The Unseen, 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 in 1992.

San Francisco: 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 Death Penalty."
"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 wrote.
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 execution.
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."


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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