Under ordinary circumstances, a person with a death wish will soon find himself the sole tenant in a padded room.
Child killer Arthur Gary Bishop has a death wish and, indeed, he has his own private, carefully guarded room. But there, the similarities end.Practically no one will attempt to stop or talk him out of it. In fact, the state of Utah will do whatever it can to make sure Bishop dies by lethal injection at 1 a.m. Friday - his penalty for murdering five young boys.
But why would anyone want to stop him? If he's guilty of such atrocious crimes and he wants to die, why not? To answer those questions, think back to the strange case of Gary Mark Gilmore. It was 1977, and Gilmore, like Bishop, said he wanted to die, wanted the state to keep its promise and put him to death.
But unlike Bishop, people from around the country clamored to save his life. No one asked, "Why not?" In fact, many people, even those who felt he should die, wondered, "How can we?"
"Gilmore caught us off guard," remembers Assistant Utah Attorney General Earl F. Dorius. "He caught the world by surprise. There had been a 10-year hiatus since the last execution, and all of a sudden in a place called Utah a guy says, `You've got a law on the books, so let's use it.' And nobody knew what to do."
First, judges wanted to know whether he was sane. In fact, Gilmore is one of the few death-row inmates to directly address the Utah Supreme Court to give the justices an opportunity to see for themselves whether Gilmore was in his right mind.
Then came the lawsuits, one by his mother and several by the American Civil Liberties Union, which felt Gilmore's death would bring the rebirth of an idea that had become almost unthinkable in the 10 years since the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated all death-penalty statutes.
"They all thought this (Gilmore's execution) would open the blood bath," Dorius said. "They descended on us."
At some point, Gov. Calvin L. Rampton ordered a clemency hearing to consider whether to commute Gilmore's sentence. But such hearings are usually held only if the condemned man or woman requests it.
Gilmore was finally shot to death in January 1977 only after a titanic legal battle that had ACLU lawyers and state prosecutors rousting judges from bed in the middle of the night to hear last-minute appeals.
The Bishop case presents a stark contrast. Although his decision to end appeals and face the executioner was unanticipated, it did not create the stir or complications that accompanied Gilmore's demise. There was some initial resistance from his court-appointed attorneys who claimed they were philosophically opposed to capital punishment and thus should not be forced to help Bishop end his life. There was also some question of his competency. But once those barriers were removed, Bishop began to move almost inexorably toward annihilation.
Why the different treatment for the two killers? Gilmore's penchant for showmanship accounts for some of it. Hunger strikes (hich put prison officials in the position of force-feeding a condemned man) and suicide pacts (nother dilemma: resuscitating a condemned man) brought Gilmore national media attention. The story was eventually woven into Norman Mailer's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Executioner's Song," as well as a TV mini-series of the same name.
"Bishop is fairly docile," Dorius said. "He knows what he wants and he's carrying it out. Gilmore was a grandstander and he liked to play for the media."
Today's relatively well-established body of law concerning capital punishment is also a factor. Since 1977, the silty legal issues surrounding the death penalty have cleared markedly as fundamental constitutional questions have passed through the powerful centrifuge of U.S. Supreme Court scrutiny. With the legality of capital punishment well-established, states are more willing to let the convicted killer die if he wants to.
It's also true that, because of Gilmore, some of the difficult procedural hurdles have been removed. Gilmore, for example, also wanted to fire his attorneys, who, like Bishop's lawyers, were reluctant to help engineer an execution on behalf of their client.
"Because of the Gilmore case, Bishop was able to get his attorneys off the case a lot easier," said Assistant Utah Attorney General Sandra Sjogren, who now handles the majority of death-penalty appeals.
In addition, the state better understands what it takes to complete an execution. Many of the logistical questions that had to be answered with Gilmore are simply part of standard procedure now, especially now after officials had an opportunity to brush up on procedures during last August's execution of Hi Fi Shop killer Pierre Dale Selby.
"With the Gilmore execution," said Dorius, "the poor warden was calling us asking, `What do I do? How do you put together a firing squad? Does it have to be with prison officials?"'
What's more, Bishop probably won't attract the attention of the anti-capital punishment crusaders. Gilmore was viewed by civil libertarians as the first pin in a long, bloody domino effect. Bishop, on the other hand, is just another death-row inmate, distinguished only by the sheer depravity of his crimes - sexually abusing, then killing young boys - and his wish to die.(nly about 12 inmates since Gilmore have chosen execution in lieu of appeals.)
In fact, it may be that his wish to die will rule out any assistance from civil-rights groups, which have their hands full trying to save convicts who want to live. Prosecutors are, as usual, preparing for last-minute appeals, but they privately acknowledge that Bishop's decision to stop fighting his death sentence makes further legal proceedings highly unlikely.
Robyn Blumner, director of the Utah Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, won't attempt to stop the execution.
"I'm opposed to execution in any form," said Blumner. "I'm not interested in intervening against the wishes of Mr. Bishop."
Mike Spurgin, a member of Amnesty International's death penalty advisory committee, says the group is still considering legal action, but he admits such intervention is unlikely.
"We're leaving it open at this point," Spurgin said. "We're sort of against getting involved if it's just to delay things. We don't like to see anything go by, but we have to use our resources as best we can,"
Although the Gilmore case has given state officials much direction, there is a final question for which Gilmore offers no help. As Dorius puts it: "What happens if Bishop says at the last minute, `King's X. I changed my mind'?"
Although Bishop has several remaining appellate options, invoking them takes time. If Bishop abruptly changed his mind as guards were strapping him down to prepare for a dose of lethal chemicals, prison officials would, presumably, convey that information to his attorney. But in the meantime, they would most likely proceed, acting pursuant to a valid death warrant.
Unless a judge could be contacted and persuaded to enter a stay, Bishop could still be executed, even if he suddenly rediscovered his will to live.