Tuesday, July 1, 1997
Executions top news
but for how long?

BY KAREN SAMPLES
The Cincinnati Enquirer

EDDYVILLE, Ky. - There was something reassuring about the TV trucks lumbering toward the prison on Monday. The first of them pulled in while mist still hovered low over Lake Barkley, which stretches in front of the Kentucky State Penitentiary like a dull, pewter-colored blanket.

Harold McQueen would not die for another 14 hours, but already cameramen were testing for sound. Reporters arrived to await protesters and leaf through the prison's electrocution handout.

At 3:30 p.m., officials began hourly briefings. Mr. McQueen had these visitors, he wants only cheesecake for dinner, he seems at peace.

One reporter asked how his last words would be recorded.

This, too, was vaguely comforting. When we kill a man in Kentucky, it is important news. Quick, before deadline, tell us exactly what he said.

But I wonder how long that will last.

Next time, surely, a similar crowd will attend; Kentucky is poised to approve lethal injection, and everyone will want to see how that goes.

But what then?

Seventy-five percent of the public supports capital punishment. In Kentucky, the endless, increasingly desperate appeals by Mr. McQueen's attorneys have underscored the collective demand for a swifter and more final justice.

In an offhand conversation with me last week, a Grant County politician put it this way: Criminals should be killed soon after their sentence is handed down. How cruel, in Mr. McQueen's case, to wait 17 years and then execute a changed man.

Now there's a notion. Hurry, let's kill 'em while they're still bad.

I mean no disrespect for that politician. I am sure, in fact, that he is not alone.

I only wonder where it leads. Will public sentiment in Kentucky eventually force a change in the number of appeals inmates are allowed, paving the way for many more executions?

If such is the case, we would be wise to consider Texas.

Its appeals process was recently streamlined, and in 1982, it became the first state to approve lethal injection. Since then, Texas has killed 131 people - so many that state spokespeople have trouble keeping track of the number, much less remembering the names.

Once this year, Texas had two executions in one night. Another time, four in four days.

The legislature in 1995 changed the rules on when they must occur: Now it's before 6 p.m. instead of just after midnight. Staying up that late was hard on employees, and besides, their overtime was getting expensive, says Larry Todd, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Mr. Todd says lethal injection is so humane that victims' families sometimes complain it's too much like watching a guy take a nap.

Five reporters can witness executions, but usually only three do, says Jenna Jackson of The Huntsville Item. For her, the executions are never routine, but the same can't be said for the citizens of Huntsville.

Lately, big-time reporters from Los Angeles and New York have been hanging around, writing long stories about the relentless pace of death in Texas. For the most part, Huntsville residents wonder why this is news, Ms. Jackson says.

Some 12 hours before Harold McQueen died, his friend, June Linville, sat on a concrete pillar in front of the Kentucky State Penitentiary, her knees tucked under her chin. She wore a denim sundress over a black T-shirt, and her toenails were painted pinkish-red.

It was early. The horde of reporters hadn't found her yet.

She had visited Mr. McQueen a short time earlier, and now she was just sitting, looking at the ground.

Behind her, a bird chirped from atop a utility pole. The smell of barbecue hung in the air; apparently, the minimum-security inmates had been grilling out.

''I am still hoping,'' Ms. Linville said, then paused to compose herself. ''I am still hoping, like he is, that the government will call.''

A system that encourages such hope is cruel indeed.

But to sanitize killing is surely worse.

If someday we can't remember the inmate we killed last week, what separates us from them?

Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at ksamples@enquirer.com

SAMPLES ARCHIVE