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Working hard for the right to kill

Martha E. Menendez
Martha E. Menendez

Imagine it’s your job to kill people. Now imagine that you love that job so much that you will go out of your way, in every respect, to be able to do it. Imagine further that this is a sweet government gig, with all the perks and bennies that some people only dream about. What would you call that person, that job? There’s “executioner,” of course, which conjures up terrifying images of hooded, axe-wielding strongmen, and typically refers to the person whose job it is to carry out a death sentence. But that only speaks to the end of a years and years-long process to get the condemned on that electric chair or, in the case of Nevada, strapped onto a gurney to be lethally injected with whatever poison has been deemed not cruel and unusual. You know, just murderous. 

Before we get there, though, it truly takes a village—of people so invested in the power (or the power trip) of taking someone’s life that they will block any efforts to stop them from doing so, but also of people along the chain of command who probably don’t think much about it at all, who are content to just follow orders, to just do their jobs. As Nevada gears up to execute Zane Michael Floyd, the first such execution in the state in 15 years, let’s name some of the people who got us here, shall we? 

Executions used to be messy affairs: beheadings, firing squads, etc. We then (most of us) moved on to equally awful but less bloody methods like gas chambers and electric chairs. Still, no need to upset those witnessing the taking of a human life, so someone came up with a special little lethal cocktail of drugs that makes it all look so peaceful, so mechanical, so removed from the actual atrocity that it is. States will vary in how and who administers the deadly injections, but this final act is typically the duty of one or more prison officials. I imagine these are corrections officers who don’t get paid very well, who, whether they know it or not, are exploited and likely manipulated into thinking away the moral implications of what their job is asking them to do. While I do hope that these folks find their conscience and make the choice to maybe not kill people in the future, my beef is not with them. In many ways they are victims of our barbaric system, too. 

No, the true and only culprits, as is often the case, are the professionals, the ones with the fancy degrees and the much higher pay grade, who make phone calls and sign documents and then hand the dirty work off to others. I’m talking about the medical professionals, the politicians, the lawyers who ensure that there’s always a new body and always the right tools to suck the life out of it. 

Let’s start with the medical professionals. There’s a reason you typically won’t see a doctor administering lethal injections or even observing an execution in any professional capacity. The American Medical Association has for years condemned its members (who remember, took an oath to care for all people and to do us no harm) from in any way participating in capital punishment. Though someone should probably tell that to the state’s chief medical officer, Ihsan Azzam, who despite the fact that he adamantly rejects the notion that he might have any influence over the execution process, still managed to advise the prison director on it — and through his attorneys filed his own opposition to staying Mr. Floyd’s death. To me that screams participation, but what do I know? 

Now pharmacists, it turns out, are not bound by that pesky Hippocratic oath, and while the American Pharmacists Association also holds that participating in an execution in any way is unethical, someone’s gotta step up and order those murder drugs. Lucky for us, we got one of those someones in Linda Fox, the Nevada Department of Corrections’ pharmacy director. Ms. Fox was in the news last week when it came to light that the manufacturer of one of the drugs that she ordered and purchased for Mr. Floyd’s execution demanded that the state return them, as it is their company policy not to participate in murder. What cold day in hell is it when a global pharmaceutical company displays more of a soul than medical professionals whose job it is to heal rather than destroy? 

But wait, the very important work of these death-penalty-advising MDs and PharmDs could not be achieved without the extraordinary efforts of a bunch of JDs. Of course, I am speaking of the lawyers, particularly all those hard-working prosecutors who either really believe murder prevents murder (spoiler alert: it does not) or, more likely, are concerned with losing the shiniest of all their bargaining chips. You see, in order for them to get an accused (and likely incarcerated) individual to take a plea and forego their day in court, they have to come in big, put the accused’s physical life on the line, because crushing their emotional, mental, and spiritual life with the promise of permanent incarceration just doesn’t cut it, you know. Whatever the reason, Clark County, under the leadership of District Attorney Steve Wolfson, is currently fifth highest in the nation for how often prosecutors seek the death penalty. Clearly, they’re quite attached to it. 

So attached, in fact, that two very special prosecutors (who also happen to be state senators) successfully blocked a bill this legislative session that would have abolished capital punishment in Nevada. I’m of course referring to Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro and Senate Judiciary Chair Melanie Scheible. Did they vote against the measure? Did they come out against it in protracted and intelligent debate before their colleagues? No, of course not. That would require decency, and we’re talking about the right to kill people; decency has no business here. Instead, almost as soon as the bill made it out of Assembly and was headed their way to the Senate, they started punting, unable to commit to giving the bill a hearing. 

Gov. Sisolak for his part, took that moment as an opportunity to express his desire that the death penalty remain in place, thus setting the stage for the month of inaction that was about to take place. When the deadline finally arrived, the governor was the first to issue a statement informing us that there was “no path forward” for the bill. Nevermind that it was his, Ms. Cannizzaro’s, and Ms. Scheible’s path to forge. All the two senators had to do was give it a hearing, state their position, and then vote accordingly. On the record, of course. Then should it have passed, leave it to the governor to decide whether to sign or to veto. 

But then we’d know with certainty where everybody stands on the issue, and you see, these people (these Democrats) all have elections coming up, which means that they can’t actually afford to take a position. It’s how politics works, I see now. Decisions are often made in backroom conversations. The hearings, debates, and testimonies are just for show. In this case, especially, that was not a show that the two district attorneys/senators could afford. They had to go back to their day jobs, after all, and that would have been awkward, don’t you think? 

So here’s my suggestion to avoid all the ill-will that secrecy creates. If you all really believe in the death penalty this deeply, if you’re willing to ignore the democratic process and purchase drugs illegally, and use your medical license to advise on how to most efficiently kill someone, then own it all. Embrace it. Be loud and be proud, babes. After all, you’re principled individuals who see capital punishment as a social good, right? Why be ashamed of that? 

In fact, all of you, from the pharmacist to the governor, should make it a point to be at the next execution. Take a pic, take a few. Maybe even televise it, let the world see the fruits of your labor, you seeker of justice, you. Then, when it’s all said and done, be sure to pose next to the body, the one that you just proudly ushered to its death and put that on your campaign posters. Dare them to ever question you about being tough on crime again. Dare them!

Oh, I’m sorry, does that sound barbaric? Which part? The pictures? The televised broadcast? The calculated murder of another human being? Yeah, I know. Problem is, none of you with any power to stop it seem to ever do so. And heads up: The world’s already watching. 

Martha E. Menendez lives in Nevada and is the legal manager for Justice in Motion, a NY-based organization.

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