IT'S A GAS, GAS, GAS!!
BY ED SANDERS
Los Angeles Free Press
"It seemed ritualistic."
--A uniformed supervisor at the scene of the murder of Jay Sebring, Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, Voityck Frykowsky and Steve Parent.
The gas chamber is so barbaric that it defies description. To the stare it appears like some sort of space capsule for a demented Satanic transdimensional flight. Structurally it is an ugly item of airtight suffocation designed to kill the victim with swift robotic austerity. It is easily cleaned - no shit nor puke nor drool of the victim can stain its metal wonder for long, buddy. It is a metal remnant of the type of thinking that has produced the rack and the screw, the dunking stool, the fragmentation bomb, defoliation, oil slicks and other items of cruelty.
What's it like to die in the gas chamber? A question that doubtless has fiIled your minds with hours of uneasy curiosity. Well, here it is, some data that you've all been ahunger for some glimpses of the filthiest ritual of all, the rite of the imposition of capital punishment.
Although it is difficult to perceive it in Los Angeles, the judiciary in the United States has more or less put a moratorium on the death penalty. Practically all European countries, where human consciousness has gone through centuries of hideous violence, have done away with capital punishment. Seventeen states in the U.S. have no death penalty - except in the case of killing of policemen. In the State of California where 95 or so humans wait on Death Row for the issue to be decided in the courts, the problem is that there are no legal rules which will indícate whether a person is to receive life imprisonment or the death penalty. California has a bifurcated trial system for murder cases; that is, after the trial is over and the jury has decided the question of guilt or innocence - then, if the defendant is deemed guilty by the jury, there is the so-called penalty phase wherein the jury decides, so to speak, to thumb the defendant up or down, life or death. The penalty phase s really a trial itself, where the defendants try to show through the testimony of witnesses (Mom, Dad, former Sunday School teachers, etc.) why they should not get the gas chamber. There are no guidelines for the jury to follow in deciding life or death, so a juror may vote for death on whimsy, because of race (although around 10% of the general population, Blacks account for more than half of the capital punishment cases), because the defendant is not remorseful enough (for instance, it really wprks against a defendant to continue to protest his innocence ín the penalty phase because, in effect, he or she is telling the jury that they are schmucks and wrongly found him guilty). The jury then can say to themselves, "This creep is not remorseful and furthermore he's challenging me; l'm gonna gas him" - or because the defendant picks his nose. In the case of Manson and the three girl defendants, the jury has this incredible horde of testimony in mind, dealing with dope, sex orgies and chop. Where are the witnesses that can erase sex-chop from a prime spot in the feelings of these jurors if ever there should be a penalty trial?
The condemned girl or man leaves Death Row and is brought down the elevator from Death Row in handcuffs clipped to a leather belt at the waist. He/she will spend the last 17 hours of life in a so-called Holding Room or "Ready Room." There are two holding cells because the State of California saw fit to design a gas chamber that could fulfill the American dream of efficiency and economy: for two mammals can be gassed at once in the chamber.
Twenty-two witnesses get to throng outside the gas chamber in front of a guard rail during an execution to see through four (you'd better believe it) airtight windows the victim get snuffed. These so-called witnesses are there to see that the law of the State is carried out with truth, justice and dignity. Printed invitations are sent out for these choice box seats in the citadel of drool.
Only half of the gas chamber is exposed to the witnesses. You will note that the victims have their backs to the witnesses, for only the warden and the prison doctor get the honor of watching the victim's face as he/she dies. On the railing in the witness room is a sign, "Keep Outside Railing At All Times" -evidently silent indication that there was an over-eager witness at some execution that got too close to the event.
On the other side of the wall from the witness room is the so-called Preparation Room, containing a rounded entrance to the chamber that looks like the door to an airplane. There is a narrow passageway about ten feet long leading from the chamber to the Holding Room area. The condemned victim(s) cannot see the gas chamber until they are led into this ten foot passageway. How merciful is honk.
During the seventeen hours of waiting to be murdered, the murderer lies dressed in new blue trousers and blue shirt and cloth slippers. He usually is besieged with chaplains and officials during his/her final hours. The officials are particularly concerned that the victim "die like a Man." Of course, in the modern era of dope and thorazine, this can be accomplished through chemistry. In any case, the chaplains and officials file various reports before the execution trying to predict whether or not the condemned person will pull a freak scene or will be a true American and tap dance down the hall eagerly to his death.
Early in the morning of the execution, honk occupies itself with the precise ritual of brick-out. After all, the cyanide eggs must be counted and wrapped so carefully in cheesecloth. An officer wearing rubber gloves must hang the death-nads, the eggs of cyanide on mechanical arms beneath the death chair in the chamber. They must measure the acid and pour it into the receptacles that channel it into the buckets.
The phone line from the outside must be checked to see if it is in good operating condition in the event of some last-minute reprieve. The officers on the so-called "death watch" receive some sort of extra freaky-duty pay when they participate in an execution. The Lieutenant in charge gets $150, the executioner $125, the two guards $75 each, and the Chaplain $50.
No longer can a victim get whiskey before the execution - not to think, even, of some grass or hash! They can get a cigarette and some coffee, though, as of the true American Way, Buddy.
The execution is scheduled to commence at 10 a.m. Around 9:50 a.m. the guards check the door to the gas chamber - opening and closing it and checking the pressure - to be sure there is a perfect seal. For verily the officials do not want to get wasted in a seep scene.
The two death watch guards take the traditional green carpet and roll it out and around the corner down to the door of the chamber so that the victim won't have to walk his last steps upon cold concrete.
The Doctor of the prison walks up and utters the victim's full name - you know, like "Richard Allen McVictim." the full legal name you only hear when you are in trouble. The warden comes up for a few words - perhaps he asks you if there are any last words from the condemned man or woman, you know, for the benefit of the thirsty media if they should ask the warden later on. The warden shakes the victim's hands. Thanks for everything, warden baby.
The warden and the doctor walk to the preparation room. It is time for the changing of the clothes. Two guards unlock the door to the victim's cell to supervise the changing. A Doctor joins them. His/her heartbeat is located. A beat-detector is strapped on his/her chest. He then puts on a white shirt for a neat appearance, the black rubber tube of the detector hanging out from the neatness. He attires himself, or if unwilling the guards attire him, in fresh blue denim trousers. He wears no underwear, shoes or stockings. Now he gets to smoke his last Pall Mall.
At 10:00 a.m., the warden flips a signal from his important death post just outside the gas chamber. Any minute. The chaplain says adios. The victim walks down the hall, grabs a right, walks down the narrow creepway to the chamber, steps up over the lip of the device, glances at the horde of witnesses outside staring in honkhood, and sits down. The fabric straps are tightened - one on his waist, one across his chest, one over his/her legs and one over his/her forearms. An officer then attaches a long length of rubber tubing to the black detect-tube hanging out of his white shirt - so that the Doctor can listen in on the wild flutter of the sacrificed victim's heart and determine when it shall have justly ceased to exist. This heart tube leads out to the good Doctor listening there on the other side of the tank. The window that the Doctor and the Warden watch the death through has a venetian blind so that the eyes of the retching victim can be avoided.
After they strap the soon-deceased into the metal chair, one of the guards, usually at 10:02 a.m., is wont to tell the victim something like, "Take a deep breath as soon as you smell the gas - it will make it easier for you." ("How the fuck would you know!?" is what Barbara Graham is legended to have replied, when her guard said that.) One of the guards touches the victim's shoulders, says goodbye, or good luck, and the guards walk out of the death trap. The steel door is closed and screwed tight.
The warden is the official executioner. He stands outside with the "Chief Medical Officer for San Quentin," who wears his stethescope headset, both carrying clip boards and pencils. Around 10:03 a.m., the warden nods and the Sergeant pulls the lever that drops the mortal turds into the acid. Plop plop.
In ten or twenty seconds the gas builds up in sufficient potency so that, according to honk, the victim lapses into total unconsciousness. Reporters one has interviewed who have witnessed executions say that there are screams, coughing, hacking, wild facial grimaces and drool. Drool is the chief event. The murdered human loses control over his system, drool ing and drooling and drooling. The body slumps. The heart flutters like a maniac bird. Witnesses themselves often get sick, lurching away from the watch railing.
The doctor, after 8 to 10 minutes, finally senses the stillness of the heart (although the victim still could be revived to life if doctors would work on him/her. For instance, a stay of execution carne in for Caryl Chessman just as they were dropping the pellets, but the warden let him die because the execution had already begun) - the doctor hears the stillness, notes the time on his clip board, takes off his headset and Death is. The witnesses sign the register and file outside. The gas is sucked out of the chamber; the puke and defecation, if any, is hosed from the metal; the body is hauled away for the relatives or for the dissection lab or the medical school.
Capital punishment is disgusting. Isn't it time to crush that cruel nose-cone at San Quentin in the jaws of the nearest auto compact or in the nearest junkyard?
And as for the living, it is time in America to become civilized -especially this state of California which possesses 6,000,000 hand guns - it is time to stop yodeling with the cruel shrieks of barbarity. The spiritual scream crosses the Nile. A friend recently was talking to some girls who attend the American School in Cairo, learning secretarial skills evidently so that they can work for some of the U.S. oil companies in the Arab countries. They didn't know much about the current scene in America and were even unaware of the Beatles. One of the girls asked my friend, "John Lennon? Isn't he the one who killed Sharon Tate?" No, he isn't; he's the one that says give peace a chance.
This article is dedicated to the old men of the Supreme Court of the U. S., who last week voted to retain the death penalty, at the jury's discretion.