Too Old to Kill
The title of this article has two meanings. Some can believe it refers to being too old to kill another, while others, especially those concerned about the death penalty, can recognize the increasing dilemma facing the State and Federal governments when the time comes to execute an elderly prisoner on death row.
Many people are aware of the `graying` population in America's prisons, and this extends to the death row population. Elderly convicts grow older, weaker and sickly waiting to die. The problems of old age are the same behind these walls as they are in the free world. I sometimes suspect that we even age more rapidly due to the environmental factors: being closed off from society, loss of hope, no opportunity for work or adequate exercise to keep the mind and body sound. Add to that the psychological stress of spending years anticipating the day you will be hauled out of your cell and deliberately killed, and you age beyond your chronological years.
It is no wonder that more and more elderly death row prisoners suffer from dementia and Alzheimer's disease. As a civilized society, one could imagine we'd refrain from executing such old and sick prisoners, but that is not the case. Recently, a bedridden 74 year old man who suffered from dementia, named J. B. Hubbard, was executed in Alabama. However, since executions do not seem to be newsworthy these days, this sad and deliberate murder of an old and mentally deficient person went virtually unnoticed.
Statistics tell us that at the age of 55, a prisoner is considered to be beyond his crime-prone years. In good or poor health, it appears that most people don't seem to care that an elderly convict would pose practically no threat to society if they had a chance at freedom. However, what seems to concern politicians and prosecutors is that as more and more elderly prisoners are executed, the public may start to show some scorn. Here in Arizona, a 74 year old prisoner on death row succumbed to Alzheimer's while awaiting execution. Kent Cattone, who is the chief counsel in Arizona's Capital Litigation section has acknowledged that this death row prisoner's death sentence has been stayed indefinitely. The reason, of course, is that the person being executed must understand and be conscious of why he is being executed.
This leads me to the topic of Viva LeRoy Nash. He was on the Row when I arrived 22 years ago. He was 68 then, well past the aforementioned 55 year old crime prone age. On September 10, 2005, LeRoy will be 90 years old. I have lived around him for many years. When I was a law clerk in the prison library, I read a number of the pleadings he submitted to the courts. I always wondered how his case seemed to linger in the courts and lack any progress, when numerous other men who arrived here years later were already executed as their appeals were exhausted. I finally came to the realization that behind the scenes a concerted effort was secretly underway to delay the exhaustion of this octogenarian's appeals.
Now that LeRoy is 90 years old, could you imagine what a spectacle and horror show it would be for the state of Arizona to execute the oldest prisoner on death row in America? A man who must be assisted by officers to walk to the shower would have to be wheeled into the gas chamber or carried and lifted onto the lethal injection table. The State still contends that age is not a factor when it comes to carrying out executions. Former deputy warden Madeleine Perkins, who used to help supervise executions here, stated during an interview that it would be a waste to execute a 90 year old man - what is the threat to society? But the reason this case has lingered in the courts with no execution warrant being issued is now apparent. In a recent article in the L.A. Times, it was reported that a gentleman's agreement is in the air, and that the State foresees a day when the old man simply does not answer his morning bed check. To die quietly lets everyone off the hook.
There seems to be some hypocrisy going on here. All of these tough on crime politicians and prosecutors stand behind this false rhetoric that the death penalty exists to protect society from the monsters of death row. Now it seems they are afraid that the public will be revolted to see old geezers wheeled and carried to the execution chamber to be killed in cold blood. Men older than your grandfather and totally harmless to society if they were released tomorrow. Their sand castles will crumble when the absurdity of their sacred death penalty is thus spotlighted and seen for what it is. Not even their gentlemen's agreements or the prayers to their Gods will provide them with shelter from the storm.
This problem can not and will not go away because we are an aging population on death row. Sooner or later the executions of older prisoners will reveal the cruel and unusual punishment the death penalty is along with the fact that it is purely senseless murder. The only way any compassion could be shown would be to eliminate capital punishment. And that can not happen without lots of effort by all. The death penalty is not an old man who will fail to wake up one morning for his bed check and thus solve the problem. We must continue the fight and not be lulled into believing that the death penalty is `too old to kill.`
Last modified: August 28, 2005