Mercy

He limps in, his hands and feet shackled, his stark white jumpsuit standing out against the drab, pale cream-colored walls. Despite the grim fate awaiting Phil Workman, he wears an expression not entirely unlike a smile along with the slightly tinted glasses and ever present black and purple ball cap with a cross on it.

Phil has come to die.

He’s laid down on a gurney, his wrists and ankles bound in padded leather straps, and one wonders what the final thoughts going through Workman’s mind are. Is he thinking about the past decades he has spent behind bars fighting for his life? Is he thinking about the police officer he was convicted of murdering during a botched armed robbery?

In interviews leading up to the execution date, Workman is cogent, even serene at times. He continues to profess his innocence, the telling of the story in his own words a kind of chaotic narrative, beginning with the hapless story of the theif with a conscience, allowing one employee to stand to give his cramped leg a chance to stretch out resulting in the silent alarm that brought the police in the first place, followed by the anecdote of him staying around to remove the house keys from the key chain of another worker, allowing her a chance to go home, while at the same time giving him a chance to ditch the car key a mile away to prevent her from following him or using her vehicle to get help.

When the cops come, that’s when the confusion begins, a quick dash, a blow to the head, an accidental discharge in the confusion after.

In 2000, new evidence surfaced that pointed to the possibility that Workman might not have been the murderer, ballistics suggesting the death of Lt. Olliver could have been caused by friendly fire.

Then there was the recanting of key testimony by a witness who said at the time of trial that he saw Workman shoot the officer.

Unfortunately for Phil, the courts did not consider this new testimony and evidence strong enough to overturn the decision, and so he lies there, his eyes possibly taking in those dulled walls, the eggshell blue doors and rusted hinges.

There is a quick, sharp sound, like paper ripped apart, and somewhere in the room a set of blinds are opened revealing the witnesses who stare on. How much attention Phil pays them is unknown.

What is known is the presence of the needle, the contents of which is a lethal cocktail that in seconds will be injected into Phil’s bloodstream. It glistens in the light, cold steel, and while some reporters who have spoken to Workman in his final hours have said that he has seemed to have made his peace, it’s not hard to imagine a small panic rising up in him as he watches the needle draw closer, pricking the outer threshold of his skin, sinking further, and finally the plunger pushing the deadly concoction into his veins, the end of his life now only minutes away.

In theory, the sodium thiopenthal hits first, supposedly rendering him unconscious, but it takes a bit for this to happen and as everyone waits, Workman says in a calm voice, “I have prayed to the Lord Jesus Christ not to lay charge of my death to any man.”

The first part to the three part cocktail begins to hit, the world slows, and before succumbing to unconsciousness, Phil says what will be the last words he will ever say on this planet, “I commend my spirit unto your hands, Lord Jesus Christ.”

From here, no one knows exactly what happens. The sodium presumably knocks the subject out, rendering him incapable of registering pain or feeling of any kind, then the Pancuronium/Tubocurarine takes over, shutting down the body’s systems, stopping everything with the exception of the heart, causing a full body paralysis. This renders the diaphragm incapable of motion, and the subject can no longer breath. Under these conditions Phil Workman is doomed to die as a result of asphyxiation.

Finally, the third part of the fatal mix hits, potassium chloride, a drug capable of causing cardiac arrest. The heart is stopped, and Phil Workman is no more.

In theory, this is supposed to be a painless way to die, but as of lately, this thought has been brought to question following an instance in Florida where a man sentenced to death took 34 minutes to succumb to the injection, causing then governor Jeb Bush to order a moratorium on lethal injection.

The problem lies in that there is no way to tell, there is no way to know for sure if we are providing a means of death that is truly void of cruel and unusual punishment, or if we are submitting the subjects to a particularly tortuous death. As CNN’s senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin points out, “One of the chemicals used in lethal injections in this country has been banned for veterinarians to put animals to sleep because of its supposed cruelty.”

**

A few days earlier, Workman made national headlines as a result of a rather unusual request.

The last meal is something of a popular phenomenon when it comes to state executions. People are fascinated with the question of what an inmate’s last meal is, a strange last peek into the mind of someone thought heinous enough to be put to death.

As Mark Vogel writes:

“If you were on death row what would be your last meal? Think about it. It’s not as simple a question as it appears. Your first instinct might be to pick your favorite food. But maybe you might select your most meaningful food, such as the first meal your wife made you, or one of your mom’s memory-laden classics. Or maybe your desolation and bitterness would leave you so resigned that you would forgo a final feast.”

Whatever the case, the oddly altruistic nature of Workman’s request guaranteed that his last meal, above all others, would be remembered.

He wanted a vegetarian pizza, but not for himself. Instead, he wanted the vegetarian pizza delivered to a homeless person near the prison in which he was to be executed. The prison, clarifying its stance on not donating to charities, denied the request.

And so at 1:30am CDT, fatal chemicals rushed through Workman’s veins, paralyzing him, and ultimately stopping his heart.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Later that Wednesday, as news of Phil’s strange request hit headlines throughout the country, interest grew, and all of a sudden pizzas started showing up around Nashville Tennessee.

Marvin Champion is no stranger to the hardships of homelessness, having been without a home himself. Since working his way off of the streets, Marvin has become an employee of the Nashville Union Rescue Mission. Times can still be rough here, though. Sometimes there’s not enough food to fill the cupboards, and all around him, Marvin sees memories of where he once was.

It’s a tough life, one on the streets. You don’t know where your next meal will come from, where you’re going to stay if it begins to rain. Pockets of homelessness persist throughout the nation, like miniature third world countries tucked under shadowy bridges and overpasses where catching the flu or pneumonia can be fatal, and every day Marvin sees refugees of these squallid conditions stumble in looking for shelter, food and solace.

It’s not difficult to understand the basis behind Champion’s altruism. Scavenging for food in one of the richest nations in the world is not something easily forgotten, though the plight of the homeless often time is.

Homeless people are all too often ignored by the charity of others. It’s a common malady, a cynicism that pervades the national consciousness. I remember my father telling me not to give change to beggars, they’ll only waste it on drugs or booze. We’ve all heard the story of the panhandler who throws their cardboard sign in the back of a brand new convertable and speeds away to a life of luxury and hedonism. Welfare only encourages laziness. Harsh echoes of the would be ownership society either too cynical or too greedy to care.

This is a reality that Marvin undoubtedly deals with all the time, grateful to receive the good natured benefits of charity when it comes his way, though not surprised when donations get low, and he finds the pantry bare. It is in this context that we can imagine the shock when more than 170 pizzas were delivered to the Rescue Mission where he works.

In his own words, “I was like, ‘Wow, Jesus!'” Someone cared. A man now gone from this world had cared enough to give his last meal away to a homeless man, and htis one selfless act sparked the interest in the nation, virtually flooding the homeless shelters of Nashville with pizzas.

An act most likely rooted in the fact that Workman himself was homeless at the time he committed the crime for which he was executed.

**

I’ve always been vehemently opposed to the death penalty, though the first time I can remember actually writing about it was back in November of 2005. I was at the time posed with the question, what would I do if my daughter (back then I only had the one) had been brutally murdered?

It was the first time I took a deep and introspective look on my views of state sanctioned execution. Up until then, I had merely just gone with the fact that I thought the death penalty was wrong, without questioning this view much, however, after searching my soul in regards to the most personal and visceral of circumstances, I had come out on the other end with my beliefs only strengthened.

The death penalty is, very simply put, wrong.

This was also the time when I discovered the story of Stanley “Tookie” Williams, an inmate at California’s death row, and nominee for a Nobel Peace Prize. I followed the case with unmatched vigor, writing about it constantly on my own now defunct website, Left of Center, concluding with this piece written merely hours before Williams was put to death.

During this period I found myself doing a decent amount of research. Through it, I learned that as a deterrent, the death penalty was useless, states employing the practice often times having higher crime rates punishable by death than states that didn’t use the barbaric practice.

But I learned something darker perhaps about our culture in general. Many people I spoke to didn’t care that it wasn’t a deterrent. Underneath a guise of “justice” what celebrators of the death penaltry really seemed to want was revenge.

And the funny thing is I understand it… to a degree. For me personally, I can’t ever see myself equating vengence with justice. They are to me two completely separate things, one vile and self centered, the other wise, and conducive to a growing and healthy society.

With justice there is progress, there is learning. There is, no doubt, pain, we know that part of the learning experience for human beings often does involve pain, but that shouldn’t be the central focus. The focus should be not just moving on, but moving upward. Improving.

And where is the improvement in execution? Is the world really a better place? Not really, not when you take into account the fact that billions of people populate the planet, a great many of them far worse than Phil Workman ever could be. Of all the people executed, how many can you name off of the top of your head and be able to say, “Wow, my life sure has gotten better since that bastard’s death”?

Conversely, much can be changed by allowing a person to live, to rehabilitate themselves, and become constructive to society. We look to Stanley Williams who spent his time on death row writing children’s books and working from behind the bars of his cell to counterract the gang violence he had started decades earlier. Workman wanted to give a homeless guy a pizza.

Were these really souls that could not be reclaimed to make our society a better place to live? Or, in allowing their execution did we miss out on greater works that they could have done?

**

This is in no way meant to be an apologist essay on behalf of Phil Workman. He robbed a Wendy’s and, though he denies it, shot and killed a police officer. These are reprehensible acts, no doubt, but here I am forced to contemplate another concept that seems to slowly be growing momentum, at least in my mind.

Interconnectivity.

Recently I wrote a quick piece about Bush, and in a quick side bar pointed out that perhaps his inability to see how one issue could affect another may have played at least a small part in the failed policies that have plagued the nation since he has stepped foot in office, not the least of which being Iraq.

But as I contemplate the circumstances surrounding the crime Workman was convicted of and executed for, this idea of interconnectivity again finds its way into my thinking.

At the time, Phil was homeless, and strung out on cocaine. He fully admits to being high on marijuana and speed at the time of the armed robbery, but the purpose behind holding up the Wendy’s was to get the cash he needed to get some more coke.

Somehow, employees managed to sound the silent alarm, which brought the police to the scene, and with a gun, Phil shot and killed one of the officers.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe we are responsible for our decisions, and must face them appropriately. Often times, good people are put in bad situations, and it is a measure of their character that they make the good decisions that they do. Conversely, bad people often times find themselves in good situations, and are therefore not put in the scenarios that would result in them committing heinous crimes. In other words, people are responsible for themselves, but the playing field isn’t exactly even or fair.

In the case of Workman, it is all too easy to simply look at the situation for five seconds, say, “He broke the law, killed an officer, and therefore we gotsta get on with the killin’!” But I have little respect for this route because it’s the intellectually lazy and easy way out. It doesn’t call upon us to question ourselves and our society, and there is no room for improvement.

I feel that at every failure, there is room to learn, and make things better, if not for that situation, than for future situations.

In this instance, we can look at each factor one by one, and though I don’t profess to know all the instances behind the case, just bear with me, okay? Because ultimately, something failed the night that Phil killed a police officer, and therefore there is something to be learned.

1) At the time, Phil was homeless. This is a desperate situation for those Americans forced into such depravity, and it goes far beyond merely not having a home over your head and not knowing when the next time you’ll get a chance to eat will be. There is an issue of health and disease, without healthcare or insurance, quality medical care is harder to come by, and often times the meals that you are able to get ahold of are lacking in nutrition, and even sometimes carriers of dangerous illnesses themselves.

Also, with a lack of home, there is a lack of shelter from other negative social elements. you find yourself on the same streets upon which drug dealers prey on the depraved, and prostitutes walk the streets.

It occurs to me, that had Phil Workman been with both employment and a home, the likelihood that he would have been in that Wendy’s on that night would be considerably reduced. But how to manage this? Helping the homeless, is not just a matter of donating to shelters, but also a function of education, was Phil prepared by the school system to find a means to support himself and a family? Was his education adequate to allow him to keep up with the rapidly changing face of the modern economy?

And speaking of the economy, did our nation’s economy help Phil, or hurt him? As many pundits not outright shilling for the right will admit, the economy looks great… if you are a rich investor. If, on the other hand, you are not lucky to be in that upper class strata, the economy right now is not your friend as the gap between the rich and the non rich continues to grow larger and larger. Also, Bush has had a terrible track record in creating jobs.

This wasn’t the economy that Phil was subjected to, instead living under Ronald Reagan’s trickle down economy, and one is forced to ask, were there jobs available? Were they adequate for him to make a living off of? What about housing?

What I’m hoping, right about now, is that you are beginning to understand a little bit about interconnectivity. Only a fool thinks that Iraq is in and of itself a separate issue with no bearing on the state of the National Guard and it’s preparedness to handle local disasters, just as you would be a fool that all you need to think about to reduce crime is to up the manning of and funding for the police force.

There is so much more.

2)Drugs. At the time of the shooting, Phil was high on speed and weed, and he was looking to score some coke. But this in and of itself raises a slew of questions. What are we doing to limit drug availability? The laughable war on drugs is working about as well as the war on terror, but that doesn’t mean that we just give up on controlling illegal drugs. Plus, there’s issue of addiction. How did he become addicted, and why wasn’t he provided with the assistance he needed to battle that addiction?

Doctors are increasingly calling addiction an illness, going beyond being merely just a bad choice, or a lack of willpower. Look, no one says they want to be a crackhead or addicted to smack when they grow up, so shouldn’t we look into our society to determine how the hell this phenomenon happens and what we can do to combat it?

3)Guns. As I continue to write, I wonder if Phil procured his gun legally or illegally, and under what circumstances. At this early juncture, I can’t answer that question, but question marks do pop up in my head. Why does it seem like guns are always falling in the wrong hands? Are our gun control laws strong enough and effective enough to make sure that only people responsible and trustworthy enough to own and operate a gun getting guns legally? And what are we doing to prevent the illegal procurement of guns?

Now, before the pro gun rights people get up in arms (heh), calm down. I’ve never been for banning the ownership of guns. I’ve always been of the strong opinion that the second ammendment gives no one the unimpeachable right to own guns, but at the same time, I have no justification to make owning a gun completely illegal, and I’m not comfortable making such a statement on a personal level. I don’t personally own a gun, and most likely never will, however, I don’t feel right encroaching upon the right of someone who is a responsible steward of their own arms to own them.

If you want my personal belief on how we should regulate guns, it’s simple. A rigorous, though fair licensing program. Why not? We do it for vehicles, and their intended purpose is transportation. A gun’s intended purpose, it’s primary reason for being, is to cause damage. Sure, you could use the butt of a gun to drive a nail but…

And I’m serious. A gun ownership and usage licensing program I think would do a great deal of good. I mean, think about it this way, I know nothing about guns, not how to clean them, not how to load them or check to make sure the safety is on or off, I don’t know how to aim, and I’m only vaguely familiar with the concept of pulling the trigger. On top of all this, for all you know I could be certifiably insane (I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that my conservative readers actually believe this). Do you really want me owning a gun?

On top of this, through the licensing process we can ensure thorough and effective background checks are performed, and much like driver’s licenses, we can require renewal, which would provide at the very least a cursory updating on the status of the licensee which could identify growing problems.

I think it’s a sensible idea anyway, though one I already know will never come to pass so long as the NRA is in existence.

In the end, I want no one to think I’m actually implying that we can go back in time and change any of these circumstances, thereby saving two lives, the life of the officer killed over two decades ago, and the life of the man who was executed last Wednesday morning.

What I am suggesting is that we can look at the situation, and learn from it, and change the environment such that these instances are far fewer.

And in the end, did we have to kill Philip Workman? Was this a man beyond rehabilitation? Was this a man who could no longer contribute to society?

This is the ultimate flaw of the Death Penalty, we can never know the answers to these questions. We can not know if Philip could have gone on to change lives, perhaps developing a support group and counceling for strung out junkies, or working, much like Marvin Champion, in a homeless shelter providing comfort and hope for those individuals who are now occupying the same boat that they once occupied themselves.

This finality, this is what bothers me about the death penalty. It’s giving up, often times with vim and vigor, a zealous willingfulness to ignore the possibility of the future in the name of vengence coated by the guise of justice.

It leaves no room for improvement, and judicious caution, and it leaves scarce little room for mercy.

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