Chief sent me to interview Jack Underville, the eastern panhandle senator who has just introduced a death penalty bill in the state legislature for the seventeenth straight year. I was eager to get a fix on a man so fixated. What follows is a transcript of our conversation:
Q. Seventeen years. That’s real devotion. You must be really passionate about this issue.
A. Oh, I am. I’ve been an execution buff since I was a boy.
Q. The President seems determined to have a war, no matter what anyone else wants, and you seem equally determined to execute people. Is this interest in killing people particularly deep in Republicans?
A. I want to make it clear that we are only interested in killing people legally; we are on record, in the strongest terms, against the illegal taking of human life. To be fair to the other party, they really deserve all the credit for getting us into Vietnam. And Democrats, for the most part, have given the President a blank check on Iraq.
Q. Let me go back to the distinction you were making between killing someone legally and illegally. Is it fair to compare it with killing a deer during hunting season, as opposed to poaching out of season?
A. Oh, I think that works fairly well. It’s the framework of law that makes us a civilized society.
Q. You have introduced a death penalty bill seventeen times. Has it always been the same bill, or have there been variations?
A. The basic bill has been the same, but the details have changed occasionally. For the past seven or eight years, I’ve been calling for public executions. The public pays for them, and I think they deserve a show for their money. The people really need to see that they get good value for their tax dollars.
Q. What execution method do you favor?
A. I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy. A lot of people nowadays want lethal injections and such fancy, New Age stuff. I’d like to see us go back to the old drawn-and-quartered method. Hitch each of the prisoner’s limbs to a horse, point the four horses in four different directions, away from the prisoner, and give them all a slap on the rump. Just jerk the prisoner apart, with body parts flying every whichaway. Simple. Cheap. Effective.
Q. Does it bother you that the death penalty has absolutely no deterrent value, that numerous prisoners on death row have been found innocent of all charges by college students who investigated their cases, and that it’s almost always the poor who end up on death row?
A. No system is perfect. You have to take the good with the bad. At least eighty or ninety percent of those executed were guilty as charged.
Q. That seems easy enough to say if you happen to be white and well off. Do you have trouble identifying with the low-income occupants of the death house?
A. I don’t identify with them at all. You don’t see Republicans in the death house. Not our kind of neighborhood at all. I think you’ll find, if you check the statistics, that the vast majority of the condemned have no party affiliation at all.
Q. So politically this is a no-brainer?
A. Absolutely. It’s a win-win situation for both parties. You can slaughter prisoners left and right, and lose nary a vote.
© Tony Russell, 2003