Execution

In 2001, at the Federal Prison in Terre Haute, I witnessed the execution of Juan Raul Garza. What, I wondered then, does the death penalty accomplish?

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, Photograph by Tannen Maury / AFP / Getty

When William Barr, the attorney general, announced plans to put five federal prisoners to death by the end of January, he set in motion what could be the U.S. government’s first executions since 2003. In fact, the federal government has carried out the death penalty only three times in the past fifty-six years, most prominently against the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, whose truck bomb was responsible for the deaths of a hundred and sixty-eight people, in 1995. The other two condemned men have largely been forgotten: Juan Raul Garza, a marijuana smuggler who murdered a Texas-trucking-company manager and ordered two other deaths, and Louis Jones, Jr., a Gulf War veteran who kidnapped a teen-age soldier from a military base, then raped and murdered her.

Barr said that “we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.” He made no mention of any other purpose to the executions. Not deterrence, in the face of studies that show no positive correlation between the death penalty and murder rates. Not removing felons from society, a task that lengthy sentences do effectively. Not cost, considering research that demonstrates it’s more expensive to sentence an inmate to death than to sentence him to life. Rather, Barr explained that the capital-punishment laws were duly constituted by Congress, and the Justice Department “upholds the rule of law.” A press release from his office ended with a declaration: “Additional executions will be scheduled at a later date.”

The Trump Administration’s return to the death penalty hardly seems likely to change the direction of the debate around the country, where only half of the states currently enforce it, or the world, where a hundred and twenty countries voted last year, in the United Nations General Assembly, to recommend a moratorium on the practice. More than anything, it is a political signal. As I heard the news, I couldn’t help but think of Garza, who was executed eight days after McVeigh, in the same room, at the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. As a reporter for the Washington Post, I joined a small group of journalists who witnessed his execution. What, I wondered then, did his death accomplish?

Sunrise came early on June 19, 2001, one of the longest days of the year, and the media witnesses, whose names had been drawn from among the willing, assembled for the walk through the prison yard to a squat, red brick building that contained the execution chamber. The building had a series of windowless doors, allowing different groups of witnesses, including those present for the victims and for the condemned man, to enter without encountering one another. The reporters stood in a small, unadorned room facing a curtained picture window, and waited.

The turquoise curtains opened, as in a theatre production. We beheld a setting resembling an operating room, with tile walls and floors. Lying silently, on an elevated bed, a laundered white sheet pulled up to his shoulders, was Juan Raul Garza, age forty-four. With the curtains now open, he looked from window to window in an effort to see the witnesses’ faces. Four relatives of his victims were in one room. A person identified by authorities as his spiritual adviser was in another. Garza, who received multiple visits from his relatives in his final days, had asked his children, including a son, age twelve, and daughter, age ten, to stay away. They waited across town. “I don’t want to be in the place where they kill my father,” his son said.

At 7:04 a.m., Garza said, from the bed, “I just want to say that I’m sorry, and I apologize for all the pain and grief that I have caused. I ask for your forgiveness.” U.S. Marshal Frank Anderson picked up a red telephone receiver and asked someone in a Justice Department command center, “May we proceed with the execution?” The Supreme Court had already turned down his final appeals, and President George W. Bush had rejected a plea for clemency. Anderson listened for a moment. He then said, at 7:05 a.m., “Warden, you may proceed with the execution.”

Garza moved his feet nervously. The drugs that would stop his lungs, and then his heart, flowed through tubes that stretched from a far wall, each taking about sixty seconds to cross the room and enter his body. He blinked a few times. I wrote at the time that his eyes looked distant, and then went dull. The edges of his lips turned slightly blue. He died with his eyes open. It was all over in four minutes. The warden, Harley G. Lappin, announced, “Inmate Garza died at 7:09 a.m., Central Daylight Time. This concludes the execution.”

With that, the curtains in our witness room closed, and we emerged into the crisp morning air. What I remember is a blast of brilliant, blinding sunshine in a grassy prison yard filled with inmates busily getting on with their day. As workers inside the death chamber moved through the protocol to remove Garza’s body, his defense attorney, Greg Wiercioch, was standing in another part of the prison grounds, getting ready to tell us, in anger and defiance, “Someday, this precise savagery will end, but not today. Today, President Bush had the last word, but he will not have the final say on the death penalty. History will.”

What stayed with me all these years was the bleakness of the scene in the death chamber. Not just the fact that a man had been put to death by the U.S. government in the year 2001. That would be stark enough. But the anonymity of it. How many people would take note of Garza’s death, much less remember it? That day, the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, said that President Bush believed that the death penalty, fairly administered, “serves as a deterrent to crime.” For whom would Garza’s death be a lesson?, I wondered. Would a drug smuggler, tempted to commit murder, have second thoughts because Garza was executed? If we follow Bush’s reasoning, would the smuggler be more likely to kill if he merely faced the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison? Are we a safer country as a result of Garza’s death? Are we a better one?

About two years after Garza’s execution, Jones was put to death. One obstacle to further federal executions was the refusal of drug companies to provide one of the drugs used in them. Another was a series of executions that went awry. Judges questioned the humanity of the three-drug protocols that make up what is called lethal injection. Barack Obama, who favored the death penalty in certain cases, ordered a review of execution methods, following a botched execution in Oklahoma, where an inmate writhed in pain before slowly dying. Barr’s decision appears likely to energize a lawsuit, filed in 2005 by seven federal death-row inmates, challenging the three-drug protocol. In a notice to the court, the Justice Department announced that it intends to use a single drug, pentobarbital.

During the years since the executions of Garza and Jones, public support for the death penalty has declined significantly, even as state authorities have executed nearly seven hundred inmates. In the past three years, a hundred and ten people were sentenced to die nationwide, compared with more than eight hundred in a comparable period two decades ago. Doubts have climbed, parallel to an increasing number of exonerations, which number a hundred and sixty-six since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. On the Supreme Court, where a majority favors the death penalty, Justice Stephen Breyer has been outspoken in opposition, calling the practice “random” and “capricious.” He wrote in a 2015 dissent, “I see discrepancies for which I can find no rational explanations.”

No other Western democracy permits capital punishment, and there have been bipartisan efforts in an array of states to abolish it. One of the most noteworthy attempts came this year, in Wyoming, where the Republican-dominated House of Representatives voted thirty-six to twenty-one for repeal, before the bill was defeated in the Senate. California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, shut down the country’s largest death row this year and granted a reprieve to seven hundred and thirty-seven inmates by declaring a moratorium on executions and dismantling the storied death chamber at San Quentin State Prison. He called the death penalty a failure: “It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent. It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. Most of all, the death penalty is absolute. It’s irreversible and irreparable in the event of a human error."

While support for capital punishment has fallen from seventy-eight per cent, in 1996, to fifty-four per cent, last year, according to the Pew Research Center, the division in public opinion remains highly partisan. Seventy-seven per cent of Republicans remain in favor, compared with thirty-five per cent of Democrats. With the 2020 Presidential campaign underway, and all of the major Democratic candidates in favor of abolishing the death penalty, I couldn’t help but notice that all five of the men Barr hopes to put to death committed their crimes in states that voted for Donald Trump: Missouri, Arizona, Iowa, Arkansas, and Texas.

Each of the five men on Barr’s list was sentenced to die for a horrific crime. The killings, absent a new judicial finding, would be lawful under U.S. code. And yet, the Trump Administration’s sudden enforcement of the death penalty reflects the President’s over-all approach to criminal justice, marked by caprice, contradiction, and a certain brutishness. He has accused his political opponents of treason, denied the rights of asylum seekers, and called for capital punishment for opium traffickers. It bears recalling that, in 1989, soon after the New York City Police Department wrongly implicated a group of black and Latino teen-agers in the rape of a white jogger, Trump took out a full-page ad in four daily newspapers, calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York. Beneath the large type, he wrote, “Criminals must be told that their civil liberties end when an attack on our safety begins.” Many years after the teens were convicted and imprisoned, the true attacker confessed, and police matched his DNA to the crime scene. The city paid the men a forty-one million dollars settlement, but Trump continued to deny their innocence.

Then there is the other side of the ledger, where Trump, with relish, exercises his Presidential power to excuse lawbreaking, often on the recommendation of friends and courtiers. Just four days after Barr’s death-penalty announcement, the President granted clemency to seven people. One was Ted Suhl, who owned two companies that received more than a hundred and twenty-five million dollars in Medicaid funding for faith-based mental-health services and paid bribes to a state regulatory official. In allowing Suhl to leave prison more than three years ahead of schedule, Trump credited the lobbying efforts of the former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the father of his fiercely loyal former press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Earlier, he pardoned the conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who illegally funnelled contributions to a Republican Senate candidate. He also pardoned Joe Arpaio, the hard-line anti-immigration sheriff in Arizona who broke the law by defying a federal judge’s order to stop detaining people solely because they were suspected of being in the United States illegally.

And yet, Barr insists that a return to executions is necessary in the name of justice and the “rule of law.” Indeed, putting convicts to death, he seems to be saying, is the only legal and moral option. He could have left the federal death penalty unenforced, but he didn’t. He could have, at least, waited to see whether the judiciary approves a new lethal-drug protocol that executioners could use in place of older techniques—the electric chair, the gas chamber, and the noose. He didn’t do that, either. As I did in Terre Haute all those years ago, I found myself wondering what public purpose, beyond retribution, the execution of these five men would fulfill, compared with, say, life without parole. In other words, if these men must die, as Juan Raul Garza did, to what end?

  • Peter Slevin teaches at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and is the author of “Michelle Obama: A Life.”