Should condemned suffer?
Randy Browning watched from behind the glass as Kimberly McCarthy slipped quietly into unconsciousness, snored briefly, then finally stopped breathing. It didn’t matter to him that this woman — who’d brutally stabbed and mutilated his beloved godmother and mentor — was allowed a peaceful, painless death.
For Browning, it was enough to know that Dorothy Booth’s murderer was no more.
“I’m happy not to share the planet with Kimberly McCarthy,” he said from his home in Austin, Texas. “But would I want her to be strung up and tortured? No.”
The prolonged — some say “botched” — execution of double murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood last week in Arizona fanned the flames of the unending debate over whether vicious killers should suffer as they die for their crimes. The controversy follows two other recent executions that went awry: In January, an Ohio inmate snorted and gasped for nearly a half hour before dying; in Oklahoma, a man died of a heart attack minutes after prison officials halted his execution because the drugs weren’t being administered properly.
Talk with loved ones of their victims, and you’ll find some on all sides of the issue.
In Wood’s case, Richard Brown questions whether he suffered enough.
“This man conducted a horrifying murder, and you guys are going, ‘Let’s worry about the drugs,’” said Brown, brother- and son-in-law of Woods’ victims, Debra and Eugene Dietz. “Why didn’t they give him a bullet? Why didn’t we give him Drano?”
Wood died by lethal injection Wednesday for the August 1989 slayings of his estranged girlfriend and her father. But he did not go quietly. About 10 minutes after the drugs began flowing, Wood started gasping. When it had continued for more than an hour, the condemned man’s lawyers made a desperate appeal to state and federal courts to halt the execution.
After nearly two hours and what witnesses say were hundreds of gasps, Wood was pronounced dead.
As the accounts played on television, cries of “cruel and unusual punishment” resounded, and calls came down for a nationwide stop to the death penalty. The Dietzes’ family lashed out.
“You don’t know what excruciating is,” said Brown’s wife, Jeanne. “What’s excruciating is seeing your dad lying there in a pool of blood; seeing your sister lying there in a pool of blood.”
Randy Browning was not seeking retribution as he sat in the viewing room on June 26, 2013. He was looking for closure.
McCarthy was convicted of killing her 71-year-old neighbor in 1997 during a robbery of the retired psychology professor’s home in Lancaster, Texas. Police say the former nursing home therapist beat Booth with a candelabra, stabbed her with a butcher knife, then cut off the elderly woman’s finger to steal her wedding ring.
McCarthy, who was linked to two other slayings, became Texas’ 500th execution since capital punishment resumed there in 1982.
“She was a vicious, psychopathic serial murderer,” says Browning, who credits Booth with setting him on the path to becoming a psychologist.
But as he sat watching her die, he could not help thinking of her own family, viewing the execution from another room.
“I did have feelings of compassion,” he said. “Not to the point where I wanted them to stop doing what they were doing. But, I mean, it’s just so much suffering.”
To Randy Ertman, suffering is beside the point. In June 1993, his 14-year-old daughter Jennifer and Elizabeth Pena, 16, were rushing to make curfew on their way home from a party when they took a shortcut through a Houston neighborhood and stumbled into a gang initiation. What followed was what one prosecutor called a “feeding frenzy” of rape, torture and murder.
Six men were convicted in the killings. Three avoided the death chamber because of their ages at the time of the crimes, but the others were sentenced to die.
Randy Ertman attended all three executions. When told of Woods’ slow death in Arizona, Ertman let out a wheezing chuckle.
“Good for him,” said the grieving father. “It didn’t take him long enough.”
Brad Bowser understands Ertman’s rage. Glenn L. Benner II was convicted of the 1986 kidnapping, rape and murder of Bowser’s 21-year-old sister, Trina, a childhood neighbor in an Akron, Ohio, suburb. Benner left her body in the trunk of her car along a highway. A year earlier, he had strangled Cynthia Sedgwick, 26, in Cuyahoga Falls after a concert.
When Benner died by lethal injection in February 2006, Brad Bowser was there.
“I thought he got off easy,” Bowser said. “The way that he killed my sister, and I think for someone just to get a needle put in their arm and be able to go to sleep and go to the next world, or whatever, is about as easy as it gets, you know? I mean, I’m dying of cancer right now, and it’s going to be a lot slower, rougher death than what he had.”
Still, Bowser was sorry to hear how long it took Wood to die and wonders why the government can’t execute people “more efficiently.” But he’s also angry that it took 20 years for Benner — and even longer for Wood — to be put down.
“The way they’re doing it is about as humane as you can get right now,” he said.
Clara Byrd Taylor has read her Old Testament and its many references to the ultimate penalty. But her support for capital punishment has always been tempered by doubt.
“Government today being so imperfect, man being so imperfect, there are so many injustices,” she said, “it’s hard for me to say that in every case I think the death penalty should be carried out.”
For the murderers of her brother, she has no such qualms. The evidence was overwhelming.
On June 7, 1998, white supremacists chained James Byrd Jr. by his ankles to the bumper of a pickup truck and dragged him three miles down a rough asphalt road in Jasper, Texas. Lawrence Russell Brewer and John William King dumped what was left of Byrd’s mangled body outside a black church and cemetery.
Brewer and King were convicted of capital murder. A third man received a life sentence.
Before she died in 2010, Taylor’s mother made her promise to see Byrd’s killers punished. So when an unrepentant Brewer was executed in September 2011, Taylor stood witness.
“It didn’t bring me any sense of peace or relief,” she said. “It’s just a matter of saying that this one chapter in the book was now closed, and we can move on to the next part of it.”
A date has not yet been set for King’s execution. When it is, Taylor plans to be there.
“And I hope it goes as peacefully as Brewer’s,” she said.
Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AllenGBreed.