The Lethal Injection Debate: Do Killers Deserve Humane Death? | Phoenix New Times


Sheila Marie Died a Horrible Death: Did Her Killer Deserve the Same?

The execution of Ronald Phillips, who raped and beat to death a 3-year-old Ohio girl, became part of the conversation about how we kill our killers. Arizona must answer this question before its next execution.
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After decades in this business, after writing or editing story after story about the atrocities human beings can inflict on each other, you can get jaded. You joke about murder: “Heard about Detroit-style chicken? Served faced down in a pool of gravy.”

You start to believe your feelings are immune to the horrors happening outside the news room.

Then you get a call like the one I got from my police reporter at the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal on Monday, January 18, 1993.

Three-year-old, brown-haired, blue-eyed Sheila Marie Evans was dead.

That morning, Akron Police Captain Paul Callahan said, the live-in boyfriend of Sheila Marie’s mother, 6-foot-1, 180-pound Ronald Phillips, “beat her and beat her and beat her.”

And that wasn’t enough.

According to police sources, later confirmed in court, the 19-year-old man became aroused when he saw that Sheila Marie was naked from the waist down.

Yes, he then raped the already bloodied and battered child … as he had done before. Her insides burst. He literally screwed this little girl to death.

So why am I telling you this?

Phillips was executed last week, almost a quarter of a century after he brutalized and killed Sheila Marie Evans.

I suppose I should be happy about that. Maybe part of me is.

But while Phillips was waiting on death row in Lucasville, Ohio, he became a central figure in an ongoing national debate —  Arizona, of course, is right in the middle of it — about how we kill our killers. Whether we must do it humanely … and lawfully.

The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, says we must.

In Arizona, so does a settlement between the state’s Department of Corrections and a coalition of death row prisoners and media plaintiffs in a suit filed with the federal Public Defender’s office in Phoenix.

Phillips was the first person executed in Ohio since January 2014, when Dennis McGuire took 25 minutes to die after a lethal injection of midazolam and hydromorphone, snorting and making choking sounds as he finally expired.

It’s been almost that long since the last execution in Arizona. Former Phoenix New Times reporter Michael Kiefer, now with the Arizona Republic, watched in July 2014 as double-murderer Joseph Wood “gulped like a fish on land,” gasping more than 640 times in two hours.  Again, midazolam, a sedative that experts say doesn't knock you out completely, was part of the drug cocktail.

Wood’s ghastly death prompted the Arizona suit, which is still ongoing despite the settlement.

And because of the suit, there will be no more lethal cocktails here like the one that killed Phillips — midazolam; rocuronium bromide, a paralytic; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart, according to the Associated Press.

If the Department of Corrections administers either midazolam or a paralytic in any future execution, the state will have to pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees, which are already more than $2.6 million, with the meter still ticking.

“Arizona currently has a one-drug protocol,” ADOC spokesman Anthony Wilder confirmed via email.

That drug will be one of two barbiturates, sodium thiopental or pentobarbital.

Problem is, nobody in the U.S. will sell either of those drugs for lethal injections, ADOC official Carson McWilliams acknowledged in court last week.  He was testifying during a trial over whether the state must reveal its source of lethal-injection drugs and the qualifications of executioners, the AP reported.

Not even Don Draper could make that sales pitch fly for the manufacturers: “Our drugs can kill.”

So if Arizona is determined to kill anyone, and this is Arizona, so you know it can hardly wait, the ADOC must scramble to find its deadly drugs overseas or to have them made here by compounding pharmacies.

The state doesn't believe it's any of our business how it acquires these drugs or who administers them.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit disagree. Which is why they're still fighting the good fight  to guarantee transparency in all aspects of any future executions in Arizona.

Nobody has been more deeply entrenched in this debate than Dale Baich, the assistant federal public defender in Phoenix. He's defended killers like Ronald Phillips for decades; his arguments that even they deserve humane deaths have reached the Supreme Court.

I asked him how he reconciles defending such heinous people.  And why I should care about how Phillips or Joe Wood died.

"You acknowledge the brutality," said Baich, an Ohio native who consulted on the Phillips case. "What we see is the humanity. He was 19. People change. People are remorseful. They can make contributions even when they are in prison for the rest of their lives."

By all accounts, Phillips was both remorseful and religious at the end.

So I guess it's a good thing that he didn't suffer in his final moments. The new drug cocktail produced an uneventful death. He died quietly in about 10 minutes.

Naturally, not everyone feels that way.

Phillips' death was “too easy,“ said Renee Mundell, Sheila Marie Evans’ half-sister, according to my old newspaper in Akron.

“She suffered. … It was awful.”

She did. It was way beyond awful.

But Sheila Marie would be 27 years old now. Instead, she is buried under a pink headstone shaped like a teddy bear.

The execution of Ronald Phillips didn't change any of that.

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