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Op-Ed: Alabama’s “Baghdad Bob” of Death Row

By Stephen Cooper

By training, retired Air Force colonel Jeff Dunn is not an actor, an anesthesiologist, nor as pointed out when he was tapped by disgraced former Governor Robert Bentley to lead Alabama’s Department of Corrections, a prison commissioner. Nevertheless, after each execution gone palpably awry on Dunn’s watch — resulting in what intellectually honest people of conscience will acknowledge is torture — he plays a mixture of all of these roles. Clean-cut with a bland, no-nonsense military-bearing, Dunn stands ramrod-straight behind a high school-style lectern delivering low-key, seemingly earnest, official statements. Then he takes questions from reporters. What comes out of his mouth is utter nonsense, party-line propaganda, and bald-faced misstatements.

After Ronald Bert Smith’s patently botched execution on December 8 and the ensuing cover-up by the Alabama court system, state prosecutors, and the Department of Corrections — beginning with Commissioner Dunn’s mendacious post-execution press conference — I wrote a column plaintively asking: Is Alabama hiding that it tortured its citizens? But now, following witness reports of what appears to be yet another Alabama lethal injection turned atrocity, and also, yet another ludicrous denial of it by Commissioner Dunn, my question has appropriately evolved: Is there any difference in veracity between Commissioner Dunn and former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s Minister of Information?

Everyone, of course, remembers the loquacious, black beret-wearing Saeed al-Sahaf. No? Maybe that’s because nothing he said was truthful, much less worth remembering — hence his being dubbed with the nickname “Baghdad Bob.”

Am I being hyperbolic? You be the judge.

You see, last Thursday, death row inmate Torrey McNabb was supposed to be unconscious and insensate as caustic chemicals were being pumped into his system. Instead, he was observed by multiple reporters and other witnesses to continue breathing and moving after the lethal drugs began their flow. Then, “just after a corrections officer performed the second round of consciousness checks,” at “about the 20-minute mark, McNabb raised his right forearm and grimacing, lifted his head before falling back on the gurney.”

“McNabb’s family members and attorneys audibly expressed concern that he was not yet unconscious at that point.” Horrified, McNabb’s sister even cried out: “He finna wake up!”

Enter Minister of Disinformation, the Baghdad Bob of Alabama’s death row, Commissioner Jeff Dunn. Asked about this highly disturbing series of events, the kind of post-injection movements that would lead any reputable anesthesiologist to conclude McNabb suffered, Dunn donned the proverbial black hat (or beret, if you will) again.

Straight-faced, Dunn disclaimed that there were even complications with McNabb’s execution. Issuing what has become his characteristic Baghdad Bob-like demurrer of state-sanctioned torture, Dunn declared: “There was no indication by the inmate that would lead to a conclusion that he was conscious or suffered during the execution.” Doubling down on the issue of McNabb’s “grimacing” and other movements, Dunn opined, “I’m confident he was more than unconscious at that point.”

In a 2013 article for The Atlantic, Emily Deprang, a reporter for the Texas Observer, wrote that Baghdad Bob “now denotes someone who confidently declares what everyone else can see is false – someone so wrong, it’s funny.” Soberly, Deprang also observed that, “when read beside the eventual cost of America’s decade in Iraq, ‘Baghdad Bob’ isn’t so funny anymore.”

Likewise, someday the people of Alabama will decide that the cost of botched and torturous executions — including their prison chief’s indefensible defense of them — is just too damaging to their moral fabric; too devastating to the integrity of its criminal justice system. Let us pray this day comes soon.

Because the disgusting “shock and awe” of just about each execution in Alabama now — where death row inmates are treated like human guinea pigs and made to feel as if they are suffocating, and being burned alive from the inside — should be too overwhelming for Alabamians, and for Americans generally, to countenance. Too unholy. And just plain wrong.

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveCooperEsq