Uncounted Casualties of the Death Penalty
By Michael Kroll
New America Media
Editor's Note: No matter the
method of execution, those who administer the death
penalty and those who watch it cannot escape its
brutal effects, writes Michael Kroll, who works
with incarcerated juveniles who write for The Beat
Within. Kroll is the founding director of the Death
Penalty Information Center in Washington, DC, and
was a witness to the execution of Robert Alton Harris
Even before Joseph Clark groaned through the 90
minutes it took Ohio executioners to kill him on
May 2, the courts had already focused public attention
on evolving efforts to find a humane way to put
a human being to death. The method du jour, lethal
injection, has replaced hanging, lethal gas and
the electric chair in 37 of the 38 death penalty
states, and it is also the method chosen by the
United States government.
But does the cruelty of legal execution devastate
only the condemned? Huntsville Warden Jim Willet,
who presided over approximately 75 of the 152 executions
carried out under then-governor George W. Bush,
noted, "We've carried out a lot of executions
here lately... Sometimes I wonder whether people
really understand what goes on down here and the
effects it has on us."
Professor Robert Johnson, in his seminal 1997 book
"Death Work, A Study of the Modern Execution
Process," makes the point that each member
of the modern execution team is trained to do a
discrete task, like securing an ankle or a wrist,
and then repeatedly drilled so that the task becomes
automatic. The team member becomes like a robot
carrying out a pre-programmed task, not to kill
a person, but only to strap down his ankle.
But executioners are not robots, and things happen
to them, especially when what they've rehearsed
is not what's played out. Will those terrible groans
of Joseph Clark -- or the sight of him raising his
head and shaking it while yelling, "It don't
work!" -- affect the men and women in that
room? The warden? The guards? The witnesses? And
if so, how and for how long?
Some still alive today are haunted by the ghost
of 15-year-old Willie Francis, who survived his
attempted electrocution in Louisiana in 1947, burned
and smoking. No one who was there will forget how,
in 1983, Jimmy Lee Gray died "banging his head
against a steel pole in the gas chamber while the
reporters counted his moans" (11, according
to the Associated Press). Some witnesses fainted
as they watched William Landry's execution team
take 14 minutes to reinsert the lethal needle after
it popped out of his vein -- after the deadly drugs
had begun to do their work. In 1990 the head of
Jesse Talefero burst into flames as he died in Florida's
electric chair. There are literally dozens of examples
of botched jobs and unexpected horrors among every
method of execution.
But even when the executions go as planned, the
potential effects on those involved cannot be minimized.
The state of Florida, for example, provides post-execution
counseling for members of the execution team in
its "Methods of Executions and Protocol."
Most capital punishment states, including California,
offer counseling to all execution witnesses, except
those connected by blood or love to the condemned.
But as one who has witnessed his friend's execution
by lethal gas, I can confirm that the experience
is deeply traumatic and long-lasting.
In the radio documentary, "Witness to an Execution,"
produced in 2000 by South Portraits Productions
and first aired on National Public Radio's "All
Things Considered," a number of men who had
been part of Texas' very busy death row agreed to
recall their experiences. Among them was Fred Allen
who, after being in 130 executions as a member of
the state's "tie down" team, suddenly
found himself collapsing emotionally. "I started
shaking," he remembered, "and tears --
uncontrollable tears -- were coming out of my eyes...
And I just thought about that execution that I did
two days ago, and everybody else's that I was involved
with... and it just -- everybody -- all of these
executions all of a sudden sprung forward."
Former Mississippi Warden and latter-day death penalty
abolitionist Donald Cabana described being part
of the gassing of Edward Earl, whom he had come
to befriend, in Ivan Solotaroff's "The Last
Face You'll Ever See: The Private Life of the American
"I was in the shower two hours later, scrubbing
and scrubbing. Then I showered again. I just couldn't
get the sweat and grime off me to the point where
I felt clean enough to go to sleep," Cabana
In the 1990s, when Louisiana had just 40 people
awaiting death as opposed to the 87 it has now,
the Australian version of "60 Minutes"
did an episode titled "The Executioner"
about Louisiana's good ol' boy executioner they
called Sam Jones. At that time, Jones had electrocuted
18 men and boys. He tells the interviewer he'd pull
out fingernails or execute his own son if that's
what he was told to do. "It's no difference
to me executing somebody than going to the refrigerator
and getting a beer out of it." He insists that
he "sleeps like a baby" following every
But when the interview moves to his house, it becomes
clear that sleeping isn't the only thing he does
following every execution. He also paints masks
of horror on canvas. The interviewer describes them
as "Dark, morbid paintings, that seem to capture
the essence of death itself." Jones denies
any connection between what he does at work and
what he paints at home immediately afterwards. "I
just call it paint on canvas," he deadpans.
"They don't really represent anything."
But then his own mask slips a little, and he adds,
"It's an outlet...people jog."
At this point the interviewer interrupts, "People
jog and you draw pictures of death and execute people."
"Well," Sam drawls, "I draw pictures
and I execute people." But after a moment,
he allows, "It's my way of relief... the pictures."
Beyond the actual chambers of death, how far do
the ripples go? Do they extend to the jurors who
serve in capital cases and about whom more and more
empirical evidence of long-term effects is gathering?
To the DA and defense attorneys on both sides? To
the multiple layers of judges? And ultimately to
us, the indirect spectators?
These are questions that seldom get asked as we
understandably focus on the much narrower legal
question of whether the condemned suffers a cruel
or unusual death. But they are questions very much
worth examining. They are among the questions that
former California governor Edmund G. "Pat"
Brown considered in his book, "Public Justice
Private Mercy, A Governor's Education on Death Row."
During his tenure (1958-1966), California put 36
individuals to death, but the governor spared the
lives of 23 condemned prisoners. As he looked back
near the end of his life and considered those 59
individuals, he wrote:
"I am 83 years old as I write these words...
And looking back over their names and files now,
despite the horrible crimes and the catalog of human
weakness they comprise, I realize that each decision
took something out of me that nothing -- not family
or work or hope for the future -- has ever been
able to replace."