Thursday, June 26, 1997
Does it matter
how we kill each other?


BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

electric chair
Ohio's century-old electric chair has not been used in 34 years, but 312 men and women were put to death in the chair at the old Ohio Penittentiary between 1897 and 1963.
(Tony Jones photo)
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The tan-and-white dog bounced into the room at the end of a rope. A woman at the other end of the rope stooped and thumped the dog's side. And the dog obligingly licked her face. Then she lifted the dog onto a table.

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  • Gwen Williams, her strong dark face solemn, pulled liquid from the brown bottle into a syringe. She inserted the needle into the dog's left front paw, right above the joint. She patted the dog on the head.

    "I love animals," Gwen says. She's kennel supervisor for the Hamilton County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and she starts every day with a "destroy list." She says she knows it's necessary, and it's the law. She just tries to make sure the animals don't suffer.

    This dog, a pit bull, goes very gently. I counted to eight. One final thump of a white tail with a tan spot about the size of a quarter. Then the dog was still.

    Just two hours away is the place where we kill people.

    electric chair
    ... Someone on the execution team pushes a button, which administers a shock for 120 seconds ...
    (Tony Jones photo)
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    Lucasville. The Southern Ohio Correctional Facility is where 175 men are scheduled to die. The building, 106 green and hilly miles east, is a nondescript beige brick. Officially Building H in the complex, it's called the Death House. Even by officials.

    Inside are two small cages where prisoners stay just before execution. Stainless-steel sinks are furnished cheerily with red toothbrushes. In one cage, a shelf bolted to the wall holds a beautifully illustrated Bible. Next to it is a New Testament, "Property of the Gideons. Please do not remove from the room."

    Not likely.

    Down a short hall is the death chamber, where the "injection bed" is bolted to the floor. A prisoner would be restrained with heavy black straps, buckled like old-fashioned seat belts, an intravenous needle inserted in both arms. Then he would be left alone. Drugs would be pumped into him from the adjoining control booth. One to put him to sleep, one to stop his breathing and the third to stop the heart. It takes about five minutes. The state's "execution team" can watch through a window.

    A prisoner, if he were to look, would see only a large mirror.

    And he would see The Chair, a permanent fixture. A Hamilton County boy, William Haas, 17, was its first customer, on April 21, 1897. In all, three women and 312 men have died in its polished wood and leather embrace. This includes Charles Justice, an electrician and broom maker, who helped build it.

    The last time the chair was used was in 1963, before it was moved to Lucasville from the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus. There has never been an execution at the Southern Ohio facility, but they are ready. Deputy Warden Jim Hieneman says he hopes it will be done with dignity.

    Mr. Hieneman has kind eyes and a solemn manner. Light hair, going a little white, going a little shaggy. He looks as if he wishes I would go away. He says he will not debate the philosophy of the death penalty with me. Or with anybody. It's the law, he says, and he is determined to do this thing well, if it must be done. "It's important," he says shortly.

    In Ohio, you can choose lethal injection or electrocution. I cannot imagine anyone's choosing the latter. But, as I say, they are ready. The chair is polished to a high sheen, its black leather straps supple.

    On a wall is an amber bulb, over a keyhole. A prisoner, whose head and right leg will have been shaved, is strapped into the chair. A sponge soaked in brine - "a good conductor" - is placed on his head and held there with a leather mask.

    The warden turns a key under the amber light, which will be glowing to signal that the equipment is ready. Inside the control booth, a green light goes on. Someone on the execution team pushes a button, which administers a shock for 120 seconds. Two minutes.

    Next week, Harold McQueen is to die in Kentucky, one of only six states that still uses the electric chair as the sole means of execution. Why does anybody?

    Maybe we need ceremony to prove to ourselves that we're still civilized. Maybe we need a ritual. My ritual of choice would be Gwen's giving me a hug and counting to eight.

    If we are going to continue to execute people, and it appears that we will, why don't we do it with greater dispatch? Less ugly drama. We kill dogs. And we kill people. Dogs more often. And with considerably more humanity.

    Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio, and as a regular commentator on NPR's Morning Edition.

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