From Bob Hirschfeld Two events impacted Arizonans on Sunday, April 5, 1992. A good friend
From Bob Hirschfeld
Two events impacted Arizonans on Sunday, April 5, 1992. A good friend of
mine, who is a prominent Civil Liberties advocate, was a marcher in Sunday's
Washington DC Abortion Rights rally. She called me last night upon her return
to Phoenix from the ACLU National Board Meeting, which was held in DC instead
of its usual New York location to allow board members to participate in the
march, to tell me that she appreciated my being at the "other" Arizona event,
which occurred shortly after Midnight Monday morning.
Arizona ACLU Executive Director Louis Rhodes and I drove down to the
State Prison at Florence, AZ Sunday night to join a candle light vigil of
about 200 persons protesting the gas chamber execution of Donald Eugene
Harding, Arizona's first death-row execution in 29 years. Others will
apparently follow in the next few months, now that the dam has broken for the
men (there are no women) on Arizona's death row.
Harding was no doubt a vicious killer; he had brutally killed two men.
His string of appeals were based on the apparent fact that he had brain
damage, possibly arising from being abused as a child. Earlier this past
weekend, the State successfully persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to
pre-emptively lift a Ninth Federal Circuit stay, which had been granted to
once again consider the brain damage issue.
Louis and I arrived at about 10:30 PM. Department of Corrections
officers inspected ID's, asked us if we had "any weapons with us", and
directed us to park in an open field about a quarter mile from the main prison
buildings. They had freshly mown the grassy field where they allowed us to
peaceably assemble. It was a warm, spring-like desert night, and the smell of
the mown grass brought back pleasant memories, which troubled me in the
context of what was about to happen nearby.
The majority of the group were apparently from various churches, some
identifying themselves by their attire as priests and pastors. Louis and I
were in dark business suits, wearing ACLU pins. Some identified themselves as
being from Amnesty International. Although some of the identifiable well known
Arizona feminists were present, no doubt the absence of others, such as my
friend, is attributable to their having gone to Washington to march. There
were approximately equal numbers of men and women. I am not a religious
person, but I felt comfortable with these people. I, too, as a matter of
conscience oppose the state imposition of the Death Penalty. This was the
first time I had actually participated in a public vigil.
We formed a circle, each holding a candle. There were speeches and
personal testimonies, which we strained to hear, as there was no sound system.
In the distance, we heard hooting and cheering periodically erupt.
I had a clearer image in my mind than most of those present, of what the
place of execution looks like. As a law student in 1982, I went on one of the
student tours of that very prison. I remember standing within inches of the
old steel chamber, with its heavy windows on every side, in the little death
house that stands alone in a central courtyard at the Florence prison.
Extending upward from the death house is a very tall metal smokestack, higher
than the multi-story prison buildings which surround it, for the venting of
the poisonous gas. Inside the chamber is a simple but heavy chair, with
leather wrist and leg restraints. A bowl of acid would be placed below the
chair in this crude, ancient apparatus, with the solid pellets of chemical
dropped through a chute from the outside into the bowl, from which reaction
rises the lethal cloud. The image of Arizona's gas chamber is indelible for
anyone who has seen it.
But I doubt that image, which has more recently been seen in the media,
does much, if anything to deter someone whose mental illness compels him or
her to commit murder. And, although many disagree with me, I believe that
anyone who commits murder is suffering by definition from mental illness.
Newspaper and broadcast reports of the execution were gruesome. But those
of us at the vigil were not aware of these details, nor of the fact that the
execution didn't actually begin until 12:18 AM. We disbanded and began driving
home at about 12:15. For us, the event felt like it had occurred at exactly
midnight. That was partly because of the rebel yells and fireworks across the
road arising from a smaller crowd of yahoos who had gathered to heckle us, and
to loudly celebrate the event.
Harding's death was slow and, as reported, painful, taking ten minutes
and thirty one seconds. After ten years on death row, Harding had expressed a
readiness to be released from his prison through death. He defiantly looked at
Arizona's Attorney General, Grant Woods, through the death chamber window, and
despite the wrist restraints, "flipped him the bird." The reporters who
attended, afterward gave graphic descriptions of the muscle spasms, the skin
turning bright red, etc. Louis and I heard these descriptions on the car radio
as we drove home to Phoenix. One reporter said, "We put down horses more
humanely than that." I continue to oppose the death penalty. In Arizona, there
is little likelihood that public opinion will abolish it. It was my first, and
probably not my last vigil.
I will leave it for others to testify as to what they saw and felt in the
Washington march on Sunday. I felt I needed to share with you my feelings and
observations from the vigil, only hours later, at Florence, Arizona. I shall
not further comment. Thank you all for listening.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank