A rope that was too long led to the abolition of the death penalty in Minnesota.
A convicted man, 28-year-old William Williams of St. Paul, had shot to death a 16-year-old boy with whom he’d reportedly had a two-year sexual relationship. He then also killed the boy’s mother. Williams and the boy had met in St. Paul when both were recovering from diphtheria in a hospital.
Williams was sentenced to die by hanging, with his death date set for Feb. 13, 1906. In the basement of the Ramsey County Jail, workmen set up the scaffold and obtained the rope. In measuring the rope, however, they did not take into account how far down a rope can stretch when a body is dangling from the end of it. Normally, a rope will break the hanged man’s neck.
In Williams’ case, he fell through the trapdoor, the rope stretched and his feet hit the ground. Three frantic policemen had to hold the rope up for nearly 15 minutes, the time it took for Williams to strangle to death.
News of the botched hanging spread far and wide. Many in Minnesota were outraged, including State Rep. George MacKenzie (R.-Gaylord), who began an impassioned fight to abolish the death penalty. His legislative effort was successful in 1911, five years after the botched hanging.
Minnesotans should be proud this state has not executed a person in 103 years. Let’s hope the botched execution last week in Oklahoma convinces that state’s citizens and legislators to abolish capital punishment there, too. In fact, let’s further hope it helps bring an end to the death punishment in all 50 states.
Currently, 32 states allow for capital punishment, and there are slightly more than 3,000 inmates awaiting execution in those states. There was a four-year moratorium on executions because of a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision, but in 1976 executions were allowed to continue. Since then, 1,378 people, including a few women, have been put to death, mostly by lethal injection.
Clayton Lockett was the man who took 43 minutes to die last week in Oklahoma. Apparently, one of his veins popped open, preventing the lethal drugs from doing their sinister work. Lockett writhed, gasped, convulsed and attempted to speak as he endured the slow torture of dying slowly, strapped down on the gurney in the death chamber.
There are some who have not a drop of pity for Lockett. On June 3, 1999, a recent high-school graduate, Stephanie Neiman, gave her friend a ride to her home where they stepped into a home-invasion burglary in progress. One of the three men, Lockett, tried to grab Neiman’s keys to her brand-new Chevy truck. She fought to retain the keys. He beat her up. The men bound and taped her mouth, then forced her into the truck and drove her into the country where Lockett raped her. Lockett’s accomplices dug a shallow grave in a ditch. Lockett then shot Neiman with a sawed-off shotgun, but she was still alive. He reloaded, shot her again and ordered the two men to bury her. One man said, “She’s still alive.” Lockett told them to bury her anyway. They did.
Lockett’s suffering on the death gurney was nothing compared to the agony his 19-year-old victim endured along that country road. Despite that, we as a supposedly civilized society should abolish the death penalty, especially when these cases of botched executions (“cruel and unusual punishment,” according to the U.S. Constitution) keep happening.
It’s easy to understand the rage and need for revenge of the loved ones of victims of such fiendish crimes. Still, killing these criminals in so-called “humane” ways is almost worse than deeds done by crazed killers because these executions are committed with such cool, calm, “rational” state planning and deliberation. Such executions are truly cold-blooded, more befitting beastly tyrannies like Syria than supposedly civilized countries like the United States.
There are many arguments against capital punishment: They don’t really deter crime, the endless appeals are too expensive, the penalty is unequally applied due to race or socio-economic factors, all too often there have been people waiting on death row or even executed who have been determined to be not guilty.
Those are all good reasons for getting rid of the death punishment in all states. There’s another good reason: Enlightened societies should not resort to such barbarism.