Cash, Killings and Secrets

According to a recent Buzzfeed investigation, the people in Missouri responsible for actually executing death row inmates were paid, in total, over $250,000 in hard cold currency since 2013, in possible violation of federal tax laws.
02/16/2016 12:52 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2017

The State of Missouri paid its "confidential execution staff" in cash-stuffed envelopes, full of $100 bills. Yes, that's right, according to a recent Buzzfeed investigation, the people in Missouri responsible for actually executing death row inmates were paid, in total, over $250,000 in hard cold currency since 2013, in possible violation of federal tax laws.

Can you imagine? On the night of a scheduled execution, a high-ranking corrections officer hands over an envelope, stuffed with thousands of dollars in cash, to the executioner, who is identified only by a pseudonym. The purpose of this circuitous payment route is to protect the identity of the executioner. To avoid a paper trail that could lead back to the identity of the state-paid death administrator.

Now Missouri potentially finds itself in a bit of a tax pickle -- since these payments allegedly were not properly reported to the Internal Revenue Service. I don't want to get into the alleged tax evasion issue, although the idea of state government circumventing federal tax laws to get their death machine rolling is fascinatingly disturbing.

What I want to talk about is the perceived need for secrecy in the first place.

Punishment is done on behalf of society. When an offender commits a crime, society suffers the collective harm. When we punish, we punish on behalf of each and every one us. In some states, we punish using the death penalty.

But if the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for certain defendants, then by definition it has to be carried out. Someone has to be the person to administer death. Otherwise, the death penalty is a punishment without death. Which would make it life without parole. Or something like that.

So why the need for government secrecy about the execution team?

Government secrets -- by and large -- are not a good thing. I've written here before about why secrecy is wrong in the context of lethal injection drugs.

What about secrecy around the executioner? I am not sure I buy that either.

Yet, it is true, that historically, the executioner's identity was kept secret. Think of the hooded hangman. And in keeping with that history, many modern state statutes continue to require that the executioner's name be confidential.

That requirement reflects the reality that there is a stigma to being an executioner. And there are other concerns as well. Perhaps with the advent of the internet and social media, there is a real need to protect the executioner's privacy. Perhaps executioners themselves have some deep-seated ambivalence or conflict in the role that they play when they extinguish the life of another. Executioners who have gone public after the fact talk about the profound impact, and burden, that the job had on their own lives and their own world views.

Or, perhaps, states are concerned that if names were made public, then no one would be willing to take the job. Think of the lengths that Missouri has undertaken to keep the executioner's identity a secret.

Which brings me to my larger point. If government secrecy is necessary to avoid significant harm and duress to the executioner, then maybe the government should not ask people to perform such a troubling job in the first place.