TALLAHASSEE, FL—To all outward appearances, "Kevin" is a typical Southern state governor. He enjoys vetoing bills, attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and hanging out with friends. But the recent suspension of lethal injections in 10 states has put Kevin's political life in serious jeopardy. Unable to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether the practice constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, Kevin, like many young governors who find themselves saddled with an unwanted death row inmate, has been forced to take desperate action and obtain an illegal back-alley lethal injection.
"It was awful," said Kevin, who still suffers from nightmares after witnessing the prisoner die in horrible agony without any anesthesia. "We did it on an old card table. All the equipment was really rusty and dirty. I just closed my eyes and prayed for it to be over."
"I had my whole political career ahead of me," Kevin continued through tears. "If I didn't do it, the voters would have left me. I couldn't see any other way."
Lethal injection has long been a polarizing issue and, according to proponents of the banned procedure, Kevin's story is becoming all too common. Dr. Daniel Blecker, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and expert on capital punishment, said that the illegal back-alley execution trend will only intensify if the ban is upheld.
"Every day more and more governors find themselves in dank basements or filthy garages with a retinue of prison guards and a convicted killer," said Blecker, referring to testimony he has gathered from more than a dozen politicians who have participated in illegal lethal injections. "In extreme cases, the inexperienced executioners will inject the prisoners with cheap, common household poisons, such as oven cleaner and bleach, instead of the suggested sodium thiopental, Pavulon, and potassium chloride cocktail that a state-licensed executioner would use."
Blecker also cited reports of back-alley injections performed so hastily that no last meal was provided.
"The reality of the situation is that you can't legislate lethal injections away," Blecker said. "If governors can't inhumanely execute prisoners legally in prisons, they're going to turn elsewhere for the procedure. More often than not with tragic results."
Since early last year, a growing number of states have indefinitely postponed the termination of prisoners by lethal injection until the Supreme Court rules on the matter. According to a recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, an estimated 14 inmates have been killed monthly by botched illegal injections since the ban took effect, compared with an average of 12 killed each month in successful illegal executions.
Karen Walton, a therapist who counsels distraught governors following traumatic illegal lethal injections, said that pressure from constituents and the stigma of being seen as soft on crime often contribute to the politicians' desperation.
"Many of these poor gentlemen find themselves in situations like this again and again," Walton said. "I've even heard stories of governors performing crude, life-threatening euthanasia themselves."
Proponents of the ban, however, have dismissed cases such as Kevin's as isolated incidences. Some anti–lethal injection advocates believe that removing the option of legal lethal injections will force state politicians to consider alternatives for dealing with death row inmates, such as life imprisonment, rehabilitation, or the gas chamber.
"Governors have consistently abused state-sponsored euthanasia, using it as a sort of barbaric crime-control method," said Lillith Tinsely, a spokesperson for Amnesty International, the organization responsible for convincing the Supreme Court to reexamine lethal injection. "Ethically, the procedure should only be used as a last resort, such as in the case of rapists or convicts who have committed incest. Otherwise lethal injection is murder, any way you look at it."
Regardless of the outcome of the Supreme Court inquiry and the continued debate over how a life on death row should end, it is in some ways too late for politicians like Kevin—who will be forced to live forever with the memory of standing in a windowless, dimly lit room as a serial killer draws his last tortured breath.
"What did I do to deserve this?" Kevin said, choking back sobs. "I can't eat, I can barely sleep at night. Sometimes I feel like just ending it all. I don't know how I'm ever going to go through this again next Thursday."