By Sabrina Butler, October 17th 2018
Last week, news broke that a prisoner on death row in Tennessee had asked to be executed by electric chair, rather than lethal injection. Edmund Zagorski, 63, said the chair was “the lesser of the two evils.” Many people were shocked by his decision, but I wasn’t. I was sentenced to die by lethal injection for a crime I didn’t commit — and the thought of it still gives me nightmares.
In 1990, I was convicted of murder in Mississippi. Officials accused me of killing my 9-month-old son Walter. I checked on him one night and found he had stopped breathing. I rushed him to the hospital performing CPR the whole way, but the doctors couldn’t wake him up.
The next day, I went to the police station as I had been asked to do. The detective yelled at me, “You know you killed your baby. You stepped on him with your feet and smashed him on the floor. You killed him.” I was placed in a jail cell and was not allowed to attend Walter’s funeral.
For six years on death row, I grieved for my son and contemplated my upcoming execution. Nobody told me there was an automatic appeal, so to begin with, I waited on the day they were meant to kill me, dreading every footfall outside my cell.
When my other son Danny was 5 years old, he asked me on the phone, “Are they going to kill you with a needle?” His question stopped me cold.
I heard stories of people choking and convulsing on the gurney as they died by lethal injection, and hoped my death would not be like that. I didn’t want my family to be burdened with the knowledge that I was suffering during my last moments on earth.
My ordeal ended when I was finally found innocent, after six terrifying years, but it chills me to consider how narrowly I escaped an agonizing, drawn-out death.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor has called lethal injection “the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake,” and noted the “cruel irony that the method that appears most humane may turn out to be our most cruel experiment yet.”
In March of this year, Alabama tried to execute Doyle Lee Hamm, a 61-year-old prisoner with terminal cancer. Prison personnel spent two-and-a-half hours sticking Hamm’s legs, ankles and groin with needles in an attempt to set up an IV line. The prison punctured his bladder before giving up and returning him to his cell.
In Texas, Danny Bible took quick breaths before saying that his body was “burning” as he was killed by lethal injection this year.
As lethal drugs were injected into Anthony Shore’s veins, witnesses reported that his body started to tremble and he said: “I can feel that it does burn. Burning!”
It is little wonder that death row prisoners like Zagorski are seeking alternatives, even if that means the electric chair.
In Missouri, a man named Russell Bucklew has requested death by lethal gas, because he has a health condition that would cause him to choke on his own blood if he were executed by lethal injection. In Arkansas last year, nine prisoners requested the firing squad or gas. Another man on death row preferred hanging.
When states turned away from using the electric chair around the time of my conviction, they presented lethal injection as a safe, medically-administered, all-but painless alternative. Two decades later, we know this to be a lie, and yet we persist in order to avoid confronting the awful reality of capital punishment.
So far, only Oklahoma has recognized that lethal injection is inhumane and abandoned it as a method of execution. Other states should do the same.
Butler was the first woman to be exonerated and freed from death row in US history.
This article was first published in the New York Daily News on October 17th 2018.