A section of the U.S. capitalist rulers has pushed the government to resume use of capital punishment against federal prisoners for the first time in 17 years. Their goal is to threaten and intimidate working people from defending their rights, jobs, wages and working conditions. The Justice Department killed three inmates sentenced to death in just four days last week — as many as the federal government had killed in the last 30 years.
These prisoners had been held on death row in the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, for decades.
Despite the steady growth of opposition among working people to this barbaric punishment, the government is pressing for its use. Another prisoner — Keith Dwayne Nelson — is scheduled to be killed in August.
The first two executions were challenged in court by allies of the inmates and opponents of capital punishment, then given a callous green light by a majority of the Supreme Court. Daniel Lee, convicted for multiple murders, was executed July 14. Wesley Purkey, sentenced to death for the killing of a teenage girl, was executed July 16.
Dustin Honken, convicted for five murders, including two children, in a drug-selling operation gone wrong, was put to death the day after Purkey.
“The death penalty has been upheld by the federal courts, supported on a bipartisan basis by Congress, and approved by attorneys general under both Democratic and Republican administrations,” Department of Justice spokesperson Kerri Kupec said after Purkey was killed, justifying the grisly acts. The federal use of the death penalty has been bipartisan, with President Bill Clinton adding 60 new crimes to be punished by death in his 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.
One of the legal objections made to the killing of Lee and Purkey was that the barbiturate injections cause people to die by asphyxiation. As the caustic drug fills their lungs with bloody fluid they begin drowning before losing consciousness. The Supreme Court brushed these arguments aside, and Honken gave up trying to object along these lines.
Lawyers for Purkey also explained that his advancing Alzheimer’s disease had gotten to the point where he no longer understood why his life was to be ended, even though he had long accepted responsibility for his crime. This too failed to move the black-robed justices.
A few minutes before he was put to death, he told those outside the death chamber, “This sanitized murder really does not serve no purpose whatsoever. Thank you.”
Honken had become deeply religious in prison, mentored by representatives of the Catholic Church. A Catholic priest stood with him in the death chamber as he died. For his last words he recited a poem by Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Heaven-Haven.”
Observers reported his execution appeared to be painful. After the deadly barbiturate dosage was injected, “Honken began blinking his eyes, his fingers twitching and his lips quivering,” The Associated Press reported. “After several minutes his breathing became more labored. He turned increasingly ashen as blood drained from his face and hands.” It took 30 minutes before he was pronounced dead.
“The Dustin Honken they wanted to kill is long gone,” attorney Shawn Nolan said after the execution. “The man they killed today was a human being, who could have spent the rest of his days helping others and further redeeming himself.”