Of Dogs and Men 

Pets have always been part of my life. Currently, my wife and I have three dogs and a cat. Two of the dogs are young. One of them, Turbo, a miniature schnauzer, is 17. He's still eating and tottering around, but we know how this ends, eventually. Turbo will either die in his sleep or, more likely, will have to be put down, a sad process we've been through with other pets.

Once the decision is made that the old fella's quality of life is gone, we'll call the vet, who will come to our house, make the animal comfortable with a sedative, if necessary, then inject a lethal dose of pentobarbitol. The animal will die peacefully in a minute or so. It's the saddest thing in the world, but surely it's more humane than letting our furry loved ones linger and suffer in pain.

click to enlarge Olive VanWyngarden
  • Olive VanWyngarden

Contrast this process with the one endured by 68-year-old Donnie Edward Johnson last week. You may recall that Johnson was executed in our name by the state of Tennessee for murdering his wife 35 years ago, a heinous crime. But no matter your feelings about that crime or the death penalty, surely no one truly believes a person should have to slowly die over the course of several minutes, gurgling as their dissolving lungs fill with liquid — literally drowning — a side effect of the lethal drug midazolam that Tennessee uses to execute condemned prisoners. Surely, we can do better as human beings.

It's inhumane, it's cruel, and it is unnecessary to execute someone in such a horrific way. Never mind that our proudly professed Christian Governor Bill Lee prayed upon this decision and decided that neither he nor Jesus would forgive Johnson's sins — nor halt his execution. The rampant "Christian" hypocrisy that infests our politics is another subject for another day. And never mind that Johnson, by all accounts, had himself become a devout Christian and a model prisoner, and that his execution was opposed by some members of his victim's family, who had forgiven him for his crime, and by many members of the clergy.

All to no avail. The hour of reckoning came. As he was strapped down, Johnson's last words were, "I commend my life into your hands. Thy will be done. In Jesus' name I pray, Amen." After being injected with midazolam, Johnson sang hymns for two minutes, before loudly drowning in his own bodily fluids and finally passing from this world with a high-pitched gasp.

Johnson became the fourth Tennessee inmate put to death since the state resumed executions in August, and the 136th person put to death by Tennessee since 1916.

Some members of Johnson's victim's family stated they felt justice had finally been done. I think we should just acknowledge the death penalty for what it really is: revenge. There is nothing Christian about it. It is not what Jesus would do.

But the state is not supposed to be a religious entity, so "WWJD?" doesn't come into to play here, legally. Therefore, the issue should be one of justice, not faith. But when we execute a fellow human being, we do have to have a kind of faith — in our justice system. Do we believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that none of those 136 men could have been unjustly executed? I don't. There have been too many cases of people awaiting execution whose convictions were overturned, sometimes decades later, by DNA evidence or the discovery of coerced confessions or false witness testimony. Police officers can lie and cover up a botched arrest. Aggressive win-at-all-cost district attorneys can withhold evidence, making the winning of a case more important than finding the truth. It happens all the time.

But if we're going to continue to execute people, maybe we should begin treating death row inmates like animals. Let a doctor sedate the condemned criminal and administer pentobarbitol. It would be over in a minute. Or maybe we should consider letting the inmate choose another popular way to die in Tennessee: taking a lethal dose of opioids. I'm not sure what it says about us as a civilization when most death row inmates would probably prefer to die like a dog.

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