October 29, 2006 Florida
Easy executions like Rolling's leave difficult questions for us to deal with
Michael Mayo, Columnist, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
As I walked through Florida State Prison last week to witness Danny Rolling's execution, a Death Row inmate called me a killer.
"Murderers! All of you are murderers!" came the shout from a window as a dozen media witnesses and six prison officials boarded two vans to take us to the death chamber.
Takes one to know one, I felt like shouting back.
But during the one-minute ride from a prison wing to the death chamber, as we drove past the white hearse that would take Rolling's body off the grounds, I couldn't help but wonder if he had a point.
Across the road, some who came to cheer Rolling's execution held up placards with biblical passages supporting their position. "Whoever sheds man's blood by man, his blood shall be shed Genesis 9:6," said one sign.
So then what about the sixth commandment? Thou shalt not kill.
We like to think we kill in the name of justice, not vengeance, with rigid burdens of proof and procedures, but it's killing just the same.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a suspension of the death penalty in1976, there have been 1,053 executions in the United States, including three last week.
There have been 63 in Florida.
I've seen two executions, of Rolling and Aileen Wuornos, in October 2002.
Witnessing the second was easier than the first, and the first was easier than I imagined.
That bothers me.
It also bothers me that instead of withering away in isolated obscurity, Rolling got a stage at the end. He went down singing, writing his own hymn for the occasion.
You should have seen the way we media witnesses painstakingly reconstructed the lyrics after the execution, trying to get our transcriptions consistent, as if his words were actually important.
A few days later, I still can't get his damn voice out of my head, still can't shake the melodic chorus of, "None greater than Thee, O Lord, none greater than Thee."I
t bothers me that Rolling got to enjoy the sweet, succulent taste of a lobster tail six hours before his death.
I don't know if my solution would be to deny a condemned person a last meal of his choosing, or to force him to eat decades of prison gruel until his heart gave out on his own.
All that's left after these easy executions are the tough questions.
Neither of the killers I saw die had much in the way of redeeming value.
Wuornos admitted to killing seven men.
Rolling admitted to killing five college students in Gainesville and a family of three in Shreveport, La. After doing the things that they did, a person probably should lose all rights and privileges in the human race, including breathing.
But is it society's place to bring that about?
It's an age-old issue. Nothing takes it from the abstract to the concrete like watching the color drain from the face of someone strapped to a gurney, seeing a chest heave one final breath.
The morning after Rolling's execution, I drove to Micanopy, a small town near Gainesville, to talk with Letha Prater. She was in the death chamber to witness Wuornos' execution four years ago. Wuornos killed her younger brother, Troy Burress, 50, in August 1990, the same month Rolling went on his killing spree.
Prater, 68, said she had no regrets about witnessing Wuornos' execution. Even though she admits it "probably was revenge," she said she found her death therapeutic."A cloud lifted off, a cloud just drifted away," said Prater, 68, a former Fort Lauderdale resident who moved to rural Central Florida in 1989.
"I was happy. I felt lighter. It didn't bring [my brother] back, but at least she paid for what she did."She said her brother was her best friend.
Burress, a pool maintenance man, moved from Delray Beach to Ocala in 1990 so he could be close to his sister. "When someone gets taken from you in a violent way, it makes you angry,"Prater said. After the execution she said her heart "wasn't quite as hard. Isent the hatred along with her."
About death penalty opponents, she said, "They say [capital punishment] is not civilized, that it's coming down to [the killers'] level. Well, you could never come down to their level. They massacre people. She shot my brother in the back."
According to Amnesty International, 129 countries have abolished the deathpenalty in law or practice, including most European nations, Canada and Mexico.
In 2005, according to Amnesty International, the countries with the most known judicial executions were China (at least 1,700), Iran (94),Saudia Arabia (86) and the United States (60).
"You wonder if most Americans know the company we're keeping," said MarkElliott of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, an abolitionistgroup.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., said only about 10 percent of the approximately 3,400death row inmates in the United States will ever be executed."Who gets picked and why is not always clear," said Dieter, whose nonprofit group does not take an overall position on capital punishment but is critical of inconsistencies. "There's an unspoken agreement to have the death penalty, but not use it too much.
"Experts say death-penalty cases usually cost two to three times more than having someone imprisoned for life. "If the public knew what this really cost, they'd turn away from it," Elliott said. That day doesn't seem near.
According to an ABC News poll in July, 65 percent of Americans support the death penalty. A Gallup Poll in May found that 60 percent of Americans think it's applied fairly.They must not follow the news.
Earlier this decade, Illinois put a moratorium on the death penalty and all but emptied Death Row after a spate of exonerations raised serious questions about its use.
According to AmnestyInternational, 123 Death Row inmates in the United States have been released since 1973 after evidence emerged about their innocence. Florida has had the highest number of exonerations, 22.
But there are some cases, like Rolling's, where the death penalty seems fitting.
I used to strongly oppose capital punishment. Now I'm more ambivalent.
Maybe it's because I'm now a father of a little girl who turns 1 next month.
As I spent time with the relatives and friends of Rolling's victims the past two weeks, as I heard them describe their agony and saw their faces at the execution, I thought maybe they deserve this small satisfaction, even if itis retribution at its basest.
Tommy Carroll, who needed years of therapy after finding the mutilated and stabbed bodies of his childhood friends Tracy Paules and Manny Taboada in their Gainesville apartment, said, "For someone who maintains their innocence, when there are doubts or no DNA, I could see not having it. But for someone like Rolling, who admits his guilt, my only question is why it has to take so long?"
Maybe executing him does make us all murderers.
Maybe that's not all bad.---
Source : South Florida Sun-Sentinel