By J. Michael Willard
Walking through the gate and into the gothic, imposing structure of the Tennessee State Prison reminded me of horror movies I saw as a kid at the Rialto on Lauderdale Street in Memphis as I nervously gobbled jujubes.
But that was the dreamy post-war pre-Elvis 50s, and now it is 1972. The Supreme Court had just — by a hair of a chin y-chin-chin — ruled the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment.
As a reporter, I was dispatched to the prison on the outskirts of Nashville on a muggy June day to interview inmates on death row who were given a reprieve in a 5–4 court decision.
One might have expect a celebration in their cramped cages. But they seemed less relieved than bewildered, though one young black man was nonchalant, as if to say, “Who gives a damn.”
The decision was called Furman v. Georgia, and there was a feeling it could bring about a sea-change in the way cases that previously warranted the death penalty would be adjudicated.
Was it possible the end of capital punishment was nigh in the United States of America? As usual, the devil was in the details.
Basically, the decision allowed states to go back to the drawing board and conjure more creative ways and conditions that were, supposedly, not cruel or unusual. To me, those two words are synonymous with court sanctioned executions.
The next person put to death was Gary Gilmore in Utah five years after the Supreme Court decision. He was a bad hombre. His death was by firing squad with a circular paper target pinned over his heart.
Gilmore’s last words were “Let’s do it”, as if it were a ho-hum routine function of society.
Executioners, one with a blank cartridge and others with live ammo, fired away. The hooded Gilmore slumped over, limp in a chair. At the time, there had been a decade-long interval between executions in America.
Whether or not Gilmore’s “do it” utterance launched Nike’s “Just Do it” there seems little doubt. At least this is the story in advertising lore. The commercialism of it is dark poetry.
I have never thought the death penalty not cruel and unusual, particularly in Saudi Arabia where beheading is the norm. I am informed, though, the condemned feel no actual pain from the sword. On the other hand, blotched executions do occur in the US.
When it comes down to it, extreme cruelty is, perhaps, being forced to live behind bars in a six-by-nine cell (Florida’s dimensions) with a cot and toilet until death.
Though I have nada hostility toward anyone these days — other than, say, an occasional editor — I personally would prefer an express trip to hell than a daily dose of drip, drip misery.
The 1972 Supreme Court decision, in my view, was a bolt of judicial wisdom. Though temporary, It was a nod to we who are often called snowflakes, libtards and much worse. Most in America, Pew Research (June 2018) says 54 per cent, favor the death penalty. This number rises substantially with white evangelicals (73 per cent) and Republicans in general ((77 per cent).
It was not my first visit to the Tennessee prison. I had been there to cover a hostage takeover and, another time, to interview the longest serving inmate, a poor sap named Ira Leighton who I believed innocent.
The prison closed in 1992, and now is a rusting hulk of steel and concrete with paint peeling like waves of wallpaper coming unglued. It was a scary place, then an now. It was where Stephen King’s flick “The Green Mile” was filmed.
Fast forward to the present. It wasn’t an accident I came on this topic.
The motivator was the mid-term US elections, and especially a Florida amendment allowing felons — other than murderers and sex offenders — the right to vote under certain conditions.
During post-election commentary, I learned Florida had 27 death row inmates exonerated after it was discovered they were innocent. In 90 per cent of those cases, at least two jurors had recommended life.
You can argue percentages, but this seems an intolerable ghoul pool, nothing short of a post conviction lottery for the condemned.
The personal question that always comes up is this: What if it were your wife or child who was raped and murdered? To this, I can only answer as did the late New York Governor Mario Cuomo:
“I tremble at the thought of how I might react to a killer who took the life of someone in my own family. I know that I might not be able to suppress my anger or put down a desire for revenge, but I also know this society should strive for something better than what it feels at its weakest moments.”
That day in Nashville back in 1972 I walked around the room that contained Old Sparky, the oft-used electric chair that had ended the lives of so many.
I wondered if they were, perhaps, the lucky ones, and the poker-faced 23-year-old I interviewed — the man non-plussed at having a reprieve — was the unfortunate fellow.
(Photo: The now shuttered old Tennessee State Prison in Nashville)