Yes. And it is said by those who have the most intimate grasp of the issues, and the least authorized voices to speak: the condemned.
Katy Ryan's new book, Demands of the Dead: Executions, Storytelling, and Activism in the United States, brings some of these voices closer to those of us who share the ambivalent fortune of having a life that the state aims to protect rather than to destroy.
The book opens with the testimony of Willie Francis, a 16-year-old black man who was condemned to death in 1947, in Louisiana, by a jury of 12 white men, solely on the basis of a written confession produced after Francis had been picked up for another, unrelated crime. Francis survived not one, but two massive electric shocks. His lawyer appealed, arguing that to attempt another execution would count as "cruel and unusual punishment," thus violating the Eighth Amendment. The case went to the Supreme Court, but ultimately, Francis lost, and he was executed by electrocution in 1947.
There are so many things wrong with this story, it's hard to know where to begin. What did Francis have to say about the experience of surviving his own execution - twice - only to be held in prison until a third and final death?
"I sure know how it feels to sit in that chair and have them strap me in and put a mask on my eyes. I know how it feels to have the shock go through me and think I am dead but find out I am not. I do not like to talk about it at all, but if it will help other people to understand each other, I want to tell everything" (33).
These are among the opening words of "My Trip to the Chair," a pamphlet dictated by Francis to Samuel Montgomery in 1947.
The pamphlet reads like a story by Kafka. An affable, good-natured child describes the strange things said and done to him by his executioners and their accomplices, all the while trying his best to bear up under the circumstances.
Francis reports the words of a deputy, and then his own response: "'Don't worry, Willie - it won't hurt you very much. You won't even feel it!' I wasn't worried at all whether it would hurt me, I was more worried about the fact that it was going to kill me" (39).
Father Hannegan tells Francis that "the chair would only tickle me for a while and then it would be all over for me... When it was over and they asked me how it felt I told them that; that it tickled me. But I'm telling you that chair isn't full of feathers. I guess people have the idea it tickled the way you feel when you laugh" (36). Later, Francis begs to differ with Father Hannegan, whom he describes as "a very good friend of mine": "Father, you were right... It did tickle me - but it sure hurt me, too!" (42).
Francis' voice cuts through the decades of stale debates about deterrence, cost-effectiveness, "humane" punishment, and the holy principles of the Bible and/or the Constitution. It is the stunningly, perplexingly, outrageously and disarmingly calm and gentle voice of a human being that we have collectively put to death in the name of justice and security. And he is not alone.