01/13/2006 07:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Yanking 'Em Out of Their Wheelchairs: Justice, Arnie-Style

For the second time in a month, Arnold Schwarzenegger has denied clemency to a prisoner awaiting execution on California's Death Row, and for the second time in a month he has made a politically convenient but morally indefensible decision.

Last time it was Stanley Tookie Williams, a man whose well-documented record of good works and anti-gang activism from within San Quentin prison he chose to dismiss out of hand. This time it is Clarence Ray Allen, the oldest prisoner on Death Row, a wheelchair-bound diabetic who is legally blind, hard of hearing and suffering from heart disease so severe it almost killed him last September. According to the Governator, being so old and infirm - Allen will turn 76 on Monday - is no grounds for clemency, since it was Allen's decision to commit the murder spree for which he was sentenced when he was already well advanced into middle age. (He was 50 when he was first sent to Death Row.) It's an argument straight out of Catch-22: if only he'd murdered when he was younger, he'd be young enough now for the state to kill him with a clear conscience; since he's so close to death, it's not the state's fault it has to hurry up and kill him before nature can take its inevitable course. "Allen should not escape the jury's punishment because our system works deliberately and carefully," Schwarzenegger writes.

Deliberate and careful the system may be, in a strictly bureaucratic sense, but that does not make it any less barbaric. Consider: Allen won't be able to ride his wheelchair into the death chamber because of a pronounced bump running along the bottom of the doorway. (San Quentin was designed to administer death by poison gas, so the floor lip is part of a design to ensure the room is airtight.) The question then arises of how he will get in there. Allen's lawyers have requested he be allowed to use a walker, relying on the strength in his arms to compensate for his entirely useless legs. But prison protocol insists that the condemned have their hands manacled and their feet shackled as they make their way from their final holding cell to the gurney where they are strapped down and injected with lethal chemicals to knock them unconscious, collapse their lungs and stop their heart. The authorities have consented to the use of the walker, but have not said whether they will loosen Allen's manacles so he can actually use it. Two prison guards will be on hand, and it remains to be seen whether they help him, or simply lift him bodily over the threshold.

What kind of civilized society is even prepared to consider such ghoulish procedural obstacles?

There is a powerful argument to be made that Allen's reduced physical condition is at least partly due to the shockingly poor medical care available at San Quentin. Last July, the health care system across the entire network of California state prisons was delivered into federal receivership because of conditions denounced by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson as "outright depravity". But Schwarzenegger brushes this off, too, saying the problems "are best addressed on a system-wide basis, not by clemency cases where the focus is on the unique situation of an individual inmate".

Perhaps, when the state has finally got its prison health care system in order, it can name a hospital wing after Ray Allen - a man with the audacity to grow so sick he almost dodged his (deliberate and careful) death sentence by expiring all on his own.