In the waning hours of protests against the execution on Troy Davis by the state of Georgia last Wednesday, one action drew particular notice: A group of six former wardens and correctional officials pleading for clemency and suggesting that prison staffers be allowed to refuse to take part in the death process.
"While most of the prisoners whose executions we participated in accepted responsibility for the crimes for which they were punished," the wardens' statement read, "some of us have also executed prisoners who maintained their innocence until the end. It is those cases that are most haunting to an executioner....
"Living with the nightmares is something that we know from experience. No one has the right to ask a public servant to take on a lifelong sentence of nagging doubt, and for some of us, shame and guilt. Should our justice system be causing so much harm to so many people when there is an alternative?"
This public statement was quite unusual for such officials -- even in retirement -- as I've learned in many years of researching capital punishment. (My new e-book on the subject, Dead Reckoning, was published this weekend.) Occasionally, an official will voice callous views or, even more rarely, refuse to take part in the process, but generally they explain that they derive no pleasure from planning to put someone to death, and are intent only on making the process tolerable for everyone involved, including the inmate.
As Bob Dylan once declared, "The executioner's face is always well hidden."
It's a long way from the days, not so long ago, when many executioners expressed a certain pride, even pleasure, in their profession. Half a century ago, Camus reported that an assistant executioner in France referred to colleagues' allowing themselves "the fun" of pulling the hair of the condemned man on the guillotine -- it was unclear whether the heads were still attached to necks at the time. The same fellow spoke of a chief executioner who was "batty about the guillotine. He sometimes spends days on end at home sitting on a chair, ready with hat and coat on, waiting for a summons from the Ministry."
When the legendary executioner Albert Pierrepoint was called to testify before a British commission on capital punishment in 1950 he took a somewhat different approach, but still stood proud. Asked if people often asked him about his official duties, Pierropoint replied: "Yes, but I refuse to speak about it. It is something I think should be secret.... It is sacred to me, really." (Later, in his memoirs, he came out against capital punishment.)
There is little boastful language among executioners in America today, of course. The words supervisors use most often are "professional," "dignity" and "my job."
"As prison officials, we just adopt the policy of going about our business in an extremely professional and sober manner with the policy handed to us by those in the legislature," a director of public information for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice once said. "There's a high degree of professionalism and dignity that we demand in the performance of this duty."
Charlie Jones, a former prison guard now warden at Holman Prison in Alabama, oversaw his first electrocution in "Yellow Mama" in 1988. He claims he's "totally responsible for it, and yeah, it affects you. That's not to say it's not right, that the guy don't deserve it, or that the death penalty ain't right. That's not for me to say; it's just for us to do, by law. I don't feel guilty about it. I don't carry the load for what the inmate did."
A Missouri warden at Potosi felt he hasn't experienced any personal "problems" following an execution. "You wonder, before you've done one, what it's going to be like," he revealed. "But it just doesn't seem to have had any adverse psychological effect. Perhaps it will later on, I don't know." Asked what would happen if it did, he replied, "I'd find another job."
Without a doubt, by their own testimony, as I recount in my book, wardens find lethal injections much easier to administer than previous forms of killing. Many cannot shake images of electrocutions and gassings they witnessed.
Bill Armontrout, warden at the Missouri Penitenitary, directed several executions, mainly with the needle, and claimed he has "made peace with myself on this thing by knowing that the fellow that's being executed has had every chance of appeal. When you know that the case has been scrutinized this closely, then it makes you feel much easier. I believe in the laws of our country. And I do personally believe in the death penalty. It may not be a deterrent for the next person, but it is for that person." He even went down to Mississippi once to help a friend with his first execution, or as he put it, "do a complimentary one for him."
Armontrout claimed he never had to "manhandle" a prisoner onto the gurney, leading him to believe, probably falsely, that none of them felt any "animosity" toward him or his staff. Still, killing an inmate a warden has been watching over for years -- as a ward of the state, so to speak -- can be traumatic, even while feeling the prisoner deserves it. Armontrout considered one prisoner he executed, Tiny Mercer, a "friend" -- it was "hard doing him." He said he was also close to Mercer's widow and seemed a bit perplexed how she could act so friendly and yet inevitably greet him with, "Bill, God loves you, but why did you kill Tiny?"
A Florida official, Bob McMaster, wondered what his reaction would be when he witnessed the first of many electrocutions. Then he saw "how clinical, how straight out with precision" it was, and "there was very little gore. The only thing that was shocking perhaps was realizing that I was going to see somebody killed. People don't normally see death. It's not something you looked forward to with glee or anything like that. It's strictly a professional duty in that sense, and I had very little reaction. It was just my job."
He explained further, "Now I know what to expect. I know how it's going to be done, and it's not something that you have a significant reaction to. You have respect for it, though. You respect that a group of men are carrying out the most severe punishment that is administered by law. It's not something to be taken lightly. After all, you are seeing a death." This experience made McMaster ponder the question of mortality. "Everyone's days are numbered," he observed, "and we should all be a little more concerned about making good use of those days while we're here..."
Greg Mitchell's new e-book is Dead Reckoning: Executions in America. He previously wrote another book on the subject, Who Owns Death? with Robert Jay Lifton.
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