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The Booming Business Of Executing Grandpa

by Earl Ofari Hutchinson

on Clarence Ray Allen execution

(PNS) -- Clarence Ray Allen is old, sick and disabled, with a huge number of physical ailments. Barring any last minute reprieve, the condemned contract killer will die at California's San Quentin prison Jan. 17. Executing elderly men like Allen is unnecessary cruelty.

A 74-year-old Alabama inmate had even more ailments than Allen. He needed help to get to the shower and comb his hair, and was so far gone mentally he had trouble remembering his name. He limped to his execution in August 2004. Mississippi bumped off 77-year-old John Nixon in December. He, too, wasn't in much better shape than Allen.

A reporter that interviewed death row prisoner Stanley Tookie Williams shortly before his execution in December saw at least six prisoners who looked to be in their 50s and 60s on San Quentin's death row. Those were the ones within sight. According to the Department of Corrections, there are nearly 200 gray beards among the nearly 650 prisoners on San Quentin's death row. There are hundreds more prisoners aged 50 and older on the nation's other death rows. Eighteen men over 60 have been executed in the past five years. Many of the death row elderly have been there since the late 1970s and 1980s. They will spend on average a decade there before they are executed, die of natural causes, are exonerated or have their sentences commuted.

The old inmates stay so long on death row because prisoners are provided with a storehouse of mandatory state and federal legal appeals that drag out the process. The idea is to not slip and kill the wrong man. It's a good, public conscience-salving goal. But there's still evidence that some men that have been executed may have been innocent.

Furthermore, the glacially slow appeals process is no consolation for the old men who rot on death rows. They're caught in a legal Catch-22. They don't want to die, and they grab at their every appeal in the desperate hope that a miracle will happen. While they wait and wait, they age faster and suffer more mental and physical ailments than other prisoners. A study by the Florida Corrections Commission in 1999 found that inmates over 65 spend twice as much time in hospitals than younger prisoners and that their physiological age is 10 years greater than their actual age.

Their physical isolation from other prisoners, poor diet and the mental torment of not knowing when they will die take a double toll on elderly death row inmates. In 1989 the European Court of Human Rights refused to extradite a German national who fled to Britain from a murder charge in Virginia. The court claimed that the lengthy time between sentencing and execution was psychological torture. The accused was extradited only after state prosecutors promised not to seek the death penalty.

The U.S. Supreme Court hasn't helped any. Twice, the court has flatly rejected appeals from inmates in several states that have spent more than 20 years on death rows. The prisoners claimed that their prolonged stay on death row violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Stephen Breyer in a mild dissent in one of the cases acknowledged that the long wait for death prolonged the suffering of inmates. But Justice Clarence Thomas was having none of that. He lambasted Breyer for his dissent, and railed that prisoners have stacks of appeals to protect their rights, but then complain that it takes too long to execute. If House Republicans have their way, that will change. They're pushing hard for passage of the Streamlined Procedures Act of 2005 that would severely limit the number of federal appeals for the condemned that delay executions.

That's a terrible answer to the death penalty morass. Whittling away a prisoner's legal and constitutional protections won't guarantee absolute certainty that the state won't kill the wrong man. Without those time-consuming appeals, in fact, the more than 100 innocent persons that were scheduled for execution, and in some cases came close to dying but were later exonerated during the past few years, would have been long dead.

Allen's a sick, old man; killing him is ridiculous. He'll likely be dead in a few more years anyway, and he's certainly not going anywhere. A "dead man walking" into the death chamber is bad enough; a man being wheeled there is an outrage.

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Albion Monitor January 13, 2006 (

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