Death Penalty Execution
THOSE DAYS AT THE LETHAL INJECTION CHAMBER: as a participant observer
It was Director of Corrections Vicente G. Vinarao who organized the use of lethal injection as a medium for carrying out death penalty. This was in 1997. A year later, after the so called death chamber was built and every piece of screw installed and all the materials built around the facility have been properly attached including the gurney, that which is used to be the “death bed” of the convict, the first convict would be sent back to his creator will no longer be through electrocution but through a cocktail of deadly injectable dosages introduced intravenously. Death through electrocution (via electric chair) had seen better days and the fledging contraption, while a dreaded piece of furniture may not be able to cope up with the exigencies of times. Not that during the period brown outs or power failure was endemic but for purposes of humane expression, the use of lethal injection carries a lighter emotional load than the horrific scene shown through electrocution. (The electric chair conducts a full transmission of 3,300 volts as it would flow through the body of the condemned man. There were instances when burnt flesh would reek within the enclosed chamber if not a wailing pain heard from a distance. Electrocution was for a period, there were around 65 convicts who perished under the scheme, traditionally used by the State in executing the law on death penalty.)
In the late 90s the cost of sending the condemned man to life hereafter was P10k. The cost may be triple at the present rate and may increase in the succeeding period. During the period from 1998 to 1999, there were 9 convicts executed before the death penalty law was amended. And that was the time I was named not only as the face who dealt media with updates as spokesman but also would double as the one in charge of execution. There was no spokesman identified before until one day, I was called at the Department of Justice and was instructed to keep media posted on the impending execution. Then President Joseph Estrada wanted to show the world that he is decisive and that death penalty can be conducted without glitch. That time, it was a good 23 years later when the last execution was made. After the Cory government, which abolished death penalty, government re-introduced the death penalty law on 11 crimes. (the previous death penalty law specified around 23 crimes). While previously, there were around 800 prisoners under death penalty, under the Cory government’s abolition of death penalty, all penalties on capital punishment were technically reduced to life imprisonment.
Until an upsurge of crime disturbed the nation’s nerves. Government began flexing its legislative muscle until Congress revived the death penalty law. Under said law, the mode of execution is to be carried through lethal injection. This was during the Ramos administration. Heinous crimes were the order of the day, from massacre to rape to serial offenses. Violation of drug laws were likewise meted with death penalty. (The Ramos government never had time to implement the law though until the Estrada government took over.)
Then, one fine day at the Bureau of Corrections, prison administration received a letter from the court with an assigned date for the execution of death penalty. (The procedure there is that after the high tribunal, the Supreme Court, has affirmed the penalty of death, the papers of the convict goes down to the lower court, that branch which meted the capital offense for determination of the day of execution. Once a date is scheduled, the court sends a letter memo to the Director of Corrections to prepare the necessary groundworks.) It was the case of Echagaray, the step father who raped his step daughter repeatedly. A case of statutory rape since the victim was a minor. The penalty was death. The lower court has ruled, affirmed with finality by the Supreme Court, brought the affirmation back to the lower court and now the lower court upon receipt of the final verdict, has given the date. The Bureau of Corrections, after more than two decades of silence will have to exercise the power of the state to impose death.
Those assigned at the death chamber to introduce the deadly dossage were called the phlebotomists. There were quasi medical personnel. They were trained to introduce intravenous contraptions on patients. Their usual assignment is in the hospital. There were neither a nurse or an attendant, but there is a description on what they do and it is a qualified position under civil service standards. There were four of them in the employ of the agency.
The Director has the upper hand in the preparation for the execution. While it can be said that former Director of Corrections Vicente Vinarao was already an authority on the new mode, since he was schooled and oriented in foreign countries where lethal injection is the medium, another Director, one without any orientation except that he was appointed as a political move, to take over the reins of corrections. Director Pedro G. Sistosa, a kindly man, a gentleman of the old school, was entrusted with the preparation. It was here where he would gather prison officials who will carry out the judicial mandate. There were the phlebotomists, the prison guards, security supervisors, people from the kitchen, religious groups and the public information unit. I was assigned as spokesman.
When the Director shared the date for execution to a few officers, including me, I immediately started organizing a media corner. Others were waiting for details from the new Director. It was three weeks more before the final bell. A few days later, when everyone was frantic on what to touch first, I was called to the Director’s office for some instant planning. The cocktail of injectable solution must be procured and sent for analysis to the poison center of the Philiippines before it would be used. (That’s right. The fluids to be introduced into the veins of the convict are ordinary substances used in the hospital for treatment of certain ailments. It is not poison, it is neither expired.) The lethal injection chamber has been spruced up as it was a spanking facility during Director Vinarao’s incumbency. Then Superintendent Agalo-os, a lateral entrant and a carry over officer from the previous administration, notwithstanding his first exposure on prison administration was expected to supervise and guide the entire proceeding. He begged off. (Superintendent Agalo-os was very religious man) At that time, the Church was agitated on the forthcoming date. The Church has learned that death penalty will be conducted. The phlebotomists, all four of them, were seen as consciensitized already by the religious. The security personnel were novices and those who have witnessed death by electrocution has long been retired. The Director, much more so, the Secretary of Justice (then Justice Serafin Cuevas) were shaking on their boots as their performance may not merit an award. The President, then President Joseph Estrada, a multi awarded actor, wanted to deliver one of the finest accomplishment in criminal justice administration and the execution of death penalty spells the great difference. There was no room to be an amateur in a game where the life of a human being is to be snuff out for a cause.
I was called by the Secretary of Justice and commanded to take charge of the execution. Alone in his office at the Department of Justice, Padre Faura, the good Secretary was clutching a thick folder, my file 201 and he was giving me certain orders to make the execution a solemn judicial exercise and not a public circus or a comical spectacle. I was looking for my supervisor, the Director of Corrections but he was indisposed.
Back at NBP, I conferred with the Director on the instructions of DOJ and began to directly supervise a handful of those selected to perform the rituals of execution. Accordingly, the date of execution should never be leaked to anyone. At that time, only the director and I were holding the court envelop. I was actually on a dual role, a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hide character. I was the face, explaining the steps and certain details on the forthcoming execution before media and after my prescon, would don the uniform of a commanding officer.
As execution supervisor, I would always report to the Director all the details of the preparation. And the Director calls on the persons whom I would require for some pieces of action through some fearful instructions. I have to literally pull strings so that everyone involved in the activity will move accordingly.
A day before D-day, everything had been laid out. We were able to wall-through and goad to perfect the cadence on everyone involved. We were able also to conduct several mock-ups sometimes to the horror of some volunteer prison security personnel who will be tied up on the gurney. Unfortunately for the first guy to be laid down and tied, the leather straps were still stiff and it was quite an agonizing sight to see somebody painfully subdued. While it can be said that the lethal injection was never a painful stab, the rituals, the new equipment of restraints were too glossy for any movement. The lethal injection while not poison is to be administered in high dosage.
One such fluid, a size of a vial is that of a traveller’s mini tooth paste tube, if at all injected into a 2 ton behemoth, say a full grown elephant, the giant would spend a week in deep slumber. Administer the same to a 50 kilogram human being and he would spend almost half a year sleeping, or in a state of fatal comatose already! And there are four of this drugs to be used. Well the first is not fatal actually because it is an ordinary dextrose. It is the first to be attached on the convict’s arm. What was hidden on the tube was the connection of the line on the series of medium size syringes where all the lethal dosages of the drugs are stocked. Each of the syringes is to be pressed on one after the other. Each phlebotomist was ordered to empty the syringe whatever is the situation after a given signal. Once the cue is made, all the phlebotomist must have to perform their roles. All the security personnel who marched the dead man walking would form the phalanx prepared to take over the reins of pushing the syringe if in the process the phlebotomists would decline to perform their duties. I was the commander of this group.
The day would come to conduct the operations. The Department of Justice has given the green lights to media for coverage of “the day.” 5am at the maximum wing of the New Bilibid Prison, a group of seven prison officers were commanded to escort out the condemned prisoner out from his detention cell to be transported to the nearby lethal injection facility, a good half a kilometer away from the main prison camp. There were two approaches to be made. One was a decoy escorting flow for media purposes and the other, the real one, for purposes of security. The approach was disapproved by the Director and I was summoned to conduct the normal flow where the real subject is to be escorted out where the media are milled. For me, it was a nightmare but for purposes of recording, the decision was an honest one.
The security personnel walked through the corridor with the subject, in full prison uniform, head not shaven unlike those to be electrocuted, retrained by cuffs on hand and feet, cordoned by auxiliary prison officers and escorted towards a waiting van. There was pandemonium as soon as the first security contingent appeared. Photographers and reporters shoved one another to capture the drama. There was at that moment no order to reckon except after the van has left the scene. The road leading to the lethal injection chamber had been sealed by a series of choke points.
The subject has finally been delivered to a small holding cell within the chamber. The cell measured two meters by three and its walls, ceiling were made of pastel colored tartar rubber. No one was allowed to move closer to the room except for the prison chaplain. That early, the subject was asked by the team leader of the escort what particular request he may want to eat for the day while waiting for the hour of reckoning. At that juncture, the inmate submits a list. In the case of inmate Echagaray, he wanted ice cream and spaghetti. A security personnel was dispatched to produce the request. If the institution kitchen can produce it, the request will be given, if not, a related replacement is given.
Meanwhile, at the administration building where media had camped out, the Director happened to leave his office to proceed and freshen up in his quarters. That was the time when media reporters jumped up on him. Their queries were varied but one response floored them. They asked, “Sir, ano po ang pananghalian ni Echagaray? (“Sir, what is the meal of Echagaray?”). The peeved official answered, “Hindi ko alam. Yung kakainin ko nga sa tanghalian hindi ko pa rin alam!” (“I don’t know. I also do not know the food I will have for lunch!” The media left in search of the spokesman instead.
Over at the lethal injection chamber, the priest was already at hand. He was close by trying to catch the attention of the condemned man. The convict on the other hand, his hands clasping a rosary, although not in a prayerful mode, was on deep contemplation. The guards, the close in and the one in charge of the holding cell were watching alertly at what was going on, inside the cell, in the room adjacent the cell, where the phlebotomist were installing the syringes, where technicians were attaching the necessary tubes and wirings to the monitor, the lightings, the straps, the clock. All of them waiting for the hands of the clock to strike 3. 3PM is the designated time for the execution. Well, all of them except me who was stationed beside the red colored telephone which is directly connected to Malacanan.
The Echagaray execution would be postponed that day. We received an order two hours before the designated time and everybody gave a sigh of relief. The inmate was literally a vegetable but could be seen euphoric because of the stay. I assembled my officers for some reminders and went out to change my serious expression, and project a friendly pose to meet the media. There were pleasant exchanges between those who do not favor death penalty, but I had a lot of difficulties explaining on those who want blood. The day was over and we were back to our normal posts. Only a couple of officers were with me to withdraw the bottles containing the lethal fluids to have it safely kept at the hospital vault.
A couple of months later, the reprieve would expire and we were back again on our toes to replay what has been conducted before. The routine was almost the same; the media were back in their normal posting. But this time around, we undertook a different approach. We used a decoy. Smoothly we were able to transport the inmate to the holding cell of the death chamber, while the media were all around the decoy, jumping and literally flagging down the van. It was only when they realized that they were milling on something fake that they backed off.
Back at the lethal injection chamber, my officers were seriously manning our respective positions. It is almost past 2 PM and every officer with a role to play was on their respective areas of assignment. The security personnel were in every corner. The chaplain ministering to the last rites; the phlebotomists were alertly seated across their syringes; the hospital chief standing across the heart monitor beside a big circular clock; the director beside me in a corner where the red telephone is situated. At half past two, the door of the viewing room was opened for the selected few to witness how the execution is to be carried out. The close in security was given the signal to escort the inmate to be brought to the adjacent room. Almost in clock work precision and a bit ritualistic, the inmate was laid on the gurney and his extremities strapped almost simultaneously. The phlebotomist was ushered in to attach the dextrose hose onto the arms of the inmate. The phlebotomists and the security personnel were ordered to move out of the room and only the Superintendent was close by, positioned at the head of the condemned man. There was a microphone attached almost dangling above the head of the inmate. The Superintendent taking a glimpse at the small square hall on the partition of room separating the phlebotomists and the gurney; where an empty drinking glass is placed to stall the cover. Once the time is up, the Superintendent gives the sign (previous to the execution, the Superintendent is required to make gestures, like removing his eyeglasses, or scratching his head, to telegraph to the one in charge of the empty drinking glass to remove it from the small opening. Once the small hole closes, that signals the phlebotomist to empty their syringes one by one until all the fluids are drained.) the curtains are opened exposing through a transparent glass wall the figure of the laid inmate for witnesses to view. (Those at the viewing room were family members of the condemned man and the aggrieved party, members of media, representatives of various criminal justice agencies and local government officials of the town.) The Superintendent gestures and whispers aloud at the inmate what his last words were, and while the inmate is about to spew a few consonants, the deadly dosage was already flowing unto his veins. In 8 seconds, the inmate would snore and a fraction of a second, there was silence. A few seconds later, the chief of the hospital enters the room, facing the viewers to announce the exact time the inmate succumbs to death. The security personnel enter the room to close the curtains and the corpse is untied and brought to the waiting ambulance for delivery to the facility’s morgue.
A minute after 3 PM, death is pronounced and 8 others would follow on different dates on years 1998 and 1999 until another law would be passed abolishing death penalty.
All through out the execution, I would be there directing the details of how it would be carried out. A task which I never imagined myself to perform but nonetheless was required of me as a matter of duty for the State. For every execution, I could only utter AMEN.