"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Georgia executes Brandon Astor Jones

Brandon Astor Jones
Brandon Astor Jones
Georgia has executed the oldest man on the state’s death row, Brandon Astor Jones.

At 12:46 a.m. Wednesday, Jones, just 10 days shy of his 73rd birthday, took his last breath, ending a decades-long journey for the daughter and widow of the man he murdered in 1979.

The execution had been scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday. Jones, the fifth-oldest inmate executed in the nation, waited in a holding cell a few steps from the death chamber as the appointed time came and went amid a flurry of last-minute court filings for mercy (please read the 2 pieces at the end of this article).

It took more than an hour to prepare Jones for his lethal injection. According to a media witness who monitored the setup, it appeared they had to insert an IV into his groin area, which is protocol if the nurses cannot find accessible veins in the inmate’s arms.

Jones fought death. His eyes closed within a minute of the warden leaving the execution chamber, but 6 minutes later his eyes popped open. He looked at a clock on the wall, and then appeared to look at the man who prosecuted him in 1979, former Cobb County District Attorney Tom Charron, who was sitting on the front row.

After he died, about 15 of his supporters and death-penalty opponents, who were gathered about a mile from the execution building, held hands and prayed.

Jones’ attorneys waged a legal battle through the final hours to spare the 72-year-old from being executed for the 1979 murder of Roger Tackett, who managed a Tenneco convenience store and gas station in Cobb County.

The battle ended at about 11 p.m. Tuesday, when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas denied requests for a stay, allowing the execution to go forward.

Three friends and 11 family members visited Jones on his last full day of life, as did a lawyer and an investigator.

Afterward, Jones ate his final meal — the same dinner served every other inmate at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison near Jackson: chicken, rutabagas, turnip greens, dry white beans, cornbread, fruit punch and, for dessert, bread pudding.

Georgia's Death Chamber
Georgia's Death Chamber
Jones declined to make a final statement, although he did record a message several hours before his execution.

Earlier on Tuesday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta turned down Jones’ request for a stay so his lawyers could argue before all 11 federal appeals court judges, sitting as a group, the constitutionality of the Georgia law that keeps secret the identity of the pharmacist who makes the pentobarbital for executions.

Although a majority of those judges rejected his request for a stay, five of the judges in four dissents sharply criticized the secrecy law.

“Today Brandon Jones will be executed, possibly in violation of the Constitution,” 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Robin Rosenbaum wrote in one of the dissenting opinions. “He may also be cruelly and unusually punished in the process. But if he is, we will not know until it’s too late — if ever.”

Challenges to secrecy laws have failed repeatedly in Georgia and in other states with similar statutes.

These laws were adopted as it became increasingly hard to secure lethal injection drugs from makers who were under public pressure from death penalty opponents.

Opponents, however, say the laws make it impossible to ensure that the drugs made are pure and will not cause an unnecessarily painful death.

Jones also lost on Monday before the State Board of Pardons and Paroles despite his argument that the death sentence for this particular crime was disproportionate.

Jones and Van Roosevelt Solomon were both sentenced to die for murdering Tackett, who had stayed at the Tenneco convenience store after closing to finish paperwork so he would be free to attend Father’s Day Mass with his daughter and wife.

Jones worked for Solomon at his painting business. The two had set out to burglarize the Tenneco.

In the end, Tackett, 35, was shot and died in a pool of his own blood on the Tenneco storeroom floor.

Jones and Solomon were immediately arrested because a Cobb County police officer was outside, having driven a stranded motorist to the Tenneco to use a pay phone. The officer heard the shots.

Solomon was electrocuted on Feb. 20, 1985, while Jones’ case lingered. In 1989, a federal judge ordered that Jones get a new trial because the jurors who convicted and condemned him had a Bible in the room during deliberations. Jones was tried again in 1997 and was again sentenced to death.

There is already one other man scheduled to die after Jones and there could be as many as two others who will have execution dates set in the next few weeks.

On Monday, an execution warrant was signed for former Navy sailor Travis Hittson for the 1993 murder of fellow shipmate Conway Utterbeck while they were visiting Houston County in Middle Georgia.

Jones becomes the 1st condemned inmate to be put to death in Georgia this year and the 61st overall since the state resumed capital punishment in 1983. Only Texas (533), Oklahoma (112), Virginia (111), Florida (92), and Missouri (86) have executed more inmates than Georgia since the US Supreme Court re-legalized the death penalty on July 2, 1976.

Jones becomes the 5th condemned inmate to put to death in the USA this year and the 1427th overall since the nation resumed executions on January 17, 1977.

Sources: ajc.com, Rhonda Cook, The Associated Press, Rick Halperin February 3, 2016


Georgia executes oldest death row inmate

The U.S. State of Georgia last night executed 72 year old Brandon Astor Jones, the oldest person on death row in the State. Mr Jones had served 36 years in prison.

In March 2013, Georgia passed a sweeping secrecy law enabling it to keep the source and composition of its lethal-injection drugs as a state secret.

Commenting on the execution, Maya Foa, Director of Reprieve's Death Penalty Team, said:

"After spending 36 years on death row Brandon Astor Jones, a 72 year old man, was put to death using unapproved medicines mixed by a secret supplier.

"No responsible pharmaceutical firm was willing to sell medicines to Georgia for use in executions, so the state asked a compounder to mix up the drugs, despite significant concerns over the quality of the medicines made by the compounder, which had previously been found to be contaminated with “white chunks”.

"Instead of questioning its approach in light of previous errors, the state has hidden its source behind a sweeping secrecy statute, increasing the risk of brutal and botched executions".

Source: Reprieve, February 3, 2016


"Strapped to a gurney, needles stuck in your arms, awaiting the outcome of your final appeal"

William Van Poyck spent nearly 26 years on Florida's death row in solitary confinement. He wrote about his life in prison, and published his letters to a blog called Death Row Diary. In these letters, Poyck wrote about everything from the novels and history books he was reading and shows he watched on television to the state of the world and his own philosophy of life–punctuated by news of the deaths of those around him, from illness, suicide, and execution. In the following poignant excerpt, he describes the inhumane treatment that one of his fellow death row inmates endured as he moved ever closer to his own finality:

"Robert Waterhouse was scheduled for execution at 6:00pm this evening. In accordance with the established execution protocol he was strapped to the gurney and the needles were inserted into each arm about 45 minutes prior to his appointed time. Just before 6:00, however, he received a 45-minute stay which morphed into an almost 3-hour endurance test as he remained on the gurney as the seconds, minutes and then hours slid by at an excruciatingly slow pace, waiting for someone to tell him if hope was at hand, if he would live or die. Just before 9:00 he received his answer, the plungers were depressed, the syringes emptied and he was summarily killed. Here on the row we can discern the approximate time of death when we see the old white Cadillac hearse trundle in through the back sally port gate to pick up the body, the same familiar 1960′s era hearse I’ve watched for almost 40 years, coming in to retrieve the bodies of murdered prisoners, which used to happen on a regular basis back when I was in open population. I’ve seen a lot of guys, both friends and foes, carted off in that old hearse. Anyway, pause for a moment to imagine being on that gurney for over three hours, the needles in your arms. You’ve already come to terms with your imminent death, you are reconciled with the reality that this is it, this is how you will die, that there will be no reprieve. Then, at the last moment, a cruel trick, you’re given that slim hope, which you instinctively grasp. Some court, somewhere, has given you a temporary stay. You stare at the ceiling while the clock on the wall ticks away. You are totally alone, not a friendly soul in sight, surrounded by grim-faced men who are determined to kill you. Your heart pounds, your body feels electrified and every second seems like an eternity as a Kaleidoscope of wild thoughts crash around franticly in your compressed mind. After 3 hours you are drained, exhausted, terrorized, and then the phone on the wall rings and you’re told it’s time to die…"

- William Van Poyck, Death Row Diary, February 25, 2012

Three and a Half Steps from Death

On December 9, 2003. Billy Frank "Sonny" Vickers waited until midnight (time when the death warrant expires) in a death watch cell next to the execution chamber at "The Walls Unit" in Huntsville. Billy Vickers wanted to share his experience with as many as possible. Billy and Hank Skinner were in cells next to each other and Billy no longer had the strength to write. He asked Hank to transcribe their conversations about the last weeks of his life, between two execution dates. Billy was eventually executed on January 28th, 2004.

It all started when I got "the date" in September. Up until then it was just something in the distance. Now it was all too real. It seemed like a giant weight descended onto my shoulders. Suddenly the calendar seemed bigger and every number on it had ominous portent. Every day, hour and minute that passed I kept having these recurring thoughts like "Well, I’ll probably never get to do (or: see, hear, say, read, etc.) this again. Everything seemed to take on this flavor of oppressive finality. My mind would run on and on and on for hours and hours. Every new day I woke up to the realization that it’s one less I’d be here.
I remember sometimes thinking of people I’d known in the world who’d died horrible deaths and I found myself envious of them. For them, bad as it was, it was still over and done with in a few minutes/ moments. For me, it’s stretched out over eleven (11) years. It’s always been there (death). But now it’s right on top of me. Yet still days away. I couldn’t imagine how in the world I was going to survive it until the end, then laughed at myself for the insanity of that thought.
On the day of execution I haven’t slept at all. I don’t seem to think cohesively for any length of time at all. It seems like an eternity, yet I keep wondering where the time went. Then the regrets start in, as I’m mostly thinking of my family and how this is hurting them. I keep thinking about things I should’ve said to my family but forgot. Things I should’ve written. But now it’s too late. It seemed time kept growing less and less, as I visit with them and tell them over and over that I love them and goodbye.
The next think I know I’m being shackled and loaded in the van and it’s too late to say anything. All those thoughts and regrets are repeated over and over in my mind during all those hours I sat in the death house waiting to die at any time.
In the death house, I keep thinking of my family. I pray for some way to release them from the pain and torment, for me to just go on and handle this alone, as my problem, to face it. Then I caught myself thinking of the thoughts I had during the ride to Huntsville, with my senses heightened to the point of being painful. I hear the van tires on the pavement as a rushing noise in my ears with every car, tree, building or house we passed I thought, "Well, I’ll never see that again". Then, I start to hear every beat of my heart as if I’m holding it up to my ear. But at the same time, it really hurts and I can’t figure out how it can keep beating and beating that hard.
Then my thoughts are broken when the warden comes into the death house to tell me what will be taking place when the time comes. He points to a door I can see from my cell and tells me behind that door is the execution chamber. When the time comes they will come and get me. If I can’t walk, they will carry me, but either way I’m going. He tells me the chaplain will be here soon.
The chaplain comes and tells me, while I’m on the gurney he will be there holding my ankle to offer comfort.
As these people talk to me, I know they’re people, but at the same time I think of them as something else or, in a bad way. As these thoughts just seem to hang there and it seems to be getting dark but it’s the middle of the day and there’s lights everywhere. Then I see the door that the ambulance will back up to, to pick up my body and that’s when it strikes me all over again, "this is it". There’s no way to describe the pressure I feel as I pray they’ll hurry up and get it over with.
Every time the walkie-talkie bursts to life, a door slams, the phone rings, I nearly jump out of my skin. This is almost constant for six (6) hours. The chaplain tells me that if I hear rustling and movement in the back, he says It’s just the execution team getting ready and for me not to be "alarmed", (they’re just coming to kill you. Don’t be “alarmed"! H.W.S.). They kept me "alarmed" for those long hours of torture.
I talk to the chaplain some while pacing the cell. I’m thinking I’m going to have a heart attack before they get me onto that horizontal cross with needles in my arms instead of nails. I’ve been broke out in a cold sweat for 2 hours. Can’t think. Just pace, pace, pace. Back and forth, back and forth. 3 ½ steps. I can’t remember the subjects or details of anything the chaplain said, just a bunch of words.
I eat some of my last meal but I can’t taste a thing. I just look down and see that some of it is gone.
Six o’clock comes. Nothing. Pace, pace, pace those 3 ½ steps. Seven o’clock. 8 o’clock. Same thing. My mouth is so dry no amount of water can wet it. I know they’re going to open that door any minute and confront me with that gurney and those needles. This is it. This is it. Every time I blink the sweat out of my eye I see it open, I think, that door.
Nine o’clock. I’m still pacing. I can’t take any more of this! Can’t escape it. "Lord," I pray, "just let it be over. Just let it be done one way or another". It feels like my mind has been stretched in a million directions until it has stress holes like Swiss cheese.
Ten o’clock. Pace, pace, pace. I know the attorneys are filing stuff and I want to have hope, but that door… I believe, if a stay was coming they’d already have announced it.
Eleven o’clock. Pace. Pace. My whole body feels like it’s going to explode into a mist. This can’t be real.
Ten minutes to midnight. I’ve gotten so confused and fuzz-minded that all these jumbled thoughts, in pieces, are plying through my mind every direction, so fast it just seems like a constant hum or moan. They say it’s too late, they can’t do it. Tell me to get ready to go back to Polunsky. I can’t comprehend this. I’m supposed to be dead. I barely remember coming back. I can’t walk straight.
The next days I feel so strange, like I’m out of place, out of reality somehow. I’m not able to think, I can’t believe I’m still here. They let the warrant expire. I think now that they must be required to give me life. I got only one set of appeals so it follows they get only one chance to execute me, right? There was no legal reason not to they just failed to. Maybe I should feel lucky but I just feel cheated and cursed. I can’t even get executed right! Yet, I am so grateful and happy to be alive, just for my family. My greatest worry was thinking of them having to go through all this with me, on account of me.
Then, last week I found out from my lawyer that they have set me another execution date. On January 28th, 2004 I’ll have to go through all this again. I can’t believe it. I don’t know what in the world I’m going to say to my wife and kids. I sit down in my cell, trying to comprehend this and start crying. I think I have never shed so many tears over others over so many days in a row or had my heart twisted out of socket this bad. There just are no words for how this feels. Now the whole nightmare starts all over again. I cannot believe it. I know I won’t last through another round of this.

- Billy Frank "Sonny" Vickers, January 2004
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