Half a lifetime ago, when I was Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia, my duties included making recommendations to the Governor about executive clemency.
As a practical matter, the bulk of this task involved processing requests for “restoration of rights” – the awkward, time-consuming process required by Virginia’s constitution when convicted felons, having paid their debt to society, petition to regain the right to vote.
I’ve always thought that – once felons have served their prison time and completed any subsequent periods of supervised parole – they should automatically regain their voting rights. Wasting the governor’s time signing official acts of clemency seems silly to me.
Most modern governors – Democrats and Republicans – have agreed. But not enough to seek a constitutional amendment ending this silliness.
What I did, with my limited powers, was to publish an application kit, containing simple directions and easy-to-complete paperwork. I distributed this kit to prison officials, probation and parole officers, and local voter registrars, asking that they pass them on to qualified individuals. As a result, Governor Dalton restored the rights of many more ex-felons than his predecessors.
Subsequent governors and secretaries have continued to improve the process – though it still remains far more difficult than it needs to be.
My office’s clemency work involved more difficult decisions. I was charged with recommending specific individuals to the Governor for pardons, which sometimes meant releasing people from prison – something no Governor does without serious consideration.
I had a research assistant who sifted through the steady influx of requests from incarcerated felons, brought selected cases to my attention, and – with my approval – did detailed research on those we deemed appropriate for the Governor’s attention.
When we got close to recommending a pardon to the Governor, I occasionally went to one of Virginia’s prisons to meet with a candidate in person. Walking into a prison – even as a visitor – is a daunting experience, one I will never forget.
One case I particularly recall was that of a little lady who had killed her violent, abusive husband. Practically everyone in her small town had written letters to the Governor saying, in effect, that if ever a man needed killing, it was her husband. I remember taking her to meet the Governor, who – having satisfied himself that she was no danger to society – signed the papers setting her free.
The grimmest facet of my clemency work was – or would have been – the gut-wrenching task of recommending what action to take when a prisoner was scheduled for execution. During my three years in office, this situation never came up – but I thought about it a good deal.
Indeed, I instructed my clemency researcher to arrange for me to be on the list of official witnesses if an execution were scheduled during my term. It wasn’t something I relished watching, but – as a supporter of the death penalty – I considered it my duty to look the reality in the face. Since my office allowed me to attend, I felt I should.
All this came back to me after the recent, horribly botched execution of Clayton Lockett, who spent 43 minutes being administered lethal drugs before dying of a massive heart attack.
Lockett’s was a messy death, though not so messy as that of his victim, 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman, whom he kidnapped, raped, shot with a shotgun, and buried alive. Lockett is on videotape confessing to the whole thing, and on the tape, he looks relaxed, calm, even indifferent.
Of course, the “usual suspects” are out in force, demanding the abolition of the death penalty because Oklahoma’s correctional officers – hardly board-certified anesthesiologists – made such a mess of things.
To a point, I agree with them. I’ve never liked lethal injection, which seems like a bizarre parody of medical care – the prisoner lying down, strapped to a gurney, receiving death through an IV.
Indeed, I oppose all the modern, technological methods of execution – lethal injection, electrocution, the gas chamber. All strike me as perverse – as though technology somehow made the business of killing more palatable.
If we’re going to execute people for crimes – and I have no hesitation in saying that we should – I’d prefer to bring back hanging.
True, suicide by hanging can be dreadful – a matter of slow strangulation.
But properly done, hanging is almost instantaneous. The prisoner drops, and his falling body weight breaks his neck.
It’s over in seconds.
No weird, mad-scientist business with needles, electrodes, or toxic chemicals. Just a quick, brutal, bloodless, low-tech death.
As a society, we must be very careful about deciding to kill a person. We must be especially certain that we have the right person.
But when we decide death is appropriate, we shouldn’t tie ourselves in knots trying to make that death seem like something less.
The only knot that’s needed is a good, old-fashioned noose.