Eliseo Moreno, a 27-year-old former lawn-mower repairman, turned down breakfast one morning last week. “I’m waiting for the big meal,” he told a guard at the Ellis I Unit prison near Huntsville, Texas. The dinner that Moreno anticipated was to be his last.
Later that night he became the 70th person executed in the United States since the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for the return of capital punishment 11 years ago.
Rampage: Moreno'found himself on Texas’s death row—watching his favorite televison program, Dennis the Menace, for the last time—because of an incident in October, 1983.
Drunk and upset by the failure of his second marriage, Moreno —who had only one misdemeanor on his record—went on a rampage. He shot and killed six people and kidnapped six others before quietly surrendering to police and admitting guilt. Shortly before sunset last Tuesday the Texas department of corrections fulfilled Moreno’s wish that no action be taken to delay the death sentence imposed on him.
In the United States, situations such as Moreno’s have become almost commonplace. There are 37 states that now impose capital punishment—and about 1,875 inmates on death row. Among them: Paula Cooper, a 17-year-old black woman convicted in Indiana of a 1985 murder. And despite efforts by human-rights groups to ban executions and bring U.S. law back in line with that of most other major industrialized countries, immediate change is unlikely. Polls show that about 77 per cent of Americans support the death penalty.
Juries: Indeed, recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings may increase the number of executions. In a key decision last May, the top judges ruled that courts may exclude opponents of the death penalty from juries in murder trials. Said Carolyn Snurkowski, assistant attorney general for the state of Florida: “We may see a flurry of executions, because a backlog of old cases is
now going through the system.” Moreno was the second person executed this year in the United States. Legs shackled and arms handcuffed, he was bundled into the back seat of warden Jack Pursley’s Chrysler sedan and driven 24 km along a country back
road to the state’s death chamber: an unmarked building surrounded by the 40-foot brick walls of Huntsville Prison, next door to a rodeo arena.
The big meal, delivered shortly after Moreno’s arrival, proved to be a disappointment.
Moreno had requested shrimp with cheese enchiladas—but fish patties had been substituted. When the time came, he walked briskly from his holding cell into the brightly lit,
10-by-16-foot execution chamber. Hopping up on to the modified hospital trolley for the injection of fatal drugs, Moreno announced, “I’m ready for the rocket ride home.”
Eight white leather straps were quickly fastened around Moreno’s body. From a hole in the brick wall, two plastic tubes tipped with needles were passed and inserted into his
arms. As a harmless saline solution began flowing into his veins, 19 witnesses heard Moreno address them: “The wages of sin is death, and I’m willing to pay according to the laws of Texas because I know I’m guilty.”
Then, at 13 minutes after midnight,
Pursley spoke to an anonymous executioner viewing the scene from an adjoining room: “Let us begin.” Gradually the saline solution was changed to a deadly cocktail of three barbiturates and paralysis-inducing drugs, which soon closed Moreno’s eyes and slowed his breathing. Six minutes later, at 12:19 a.m., Moreno was declared dead. Outside the massive brick prison walls, a dozen drunken students from nearby Sam Houston State University cheered. Two protesters continued a candlelight prayer vigil.
Crime: Experts on both sides of the U.S. capital punishment debate agree on one point: the popular support for capital punishment results largely from their country’s high crime rate. About 20,000 Americans are murdered each year, the only crime for which capital
punishment against civilians now applies. Said Henry Schwarzschild, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) capital punishment project: “People are understandably afraid for their safety. But it’s absurd to imagine that a society that uses killing for social control is going to be less violent.”
There are conflicting statistical arguments about whether execution is an effective deterrent to murder. Florida’s 16 executions since the Supreme Court’s 1976 ruling that the death penalty is not “cruel or unusual punishment” is exceeded only by the Texas total of 20. And Florida’s death row houses about 260 convicts, more than any other state. Yet Amnesty International notes that Florida’s murder rate is higher now than it was during the period between 1964 and 1979, when the state’s electric chair was not used.
For their part, proponents of death sentences often cite two complex statistical studies to defend their arguments. The first, published by economist Isaac Ehrlich in 1975 at the University of Chicago, estimated that every execution saves the lives of about eight people by deterring other killers. Another study, published 10 years later by University of North Carolina economist Stephen Layson, concluded that 18 lives are saved each time a murderer is put to death.
‘Torture’: The debate goes on without resolution. The ACLU’s Schwarzschild argues that deterrence is not the issue. Most civilized countries now would reject burning criminals at the stake, he said, even if it were proven to be effective in lowering crime rates. Not so, says capital punishment advocate Ernest van den Haag, professor of jurisprudence and public policy at New York’s Fordham University. Declared van den Haag: “I’d be in favor of torture if it could be shown that torture could save the lives of innocent people. But what people fear most in life is death, not torture.”
The next major Supreme Court battle will focus on race. Later this year the court is scheduled to rule on whether a victim’s race is a factor in applying the death penalty. Blacks and other minorities—only 12 per cent of the total U.S. population—make up about 48 per cent of inmates on death row.
But groups opposed to capital punishment plan to continue their fight. Said Schwarzschild: “It may take a generation. And that’s deplorable because our system will continue to kill people. How can the state say that we take killing so seriously that we will kill for it?”
IAN AUSTEN in Washington with FRANK KLIMKO in Huntsville
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