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We Spoke to Larry Flynt About the Execution of the Man Who Shot Him

Larry Flynt has been in the press lately for something a bit more grim than freedom of speech or porn. The 71-year-old media tycoon has been speaking out about the death penalty in America and his opposition to it; the impetus was the scheduled...
December 10, 2013, 8:35pm

Larry Flynt. Photo via

Larry Flynt has been in the press lately for something a bit more grim than freedom of speech or porn. The 71-year-old media tycoon has been speaking out about the death penalty in America and his opposition to it; the impetus was the scheduled execution of Joseph Paul Franklin, the man who shot Flynt back in 1978, paralyzing him from the waist down. He had attempted to kill Flynt that day, but Flynt lived—although he has now spent as much of his life in a wheelchair as he did walking. The pain from the injuries was constant and lead to a painkiller addiction, which then resulted in an overdose and a stroke that affected his speech. But you could say he's lucky, because all but one of Franklin's other targets died from their injuries.

Franklin is now dead too. He was finally executed on November 20 by the state of Missouri—where he spent 15 years on death row—by injection of the controversial drug pentobarbital, which had prior been used to euthanize animals. It was the first time Missouri had used the drug since switching from the standard three-drug execution cocktail to a single-drug injection of propofol (the same drug that killed Michael Jackson) the year before. When supplies of propofol ran low, the state decided to go with pentobarbital, and their test subject was Franklin, who by all accounts seemed to suffer when the drug was administered. Although he had confessed to heinous crimes—including killing two teenagers, and at least six other people—a prominent psychiatrist had diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic, and therefore unfit to stand trial.

Flynt campaigned to halt the execution, suing the state and demanding to unseal documents that would reveal their secretive execution process. He didn’t succeed in saving Franklin’s life; just as Franklin, ironically, did not succeed in taking Flynt’s.

I think about what it must have been like for him that afternoon 35 years ago, feeling two bullets rip through his abdomen. Hunted, like prey, by an unseen sniper in broad daylight; how that must have affected his perception of the world and his surroundings. And yet, Flynt tells me he never felt anger for his attacker, or any anger at all. "I'm an optimist," he says. And he's optimistic about something else: That, one day, the practice of punishing murder with murder will become obsolete.

Joseph Paul Franklin

VICE: How did you feel when you heard that Joseph Paul Franklin was executed?
Larry Flynt: I had no feelings either way. I've been against the death penalty all my life, but it has nothing to do with him. I don't think the government should be in the business of killing people.

Why have you not spoken about the death penalty before?
It's always been an opinion of mine, but I've never been very vocal about it, because I see the politics as too difficult to change. When I wrote that page for the Hollywood Reporter, I had no idea it was gonna go viral. And all of a sudden, people all over the world wanted to talk to me about the death penalty.

Do you think you will continue to be vocal about it?
I'm not making it a crusade, but I'll always give my opinion when I asked about it. I have opinions about a lot of things.

What do you think it is about the US that makes us one of the few nations in the world that still actively practice capital punishment?
That's what bothers me. The biggest proponents in the world of the death penalty are Iran, China and the United States. I just don't think we should be lumped in the same category as those barbarians. I could support the death penalty if it was a deterrent, but it's not, and there's no scientific or historic evidence that indicates that it is a deterrent. You can't look at it as a punishment to the crime, because if you expel somebody in a few seconds with a lethal injection, the punishment is over with, but if you put somebody in a 4x6 cell for the rest of their lives, they're going to have a lot of suffering that they're gonna have to do. So if you really want to make someone suffer, you're going to have to do better than execute them.

**Why do some people support it despite the high margin of error, the barbaric forms of execution, and the expense of it?**They're not practical. They're so emotionally caught up, they just want the person executed. It makes absolutely no sense at all. If someone's been the victim of a horrific crime, they just want the person dead, and not realizing they're wrong. Temporarily, you might want that sort of vengeance, but that's not the kind of justice that serves the country the best. Our system can't survive with a vigilante type of justice.

Still, a recent Gallup poll showed that death penalty support is the lowest it’s been in 40 years. Why do you think Americans are rethinking the death penalty?
I don't know why, but it's encouraging to see. I'm glad the polls are looking much better. 20 years ago, 80 percent supported the death penalty, and now it's only about 50/50. You know, look how same sex marriage has evolved. No one ever thought, ten years ago, that it would evolve the way it has. Attitudes do change. And once people take the time to analyze the issues, they usually come up with a lot of answers.

Franklin would not have shot you had he not had access to a gun. What is your feeling on gun control in the US?
People could still have guns for sporting means, but the amount of guns we have now is over 300 million. We don’t need that many guns.

**So if it weren’t for the amount of guns in this country, do you think we would have less crime? ** The majority of the crime rate is because of poverty and unemployment and lack of education. If people are properly educated, they commit less crime than people who are not educated. This is a fundamental problem. When we allow our schools to be underfunded, we don't get a proper education for the children to see that they can go on into a workforce where they can make money and not have to live a life of crime. It's not all of a sudden that the country's gone nuts or something, that we've become a violence-prone society for no reason. There is a reason, and that reason is at its core why we're not functioning well as a society.

Why is our education system failing?
It's easy for politicians to cut. Kids don't complain; they're not old enough to complain. The politicians take 100% of the blame. They don't worry about the education of our youth.

Speaking of politicians, what would you say to Rick Perry, who seems to be merciless when it comes to carrying out executions?
He's a politician with a particular mindset. He could care less about the death penalty. If he feels that it helps him politically, he's gonna be for it.

Even if it means using untested drugs that can cause pain and suffering, like the pentobarbital used to execute Joseph Franklin, which violates the Eighth Amendment.
Many pharmaceutical companies have expressed opposition to their drugs being used to take people's lives. Anesthesiologists, in medicine, they take an oath to do no harm. They're not supposed to be killing people. There's a lot of hypocrisy involved. But they'll find some other ways to kill them until the law is changed.