John Ruthell Henry was, by all accounts, a very bad — no, make that terrible — human being.
The past-tense condition of the previous sentence is no small thing. Wednesday morning broke with Henry still among us, still breathing God’s own air. Thursday morning, he was gone, having kept, in the hour before sunset, his appointment with a state-sponsored executioner.
He had sensibly rejected a final meal — I never have understood how the condemned can eat knowing what’s coming — then visited with family and a spiritual adviser, after which the state of Florida carried out the will of the people.
Prison officials dutifully conducted themselves with all the dignity required of them. Henry, too, mustered up a fair portion of dignity.
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Fastened to a gurney in a setting that could have passed for an outpatient surgical center, this 63-year-old shell of a monster provided a farewell statement that was precise and appropriate. He acknowledged the finality of his crimes — “I can’t undo what I’ve done,” he said — and sought forgiveness.
In this, Henry stripped bare the manufactured outrage in his lawyers’ claim that the nature of their client’s punishment was beyond his understanding. The state had its man; it had his confession and the incriminating physical evidence; and now it had his apology.
That air resolutely cleared, the series of chemicals flowed and, just like that, he was gone.
Henry died peacefully, in his sleep, they say. And it was a better, in all ways more tender end than was met by Suzanne Henry, his estranged wife, and Eugene Christian, his 5-year-old stepson, each stabbed to death three days before Christmas in a Pasco-to-Hillsborough frenzy framed by jealousy, crack and fried chicken.
How a case such as this one drags on for nearly 30 years is among the marvels of America’s modern capital punishment machinery.
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Plainly, you want to get it right; in death cases, there can be no higher mandate. But sometimes — less so these days, given advancements in DNA as an investigatory tool — police and prosecutors have demonstrated penchants for trampling the rights of the accused. A timely reminder: The news photo of Herman Lindsey hugging an anti-death -penalty demonstrator outside the state prison at Starke on Wednesday. Lindsey spent three years on death row before his conviction in the 1994 murder of a Broward County pawn shop owner was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2009.
Growing confidence about law enforcement’s ability to fulfill its get-it-right obligation, and heightened frustration with drawn-out situations such as Henry’s, produced last year’s Timely Justice Act, creating expediency in the resolution of death-penalty cases. It was upheld last week by the Florida Supreme Court. This is fine, as far as it goes.
Let me say this: I’m OK with capital punishment. In certain circumstances, it might be the only appropriate sanction. And while we can disagree about its value as a deterrent, the recidivism rate among those who complete their sentences is absolutely zero.
But suppose Henry had been sentenced to life without possibility of parole. Suppose banishment is what we did with all our first-degree murderers. Would that be so awful? Sure, three squares and a cot, money out of taxpayers’ pockets and all that. Isn’t that what we’re doing already?
The upside: Victims’ families’ stomachs wouldn’t lurch with every fresh notification from the state attorney’s office about one new hearing or another, and life for the rest of us would go on pretty much as it always has. Wednesdays would become Thursdays, and the bad guys would still be banished.
As I say, I’m still in favor of the death penalty. But not having to sacrifice even one more brain cell to death row fraternity members leaves me increasingly open to arguments about other arrangements.