A fate worse than death

LAST WEEK, we had to let my old doggie boy Bumper go. He was 17, a great age for a shepherd-mix fellow. I rescued him on the southbound Glendale Freeway in 1991, after I saw him get hit a glancing blow by a car.

He had a long, cheerful life, woofing at anyone in a uniform and at every motorcycle. One day I’ll find out what it is about khaki and that particular engine pitch that drives dogs wild. But his great age and ailments overtook him, and he made it clear it was time to go.

He left in a haze of Demerol, a second drug that sent him into unconsciousness and a third one that ended the feeble beating of his heart. Bumper was released from his pain.

In the state of Oregon, terminally ill patients now have the right to make that same choice for themselves. Upheld last month by the U.S. Supreme Court, that right was fought at every step by a political culture that can imagine nothing worse than death and by a conservative religious culture that praises the glories of heaven but is determined to stand in the way of suffering people who want to hurry up and get there.


These cultures’ cheerleaders need to imagine a little harder. There are things worse than death, as some dying people will tell you -- people like my father, who suffered so long from Lou Gehrig’s disease and whose wish for assisted suicide was a longing for deliverance.

That reality needs to inform our death penalty debate. It’s the matter of methods that has just stayed California’s hand from executing death row inmate Michael Morales. The lethal injections the state began using 10 years ago this month may not be entirely pain-free, and now the bar has been set higher still: Is any pain at all unconstitutionally inhumane?

We’ve gone through this before, ever since the founding fathers put quill to parchment with that line about “cruel and unusual.” Hanging was regarded as more humane than beheading; the electric chair more humane than hanging; the gas chamber more humane than the electric chair; and now it’s the needle that’s merciful.

I’ll take death penalty advocates at their word: They aren’t looking for pain; they say they just want to mete out the ultimate penalty for murderers. They’re fond of that phrase, “ultimate penalty.”

But by whose reckoning is death the “ultimate penalty”? Why are the advocates so eager for these reviled killers to get an easy exit? A couple of shots, bada boom, bada bing, and good night, sweet prisoner. If it’s real, lasting punishment they want to inflict, not just a fleeting twinge right before the Big Sleep, take as an example a sentence passed on a drunk driver.

On a New Year’s Eve 25 years ago, a 17-year-old Virginian smashed his car into a smaller one driven by a young woman and killed her. It happened on a Friday; his victim was 18 years old; and his sentence was this: He was to make public confession of his crime again and again, to audiences of young people like him. And, every Friday for the next 18 years, he had to make out a check in the dead girl’s name for a dollar -- one single dollar -- and send it to her parents. Less than $1,000 all told, but it had to be paid one dollar at a time.

He stopped after six years because, he said, “it just hurt too much to continue.” He offered to make out a dozen years’ worth of checks all at once. The family wouldn’t hear of it. The sentence, they said, was meant to guarantee that he “never forgets that he killed our daughter.” This young man wasn’t even behind bars, and he found his punishment to be too painful.

Suffering is dispensed in every size and style. The physical suffering that moved Oregon to change its law. The emotional suffering that moves men and women to suicide. The suffering of an enslaved mind or body -- the nation’s bold, bring-it-on Cold War mantra was “better dead than Red.”

To death penalty boosters eager to throw the switch, pull the trapdoor, push the plunger on the syringe -- I’m calling your bluff. If your point is to give the killer a taste of some of the torment he dished out, can’t you use a little imagination?

The death penalty is meant to be delivered swiftly -- the fact that it isn’t is one of its advocates’ chief gripes about the process. But the author of “Dangerous Liaisons” remarked memorably nearly 200 years ago that revenge is a dish best served cold. A swiftly delivered death sentence is like fast food compared to the protracted punishments that could be ordered up for killers. Make their victims’ ghosts their cellmates. Hang their victims’ pictures on the cell walls. Make the perps remember birthdays, anniversaries. The symmetry of two deaths -- victim and killer -- is gratifying, but somehow it makes the victim disappear when the killer does.

You’ll know you have inflicted real punishment when you hear that some San Quentin lifer has filed the first petition requesting execution because the prospect of decades more of such a penance is a living death more painful to bear than the real thing.


PATT MORRISON’s email address is