Death on the Installment Plan | The Nation


Death on the Installment Plan

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Terre Haute feels its own prison is a good partner in the community. The prison provides 500 jobs, it's quiet and "it's a clean industry and doesn't pollute," as Chamber of Commerce president Rod Henry notes. There was little organized opposition to locating the federal death chamber here. In fact, the city is eager to learn soon whether another federal prison ($80 million in construction costs, 300 new jobs) will be located next to the existing facility. Taking no chances, city officials have already begun lobbying for a third facility. When your town's growth industry is founded on a seemingly endless supply of raw material--there were 150,000 inmates in federal prison as of April, more than half for drug offenses, and the total is projected to grow by 40,000 by 2005--a little bad publicity isn't hard to weather.

About the Author

Jonathan Shainin
Jonathan Shainin is on the staff of the New Yorker. He is editor, with Roane Carey, of The Other Israel, (New Press).

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Besides, Garza's death brought very little unwanted attention; fewer than 100 reporters registered with the prison, and far fewer showed up. McVeigh's execution overshadowed Garza's at every turn; when Warden Harley Lappin announced Garza's demise to the press, he actually began to say McVeigh's name: "The court order to execute inmate Timo--inmate Juan Raul Garza, has been fulfilled." Outside the prison, anti-death penalty protesters vastly outnumbered the few reporters standing around them. After two hours of sitting in a "circle of silent witness," the protesters began to sing at 7 am as Garza was dying a few thousand feet away. In between songs, Bill Breeden, a local Unitarian minister, said a few words, commenting on the sharply diminished media presence. "Coldblooded murder in Terre Haute," Breeden said, "has become so commonplace as to not merit their attention."

While the prison remains out of sight and out of mind for most in Terre Haute--dozens described it in precisely those words--a growing minority is determined to make that impossible. A coalition of local activists, the Terre Haute Abolition Network (THAN), formed a year ago, when Garza was originally scheduled to die, to coordinate local opposition to the death penalty. "Once we formed the network," said Suzanne Carter, one of the founders of THAN, "people came out. There are people in Terre Haute opposed to the executions here, and they're willing to go and stand in the street."

Carter says that "the goal is to awaken consciousness on a local level--where the prisons and killings are." In addition to meeting weekly and staging a monthly protest at Terre Haute's federal building, THAN helped to coordinate a march from Indianapolis to Terre Haute last November, when David Paul Hammer was scheduled to be the first federal inmate executed, and arranged the march and protest around McVeigh's death. The national attention may have subsided, but the organized local opposition remains intense, if small. Organizers continue to insist that there is another side to what the local paper called the "valuable exposure" and "positive economic impact" of McVeigh's's death. At Garza's execution, a sizable crowd turned out to remind the town that the killing did not end with McVeigh. There are eighteen more men waiting to die in Terre Haute, and eighteen more federal capital cases awaiting trial--the last two approved by Janet Reno during her final day in office.

At the prison on the morning of Garza's execution, there were no pro-death penalty protesters; they had little interest in his death. McVeigh's execution was all politics, literally woven from the messages of competing interest groups: lawyers on both sides, politicians, media, victims and their families, protesters. In the absence of this tumult, Garza's execution possessed only a pall of cruelty and sadness. In light of the difference between the crimes of Garza and McVeigh, and without the distraction of media attention, it was hard not to perceive in Garza's death an excessive government response. Unlike McVeigh, Garza went to his death pleading for his life, his compelling appeals to the Supreme Court and the President declined at the last minute. Garza made a contrite final statement, and under the white sheet covering his body, his feet shook nervously from side to side right up until the moment the drugs hit his veins.

Each man who dies under that white sheet will merit less attention than the one before, and nationwide it will be hard to notice the consequences--a little more state killing hardly stands out in this country--but they will continue to accrue. And Terre Haute, where the effects of a nation's executions are slightly more visible, will be a different place twenty men from now.

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