Commentary by Sue Morrow: Pull the plug on capital punishment
For the Nevada Appeal
It was the worst day of my life, with the exception of the death from a heart attack of my father at the age of 73.
I didn’t view my dad in his coffin, as I wanted to remember him as he had been in life, with his blue Irish eyes that twinkled when he smiled.
As a news reporter-photographer, I had seen my share of victims from fatal automobile accidents, airplane crashes and other violent events. I never got over the squeamishness when confronted, unprepared, with those terrible scenes. In fact, in one particularly horrific auto crash, I actually gave my camera to a highway patrol trooper and asked him to shoot the picture. Unfortunately, I still had to deal with the images when in the darkroom processing the film and making prints.
But on that terrible day in October 1979, I was going to watch a fellow human being die right before my eyes. See a person put to death in front of me at a proscribed time and date. It was the execution of convicted killer Jesse Bishop, the first execution in Nevada after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted its ban on capital punishment. It was also to be the last conducted in the state’s gas chamber.
Bishop was found guilty of the fatal shooting in 1977 of a 22-year-old man who had left his nearby wedding reception at a Las Vegas Strip casino to intervene in Bishop’s attempted armed robbery of the casino.
The fact that Bishop had not availed himself of the automatic appeals to which he was entitled, and apparently was resigned to his fate, did little to alleviate my anxiety, although it was somewhat comforting to know I wouldn’t have to witness a person being dragged in to the death chamber kicking and screaming.
The day crawled by until I arrived at the prison for the scheduled midnight execution. No chance to back out now, I thought, as the Nevada Appeal was counting on my report.
Bishop, 46, walked in to the gas chamber with no discernible emotion on his face and was strapped to a chair. About nine minutes after the dozens of cyanide tablets accomplished their deadly task, Bishop was pronounced dead.
I wrote my story from home afterward, delivered it to the Appeal the next morning, and vowed to never cover another execution.
I have always been opposed to the death penalty, mainly for the reason that if only one innocent person – someone’s father, husband, brother, son – were innocent and wrongfully put to death, it wouldn’t matter how many guilty offenders suffered the ultimate punishment.
The questionable guilt of death row inmate Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia recently, has renewed the debate about the practice of capital
punishment. In an article for Time magazine, former commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections Allen Ault, who in that capacity oversaw five executions, aptly described capital punishment as “a very scripted and rehearsed murder,” adding, “It’s the most premeditated murder possible.”
The Davis case prompted some media outlets to revisit the execution in South Carolina of 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. in June 1944 after the black teen’s conviction for killing two white girls, one 8 and the other 11, with a railroad spike. Stinney reportedly confessed to the crime after being coerced, offered ice cream and not allowed to see his parents.
Unfortunately, there was no Innocence Project in those days. The multi-state organization has achieved the exoneration of hundreds of innocent people, including dozens of death row inmates, who were wrongly convicted.
It’s time to end this madness now. Every state in the Union should repeal its capital punishment law.
• Sue Morrow is a longtime Nevada journalist and member of the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.