Several years ago, I tried to get inside the head of an executioner.
Not literally, of course. I was writing a fictional story about a prison guard whose job included carrying out the death penalty through lethal injection.
To understand what an executioner’s life was like, I did extensive research. I talked to people who worked at prisons, though none would say they had done that job or give me the name of anyone who had. They did describe the process of lethal injection, and online I was surprised to find a point-by-point guide.
My protagonist, as I portrayed him, essentially compartmentalized the job. During an execution, he and another prison guard would administer drugs at the same time. One administered lethal drugs, the other non-lethal. Neither knew who did what so neither could be sure which one of them was the actual executioner.
My lead character felt twinges of discomfort about his work. But after each execution, he and his coworker had little trouble meeting for beers. It was just a job.
Real-life executioners are telling a different story. Several are now saying that they are haunted by their jobs of killing people convicted of crimes, even sometimes heinous crimes, in the name of the state. A few, like former prison warden Ron McAndrew of Florida and former Virginia chief executioner Jerry Givens, are now vocal death penalty opponents who have traveled from state to state advocating against it.
Yes, there are some former executioners who support the death penalty. This is an issue, after all, where views in this country are decidedly split. In 2010, CNN told the story of an executioner who recounted his experience on a firing squad execution of a killer. Like my fictional protagonist, he called the event “anti-climactic. Another day at the office.”
“I’ve shot squirrels I’ve felt worse about,” he said.
Still, growing numbers of former executioners are shining a light on a little-discussed part of the death penalty. The men and women who carry out death sentences are often collateral damage.
As N.C. lawmakers push through legislation this session that bill sponsor Thom Goolsby forthrightly says is aimed at restarting executions, this rarely heard perspective should factor into the debate. Long mute on their experiences, several executioners are now acknowledging the trauma they endure having engaged in these killings. Many have turned to drugs and alcohol to handle the emotional toil of what one former Georgia Department of Corrections executioner dubbed, “scripted and rehearsed murder.”
It’s not hard for some to think of it that way. On the death certificate of executed prisoners in several states, the cause of death is listed as “homicide.” That’s how it’s been listed in North Carolina.
Givens, who carried out 62 death sentences in Virginia over 17 years, some by lethal injection and others by the electric chair, said that word, “homicide,” haunts him. Seeing it on official paperwork, describing what he did, “how could it not?” he said to a Newsweek reporter.
Sen. Goolsby, who introduced his bill last week, said the state has “a moral obligation to ensure death-row criminals convicted of the most heinous crimes imaginable finally face justice.”
“Victims’ families,” he said, “have suffered for far too long. It’s time to stop the legal wrangling and bring them the peace and closure they deserve.”
Anti-death penalty former executioners have a different take.
“We have an alternative that doesn’t lower us to the level of the killer: permanent imprisonment,” says McAndrew who has experienced two murders in his own family and as warden oversaw the botched 1997 execution of a Cuban refugee that led Florida to switch to lethal injections. “It is cheaper, keeps society safe and offers swift justice to the victims.”
Givens offers this additional insight. He came close one time to executing an innocent man. The inmate was exonerated for his crime not long before the planned execution. “If I carry out the execution, I have to carry the burden with me until I die that I took an innocent life,” he said.
North Carolina has a troubling track record of wrongful murder convictions, convictions that have been overturned only in recent years as inmates have gained access to DNA that can prove their innocence.
A story that ran in the Observer on Sunday about the wrongful conviction of Joseph Sledge, in an N.C. prison for 34 years for two murders DNA evidence has now absolved him of, should give us pause. He was sentenced to life for what many would call a heinous crime. Had he gotten the death penalty that Goolsby and others say such heinous crimes deserve, he would have been executed by now – wrongly so.
And a Mecklenburg County jury’s sentence this week for Andre Hampton in the horrific beating death of his 23-month-old son once again spotlights the capriciousness of the application of the death penalty. As a heinous crime, this beating – which made even law enforcers cringe at its cruelty – no doubt qualifies. Yet jurors recommended life instead. By contrast, Samuel Flippen, the last person executed in the state, received the death penalty for killing his 2-year-old stepdaughter.
North Carolina has not had an execution since 2006. Lawmakers should think long and hard before starting up this flawed practice again.
Former executioner Ron McAndrew has it right. There is a better way.
Fannie Flono is an Observer associate editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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