The Campbell Case, a Symphony of Horrors

The death penalty lacks social or restorative function today; it only serves to dramatize repulsive scenes, like the search for the veins of a convict.

“Nosferatu,” the beautiful film by Murnau, has a longer title: “Eine Symphonie des Grauens” (“A Symphony of Horror”). The case of convict Alva Campbell, condemned to death and who could not be executed last week at the Ohio prison because the executioners – the term is probably excessive; the logistics of executions are designed so that the execution team is not considered guilty for carrying out the execution – were unable to locate a suitable vein for the lethal injection. Campbell is 69 years old, and has awaited execution for 20 years; he suffers from throat cancer, prostate cancer, and acute pneumonia. He walks with a walker, carries a colostomy bag, and needs oxygen almost continuously to breathe. The grotesque execution drill had indecent continuity. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has set a second execution date for Campbell on June 5, 2019.

There is nothing more relevant in this case than remembering “Nosferatu.” Since the failed execution, Campbell has de facto become an undead. Condemned to die at a fixed date, he will be a person inhabited by nothingness. If he is fond of theology or philosophy, he may wonder by whom and why he has been given 18 more months of administrative life, carrying oxygen and the mandatory walker. The symphony of horror comes from the implicit mockery of the individual’s dignity – though he be the assassin of an 18-year-old – chained to a delayed death because of an executioner’s clumsiness. No one should be condemned to suffer two executions.

The death penalty in the democracies where it is still practiced appears as a theocratic punishment, unjustified since Beccaria’s time, born from the foolish acceptance of the “eye for an eye” idiom embedded in mentalities indifferent to any rational limits.* The widespread argument that the murderer’s execution calms the anxiety and pain of the victim’s relatives is nothing but hypocritical mud. It is impossible to confer restorative virtues to sentences that are delayed for 20 or more years. What the “eye for an eye” grants is denied by the legal machinery, dilatory and paradoxically cruel in its delay. To the awaited death is added the wait itself, as arbitrary and infamous as the annihilation itself.

Without social function, without analgesic virtue for the victims, today the death penalty only serves to dramatize repulsive scenes such as the search for Campbell´s veins. Here are two examples of spurious cruelty and involuntary, if unavoidable, absurdity. During the middle of the 19th century, Claude Montcharmont was led to the guillotine amid screaming, cries and violent struggle. The prosecutor reprimanded him: “Come on, Montcharmont, be reasonable!” A miserable example from Spain was the execution in April 1905 of Ramón Martín Castejón, one of the murderers in the Don Benito crime. The executioner from Cáceres carried out the death by garrotte with such clumsiness – he did not know that the convict had a goiter – that the victim shouted, yelled insults, and cursed the executioner for half an hour while begging for his suffering to be put to an end. The horror.

*Editor’s note: Beccaria is an apparent reference to Cesare Bonesana-Beccaria, an Italian criminologist, jurist, philosopher and politician, considered a great jurist and thinker of the Age of Enlightenment, who died in 1794.

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