Tuesday, 18 March 2008

How to Build an Execution Chamber

How to Build an Execution Chamber

Dan Gorenstein's picture
By Dan Gorenstein on Tuesday, March 18, 2008.
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The New Hampshire Department of Corrections has a lot of work to do.

The federal government is requiring New Hampshire to execute convicted murder Gary Sampson.

And Attorney General Kelly Ayotte is seeking the death penalty in the murder cases against Michael Addison and John Brooks.

But right now the state doesn’t have a place to put people to death- it doesn’t even have a death row.

New Hampshire Public Radio’s Dan Gorenstein looks into just what New Hampshire must do to prepare.

When it comes to capital punishment, the state doesn’t seem to have a lot of institutional knowledge, or infrastructure for that matter.

Corrections Department spokesman Jeff Lyons recently showed me where the Men’s Prison in Concord may have housed and executed prisoners 70 years ago.

I say may have, because no one seems to know for sure anymore.

Sfx: walking, door sounds

DG: He leads me past the prison canteen on to a hallway 30 ft long with 6 old cells along the right wall.

JL: 3:05...you can see, bricks on the side of the wall, cement on the floor, wood on the doors, you can see the remains of what used to be hinges...

JL: 5:49.... there was some kind of door there...it’s large enough for one person, no ventilation, no windows.

DG: It’s a little difficult to imagine the last person the state executed, back in 1939, living in one of these tight, dark cells.

JL and DG: 3:57...currently they are used for storage for our canteen...(cases and cases of Sierra Mist)....in this particular one, yes...in other ones you will see other items stored.

Sfx: walking (keep this up through next two graphs)

DG: As we walk along I see a make shift sign taped to one of the wood frames, ‘#6 archive boxes, ice cream spoons and fireballs.’
From here, a death row inmate would have walked another 50 feet or so, and wound up in a room where inmates now lift weights.

JL: 2:45...we are looking at a wooden floor and a piece of plywood that is nailed down or something. (knocking). This is what tradition suggests, the executions may have been carried out, dropped through the trap door.

DG: Back then, the state used to execute people by hanging.

Lyons says below the bolted trap door, it’s a good 10-15 foot drop.

Sfx: outside

DG: Just as prison officials don’t know for sure where they last executed an inmate, they don’t know where they would execute the next one.

JL: 2:34...well that’s something to be figured out. We are in the very preliminary stages of that whole process.

DG: And there’s no particular hurry.

Four years ago, a federal judge ordered New Hampshire to execute a convicted murderer.

The appeals could take years, so it’s understandable the state is only now looking into the matter.

But where do states turn to for advice on execution facilities?

Deborah Denno: 1:34 there’s not an industry or a company that specializes in lethal injection or execution methods...Johnson and Johnson is not going to get into the execution method construction business.

DG: That’s Fordham law professor Deborah Denno.

She has conducted two national surveys on state’s execution procedures.

Denno says...states consult states...often copying protocols and layouts from each other.

But corrections officials don’t seem to like to talk about this side of their work.

The Connecticut Department of Correction, which recently built an execution chamber, didn’t return calls.

The Virginia Department of Corrections, which some consider a model, didn’t respond.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, scheduled a training seminar on the subject for states last spring.

But officials there would not speak for this story.

They wouldn’t even confirm if the seminar took place.

U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel of the Northern District of California says historically state just don’t talk about this.

Jeremy Fogel: 3:20...one thing that is consistent is that...there hasn’t been a lot of sunlight on these things. They are considered to be in large part confidential or secret procedures.

DG: Fogel is presiding over a case that challenges California’s execution chamber and protocols.

Jeremy Fogel:...only the recent litigation has brought some of that to light. So there is a shroud of secrecy as to what the states actually do.

DG: It turns out...New Hampshire has reached out to a number of other states for advice.

But the Attorney General’s Office would not discuss the protocols its considering for the DOC.

States have been taken ot court over their execution methods.

So New Hampshire needs to be careful who it consults.

Some observers suggest the state read Judge Fogel’s 2006 order to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Berkeley-based lawyer Elisabeth Semel says it’s a guide of what not to do.

Elisabeth Semel: 19:24 Judge Fogel identified at least four crucial deficiencies in the implementation of the state’s lethal injection....

DG: Those include unreliable screening and training of execution team members, poor record keeping, and infrastructure problems.

Elisabeth Semel:....Inadequate lighting, over crowding, poorly designed conditions in which members of the team unable to...assess whether the inmate was properly anesthetized throughout the process.

DG: The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has used this order and visits to other state and federal institutions to make improvements.

$850,000 dollars later, California has built the newest execution chamber in the country at San Quentin Prison.

Whatever model New Hampshire chooses say the state should keep in mind two basic principles.

First, top officials should discuss and scrutinize the process, no matter how unpleasant.

Second, don’t create a system in which there’s an unacceptable degree of risk that the inmate will suffer.

Judge Fogel says New Hampshire is getting into this just as the ground rules are changing.

Jeremy Fogel: 40:15...the process of how we carry out executions has never been examined as closely as it is being examined now. Whatever the situation has been historically, these things have happened out of the public eye, out of the public consciousness, that’s not the case anymore.

DG: Fogel says society is starting to demand the process of executing someone reflect the gravity of the act.

The New Hampshire Department of Corrections says whatever it does; it won’t do it until the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of lethal injections later this year.

For NPR News, I’m DG in Concord, NH.

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