Sunday, September 09, 2007

Taking the Guilt Out of the Death Penalty

"As far as I’m concerned, it’s just a job. They’re just a bunch of guys
trying to pay their rent.” --Daryl Holdon

Photo: Ángel Franco/The New York Times

Published: September 9, 2007


Daryl Holton shaved his head clean a couple of months ago. He thought he could retain some control in this small way. But he also wanted to save the corrections officers the trouble.

“I wouldn’t want them to leave with a feeling of guilt,” he says, speaking from the other side with his hands and feet shackled. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s just a job. They’re just a bunch of guys trying to pay their rent.”

His head needs to be shaven; his legs, too. That is because, not long ago, he marked an ‘X’ beside a sentence on a document handed to him here at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. That sentence read: “I waive the right to have my execution carried out by lethal injection and choose to be executed by electrocution.”

The crimes that Mr. Holton committed 10 years ago are so horrible and sad that it hurts to read even the most dispassionate description: he shot and killed his four children, ages 4, 6, 10 and 12. Two at a time, through the heart, after having them cover their eyes and asking them not to peek.

Was he punishing his ex-wife for obtaining an order of protection against him, as the state suggests? Or, as his defenders argue, was he depressed and temporarily insane, reasoning that his children were better off dead than to be raised by a mother with a history of alcoholism and abandonment?

Wouldn’t you have to be mentally ill to kill your own children?

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“In his mind, he killed his children
out of the highest possible moral reasons,
as odd as that might sound,”
says Kelly Gleason, a defense lawyer.

Now, after all the motions filed in his behalf, often against his will and without his participation, and after the years of speculation about why he did what he did and does what he does, Daryl Keith Holton, 45, of sound body and court-determined competence — a supporter of the death penalty, by the way — is scheduled to be killed by the State of Tennessee on Wednesday morning, one o’clock.

To be electrocuted, by choice: this slender man sitting now in a room as small and stark as a confessional, his darkened teeth in need of repair, his voice raised to be heard through the Plexiglas that separates the free from the condemned. Articulate and wry, he speaks with a deference — If I could; If you don’t mind — that masks the slight condescension of someone experiencing what few can imagine.

The preferred method of execution in this country is lethal injection, based on the educated guess that it is more humane — at least when properly administered. In that context, the electric chair seems a gruesome relic from the last century, an incremental step up from the noose. Old Sparky. Throw the switch and the lights flicker, as warning to us all.

Ten states still permit its use, depending on the circumstances, although Nebraska alone provides for no other option. Here in Tennessee, where the electric chair has not been used since 1960, the law says that if you are sentenced to death for a crime committed before Jan. 1, 1999, you may choose to die sitting up, or die lying down.

“You have a lot of argument nowadays that lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment, by a number of my neighbors in here on death row — at least by their attorneys,” Mr. Holton says. “To be honest with you, they are both probably effective and painless methods of execution.”

He smiles the small smile of someone sharing an inside joke; it is not a smirk. “I’m using the word ‘probably’ because any evidence regarding that is going to be hearsay,” he says, then adds, “It’s rare that someone lives to tell about” — here a chuckle escapes — “how an execution felt.”

Point taken. But why the electric chair?

“It’s not very intellectual,” he says. “At the time of the commission of the offense, that’s the punishment that was in place. That was the law.”

His answer reflects the strangely ethical code by which he lives, one that may reflect his many years in the Army, or perhaps the external order he needs to corral some internal chaos. He abhors frivolous appeals, and refuses to accept the privileges he has earned as a model inmate. When he came close to being executed last year, he declined a special last meal, and ate what other inmates ate that night: a turkey-and-cheese hoagie.

Kelly Gleason, a lawyer with the state’s Office of the Post-Conviction Defender, sees a sad consistency in his thought process. Ms. Gleason has visited Mr. Holton two dozen times and considers him a friend, even though he counts her among the “well-intentioned do-gooders” who have waged, and lost, various legal battles to save his life.

“I would describe him as a highly ethical, moral person with a rigid moral code, who acts in accordance with that code,” she says. “In his mind, he killed his children out of the highest possible moral reasons, as odd as that might sound.”

Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School who supports the death penalty in some cases, disagrees. He has met and spoken with Mr. Holton several times as part of a self-appointed mission to extract remorse from the condemned man. So far his mission, videotaped and audiotaped for posterity, has failed.

“I think he’s not ceding, or seeing, that he committed a monstrously despicable crime,” Mr. Blecker says.

Time is nearly up. Corrections officers begin to hover. Hurriedly, Mr. Holton is asked whether he believes that he deserves to die for what he did. He answers in a way that continues to keep imminent things in the abstract.

“I’m taking myself out of the equation,” he says. “What I would say to you is that someone convicted of four counts of first-degree murder, with the aggravators that were found in my case, the aggravating circumstances — yes, that conviction is worthy of the death penalty.”

As Mr. Holton rises, his shackles chime. He says as he goes, “And good luck in your future endeavors.”

Audio excerpts from Dan Barry’s interview with a death row inmate:


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