My Job Is Killing Me


Executioner's Song

The California executioner keeps banker's hours.  He never kills before 10 o'clock in the morning, never after 4 in the afternoon.

- Caryl Chessman

Nightmare Executioner by Watteau Source:

by Paul Festa

The ravaged lives of two men hired to pull the switch testify to the hidden costs of America's death penalty

What job gives you irresistible sexual magnetism, optional anonymity and a comprehensive nervous and physical breakdown?

The correct answer isn't prostitution, but it does rhyme with it: execution, a line of work routinely ignored by career counsellors despite the powerful draw it has had for people through the ages who seek a relatively safe, government-sanctioned outlet for their primal urge to kill.  The life of the professional killer with a state government paycheque is the subject of Ivan Solotaroff's The Last Face You'll Ever See: The Private Life of the American Death Penalty. Solotaroff's first offering since his 1994 collection of essays No Success Like Failure, this ambitious book attempts to penetrate the inner lives of two men whose job it was to asphyxiate convicted murderers in Mississippi's gas chamber in the 1980s and 1990s.

Solotaroff's subjects present a study in contrasts: the hot-headed, obese, self-described Southern redneck Donald Hocutt versus Donald Cabana, the thoughtful, sensitive warden with a masochistic habit of befriending the condemned.  The first Donald approaches his work, at least initially, with something resembling zeal; the second with dread, grief and ultimately crushing guilt.  Hocutt remains a death penalty supporter to the end, while Cabana ends up penning a 1996 "confession" repudiating his old line of work.

But both men, corrections officers at Mississippi's Parchman State Penitentiary, wind up wasted in body and spirit.  While Solotaroff claims a neutral stance on capital punishment, his unmistakable conclusion is that the work of putting people to death is ultimately every bit as lethal as breathing carbon monoxide in a sealed room - it's just slower.

The book opens with a contemporary scene in which Hocutt - riddled at age 42 with gout, diabetes, diverticulitis, arthritis, partial deafness, obesity, depression and constipation - returns to the prison after his retirement to get a form stamped for his medical discharge.  Solotaroff, accompanying the sickly executioner, finds himself fixating on Hocutt's equipment.  I can't take my eyes off the Colt. [Solotaroff writes] "Donald," I say, touching the barrel.  "That's a big gun."

"That's a dangerous gun," he says softly.  "Maybe you don't want to be touching it."

This breathless prelude offers a sample of the fawning that characterises much of the portrait to come, but before we can circle back and find out what brought Hocutt to this odd combination of erotic charisma and well-armed ill health, we are taken on a wildly disorganised detour through the thickets of execution history and politics.  By the time we catch up again with Hocutt 69 pages later, we have practically forgotten him, glutted as we have been with scenes and statistics from the death penalty annals; gruesome tales of botched executions; lengthy interviews with opponents, prosecutors and death row convicts; and Solotaroff's miasmic musings on the moral significance of capital punishment.

Solotaroff's analytical passages often invite rereading in order to clarify how little sense they make.

A contemporary American execution, scorned by abolitionists abroad and at home as a form of moral backwardness, is probably nothing of the kind.  Like mid-nineteenth century slavery, it is rather our "peculiar institution" - and as anyone who has toured a death row or attended an execution can attest, the will to enslave and the will to execute are either the same or remarkably similar.

Fortunately for our common notion of "moral backwardness," in the book's sprawling first section, Solotaroff sticks mostly to the less hazardous and more vivid turf of anecdote.  Of keenest interest are the tableaux illustrating the contribution of American technical ingenuity to capital punishment, particularly with the application of electricity (by no less an inventor than Thomas Alva Edison) and then poison gas.

The electric chair - until 1991 America's most common method of execution - disturbed witnesses and executioners alike when it was revived in 1979 after a 13-year hiatus.  At the 1983 electrocution in Louisiana of Robert Wayne Williams, Solotaroff reports that wardens and onlookers were "surprised," "baffled" and "amazed" (inescapable is the image of an irate editor, frantically crossing out the verb "shocked") that the condemned man smoked and sizzled long after the voltage was cut, and despite the best efforts of his morticians stubbornly persisted in smelling like cooked flesh a full 24 hours later. Mourners were unusually brief in their goodbyes.

Capital punishment's next technological advance was the gas chamber.  An American invention much admired by the Third Reich, the new method provided witnesses and executioners with another memorable spectacle: "A Tucson television reporter sobbed uncontrollably during [Donald Eugene Harding's execution on 11 April 1992, in Arizona's gas chamber]; two other reporters 'were rendered walking "vegetables" for days'; the attorney general vomited halfway through."

Such is the effect on witnesses.  So what about the executioners?

In Solotaroff's anecdotal historical survey, the severity of job-related stress in the execution trade varies widely.  Thousands of people applied to be Sing Sing's executioner when the position opened up in 1940, "despite the fact that [the prior executioner's] house had been firebombed in his second year on the job, and that the previous executioner ... had blown his brains out two years after retiring."

But others emerge from a career in capital punishment relatively unscathed.  Indeed, the executioner's career path has on several occasions led directly to the White House.  Erie County sheriff Grover Cleveland hanged two men in the early 1870s before ascending twice to the presidency, Solotaroff reminds us.  (Modern instances of presidential candidates executing their way into the Oval Office the author has apparently judged too recent and obvious to mention).

Still, the combined burden of both conscience and notoriety has led governments to hide their employees' identities.  Take Florida's hooded executioner: hired through the classifieds, the successful applicant is collected at an agreed-upon spot, hooded until he or she is done with work, and finally deposited, with a check for $150, at the pickup location.

Often the state takes pains to obscure the executioners' identities from themselves.  Some schemes position placebo executioners next to real ones, none of whom knows who's injecting saline solution and who's injecting pancuronium bromide, or who's pulling dummy levers for the gas chamber or electric chair.  Even more elaborate is the commissioning of software to randomise the choice of which lever actually starts the mechanism.  Some states mandate that the requisition must be done in such a way that the programmers don't know they are writing code that will launch, say, a gas chamber as opposed to a watering system, lending new significance to the term "vaporware."  Mississippi isn't big on these anonymising niceties, so Hocutt and Cabana are left with a pretty clear idea of what they do for a living.  The knowledge is particularly hard on Cabana, with his tendency to befriend death row prisoners for the months if not years it takes the legal system to approve their executions.

While Solotaroff usually quotes out of his depth, fecklessly invoking the likes of Camus, Yeats, Christ and Sophocles, he does luck out with Cabana's Shakespearian illustration of his own guilt:

"You got me thinking about Edward Earl again, the night he was asphyxiated [Cabana tells Solotaroff].  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's arms tighten on his chest and he starts rocking.  "It hasn't come off me yet."

A hygiene OCD worthy of Lady Macbeth is just the first of Cabana's guilt-induced maladies.  Tormented particularly by lingering questions about Edward Earl Johnson's guilt and the execution-hour absolution offered by Connie Ray Evans, Cabana ultimately suffers three massive coronaries, capped by a quadruple bypass.  Prior to an earlier operation, terrified he won't live through it, Cabana begs a priest to absolve him of responsibility for the executions.  The priest demurs.

Yet both Donalds are curiously obtuse about the cause of their own suffering.  Hocutt predictably answers questions about his guilt with bravado and denial; even as he prepares to file for his medical discharge and calls in to refill his antidepressant prescription he disavows regret for a single execution.  Even the more introspective Cabana seems in a fog when it comes to self-examination.  "I'm an innocent man," Cabana insists moments after he recounts begging the priest to absolve him.  "There's no guilt breaking my heart."

Non-medical questions of the heart, alongside those concerning less exalted organs of human feeling, are Solotaroff's most compelling subjects.  Everyone knows of the erotic allure of the condemned murderer; without it Gary Gilmore could hardly have become Norman Mailer's hero, and Richard Ramirez would not have gotten such a prodigious volume of perfumed mail.  But who, outside the sadomasochistic community, knew that the executioner had similar charms?

Donald Hocutt, that's who - and it's not only the author's fascination with his "big gun" that Hocutt has to contend with.  "Ever since Jimmy Lee Gray," says the corpulent, unwell corrections officer, "people have been wanting to touch me."

An argument could be made that Hocutt's allure has to do less with sexual desire than with a pure fascination with mortality in general and murderers in particular, with the death-defying thrill of touching a professional killer and living to tell the tale.  The relationship between the executioner and the condemned, however, is fraught with an undeniable and undeniably yucky intimacy.

"In execution rites of the Middle Ages, the condemned were expected not only to forgive the executioner but at times to physically embrace him," Solotaroff writes.  "Execution was punishment but also a kind of marriage; two humans joined under a bond that both understood and transcended the actions they were about to take."

This 'til-death-do-us-part bond is Cabana's nobility and his Achilles heel.  He ministers to the condemned, he befriends them, he prepares them for their deaths, he kills them and then - whatever anyone may say about what's responsible for his weak ticker - he dies a little.

The epitome of the nuptial execution comes with the killing of Connie Ray Evans, condemned in 1981 for the murder of a convenience store worker during a robbery.  "I'm killing a friend of mine tonight," Cabana reflects as Evans is strapped into the gas chamber.  Solotaroff writes, "In the classic image, he knew, a part of the executioner dies with his prisoner.  Now it was palpable.  Cabana felt a part of his life slip away."

It should not surprise us that a man cursed with Cabana's sensitivities would form such a bond with his doomed prisoners.  But the depth of feeling between Cabana and Evans is, amid all the blood and guts and torture and self-torment, the dramatic heart of the book.

When asked if he has any final words, Evans asks to say them privately to Cabana.  With great symbolic effect, he summons the executioner into the gas chamber.  "I love you," Evans tells Cabana.  Minutes later, just prior to giving the order to release the poison gas and begin Evans' 15-minute final ordeal, Cabana mouths his reply: "I love you, too."

What could it mean for a condemned man to love his executioner, and for that love to be reciprocated?  The possible explanations for such a bond go beyond the pop-psych associations of sex and death to include the vastly more perverse strain of parental feeling.  Parents feed, house, clothe and counsel their children to prepare them for adult life; Cabana and executioners like him feed, house, clothe and counsel their inmates to prepare them for the next life.  How could they not bond?

Solotaroff illustrates the parental strain of the executioner's psychology with a passage in which Cabana's and Hocutt's predecessors clean the body of their first gas chamber kill after years of using the electric chair: "Compared to the disfigured bodies that emerged from the electric chair," Solotaroff writes, "it was like washing a newborn."

But the love that blooms on death row may grow most significantly from the curious reversal that happens in the process of execution: In dispatching a murderer, the executioner becomes one.  Simultaneously, the original murderer becomes a victim.  One murderer is lawless, the other lawful, but the executioner, in all likelihood lacking a criminal's cold-blooded conscience, may undergo a more severe form of guilt.  He may feel more a murderer than the condemned does.

Even the most callow executioner winds up bearing a burden that belongs, originally, to those who order the executions in the first place, namely the residents of death penalty states.  That's why we hire him.  The victims' rights crowd crows that they would gladly pull the lever themselves, and it's true that every job opening in the capital punishment industry brings on a cascade of applications.  But the reality of the job, the weight of a society's outsourced vengeance, blood lust and guilt, breaks men in half.

It follows from this that the death-row love bond may arise from the executioner's and condemned's sense of being on the same side of a destructive force beyond their control or comprehension, one that is bearing down on both of them and stripping away their lives.  A crime has been committed; a life or lives have been taken, and society calls out for justice and revenge.  Whether they know it or not when they apply for the job, the executioners as much as the condemned wind up our collective sacrifices.

Paul Festa is the author of and a frequent Salon contributor

Source: 4 December 2001

The Burden of Execution

by Tom Lowenstein

The Last Face You'll Ever See: The Private Life of the American Death Penalty by Ivan Solotaroff, HarperCollins, 232 pages

Legal Lynching: The Death Penalty and America's Future by Jesse L Jackson, Sr; Jesse L Jackson, Jr; and Bruce Shapiro, New Press, 174 pages

Ivan Solotaroff states early on in The Last Face You'll Ever See that he is agnostic on the subject of the death penalty.  His book, he writes, will make no attempt to answer the question of whether the death penalty is moral or not; he instead will focus on "the motive of capital punishment."  He asks: "Is an execution a rational mechanism - that is, a tool of deterrence, punishment, or jurisprudence... ?  Or is it something altogether different - an expression of an irrational urge far more subterranean than the will to justice?"

In posing such a question, Solotaroff has put his finger on one of the most important moral quandaries in the debate.  Yet he wants his readers to know that he didn't write the book to persuade them one way or the other.  And for the most part, he pulls it off.  His agnosticism is apparent throughout; he is always a reporter, always presenting facts as straightforwardly as possible, without judgment.  But as I read, I was reminded of books about war that are seen to be antiwar - All Quiet on the Western Front, for example.  What writer who understands combat well enough to write about it escapes without some tinge of antiwar outrage?

Solotaroff, a magazine journalist and the author of a book of essays, provides a brief and intelligent narration of the recent legal history of the death penalty, going back to the 1970s.  He introduces us to M Watt Espy, who runs the "unfunded, unaffiliated, one-man attempt to collect every available fact about the American death penalty" known as the Capital Punishment Research Project out of his wood-frame house in Headland, Alabama.  Espy, at the time of Last Face's publication, had chronicled the details of 18,812 executions by "hanging, shooting, electrocution, gassing, lethal injection, burning, beheading, entombment, gibbeting, breaking on the wheel, boiling in oil, roasting, drowning," and other means, and can recite from memory dozens of examples of botched executions and the condemned's last words.  The conversation with Espy, who comes off as having more a sense of academic detachment than a bent for thrill seeking, nevertheless does much to remind the reader of the strange subculture that has sprung up around murderers in our country.

But this is primarily the story of two executioners, Colonel Donald Hocutt and former warden Donald Cabana.  Both served for years at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and participated in several executions.  Hocutt's life is traced from when he was a small boy, riding by the penitentiary on a train, to his time inside (including a description of a drunken brawl he instigated as a guard at Parchman that came perilously close to ending in just the kind of murder that puts people on death row).  Cabana - whose own book, Death at Midnight: The Confession of an Executioner, is an eloquent, openly anti-death-penalty work - spent years in corrections before becoming warden at Parchman in 1984.

On the cover of The Last Face You'll Ever See, Hocutt stands in a white prison-guard's uniform, scowling, with his huge arms folded, at the door of a gas chamber.  His face looks young, perhaps fortyish, but his hair is white.  It's hard to read the scowl on his face: he seems a little defiant, angry, determined; there's even a bit of "look what you made me do," but without any trace of remorse.  He resembles the death penalty in America today - haggard, unhealthy, but still doing a job.  Or more accurately: like the death penalty, he looks like whatever you want to see.

Hocutt worked at Parchman for 20 years before retiring in 1995.  By way of introduction, we're told that Hocutt is "easily 300 pounds, with thick, baby-face features that cloud over dramatically when he concentrates or falls into one of his moods."  He experiences a "weird 'crackling' that comes into his head every time he's in [Parchman] now," he drives too fast, he carries a .45 loaded with hollow-point bullets (he doesn't want to die, he says, trying to get his gun loaded), and he suffers from "gout, maturity-onset diabetes, diverticulitis, arthritis in his upper body, [and] partial deafness in one ear," Solotaroff reports.  "His mind hasn't been right for years.  Depressions steal over him, and for weeks he finds it almost impossible to get out of bed...  At the slightest provocation, he falls into rages."  State-sponsored killing, we see, takes its toll, even on tough men like Hocutt.

Solotaroff's ability to bring to life the guards who work at the Parchman penitentiary as well as the men imprisoned there gives the executions he describes a harrowing power.  We are meant to understand why the executioners chose this work; while that might not be possible, it is as if we are in the room with them as they do it.  Hocutt tells of the 1983 gassing of Jimmy Lee Gray for the 1976 rape and murder of 3-year-old Deressa Jean Scales.  The execution went horribly wrong (there were even rumours that Thomas Bruce, who oversaw it, was drunk at the time).  Gray was finally pronounced dead after 47 minutes, having foamed at the mouth and beaten his head violently against a metal pole just behind the chair.

Hocutt remembers stopping afterward for a hamburger at a nearby McDonald's and listening to people talk about the Gray execution.  "To call what he had done 12 hours earlier a job," Solotaroff writes, "was absurd.  That had nothing to do with employment.  To say it was 'the law' either evaded the truth or missed the point altogether.  What he had done was the right thing to do.  And it wasn't some abstract will of the people that he'd carried out.  It was the will of the people in that McDonald's."

We see, as well, Cabana visiting with condemned inmate Edward Earl Johnson before Johnson's execution in 1987.  When Cabana asked if Johnson wanted a last-minute injection of Valium before going to his death, Johnson "blinked slowly, like a curtain coming down," and responded: "I want a clear mind when you walk me in there...  Will you be needing one for yourself?  I want you to know exactly what you're doing when you execute me.  I want you to remember every last detail, because I'm innocent, Mr Cabana.  I'm innocent."

Later that year, Connie Ray Evans was strapped into the chair in the gas chamber and asked if he had any last words.  He replied that he did, but only for Warden Cabana.  Cabana stepped back into the chamber and Evans said to him: "From one Christian to another, I love you.  You can bet I'm going to tell the Man how good you are."

"In the classic image," Solotaroff writes, "a part of the executioner dies with his prisoner.  Now it was palpable. Cabana felt a part of his life slip away."

People often say that they'd volunteer to be executioner, and one of the most chilling aspects of Solotaroff's book is the difference in attitude between the men who actually participate in executions and the prosecutors who seek them.  In one scene, two Mississippi prosecutors discuss the death penalty.  They say a lot of things that death penalty advocates say, such as how they'd have no trouble pulling the switch themselves.  "I'd pull the switch and eat spaghetti.  Bzzzzzzzzz," one of them remarks.

In the end, Solotaroff, the agnostic, comes to a conclusion: "We execute to exert power over what horrifies us most supremely," he tells us.  "And we execute imperfectly - randomly, cruelly, unusually - because murder itself seems exactly so to civilised eyes."  Recent Harris Poll results showed that 94% of Americans believe that innocent people are sometimes convicted of murder and that 67% support the death penalty nonetheless.  That support, along with the staggering randomness of executions - fewer than 100 a year in a society that suffers 16,000 homicides annually - gives credence to Solotaroff's conclusion.

That the Reverend Jesse L Jackson and his son, Illinois Congressman Jesse L Jackson, Jr, are anything but agnostic on the death penalty is evident at once from the title of the book they've written with Bruce Shapiro: Legal Lynching.  The authors wish this book to be a "tool for all Americans engaged in the new debate over the death penalty."  Indeed, it reads like a strong, comprehensive speech about how the death penalty debate has changed in the last four years.  Each chapter tackles a different facet of the argument - from "A Question of Innocence" to "Deadly Numbers: Race and the Geography of Execution" to "Sleeping Lawyer Syndrome and Other Tales of Justice for the Poor."  The book provides both important historical context and a summary of the latest information on the topic.  The text of Representative Jackson's National Death Penalty Moratorium Act of 2001 is included at the end.

The Reverend Jackson's preface takes us to the center of one of the more troubling executions of the last decade, that of Gary Graham in June of 2000.  Graham, as Jackson points out, was 17 at the time of the murder for which he was convicted, was identified by only one witness (there was no corroborating physical evidence), and had a "low-rent" trial lawyer.  Jackson spent an hour with Graham on his final day and was a witness to the execution.  In urging his readers to find the courage to "stand with those on death row," Jackson acknowledges his own moments of uncertainty "when the violence of which individuals are capable seems overwhelming."  This acknowledgment, rare among the most committed activists in the anti-death-penalty movement, is a vital part of the message of the book - because it is a vital part of the national ambivalence about the death penalty.  As chapter after chapter unfolds, outlining the history of the death penalty and the myriad problems with the system as it exists today, the reader can't help thinking back to the preface and hoping that Jackson is correct when, echoing Dr Martin Luther King, he argues that there isn't any reason to believe that the death penalty is immune to the same "long arc of education, activism, and reform" that ended apartheid in South Africa.

Legal Lynching includes some sloppy errors (for example, Oklahoma City bombing victim Julie Marie Welch is called Jennifer here).  But its passion and its detailed arguments make the book important.  We are in a time when random murderous violence can seem overwhelming, a time of heightened anger against that which "horrifies us most supremely."  Almost certainly, this will make moral arguments against the death penalty more difficult.  Still, Legal Lynching makes a strong case that the American system of capital punishment is too gravely flawed to be morally acceptable.

Copyright © 2001 by The American Prospect, Incorporated. Preferred Citation: Tom Lowenstein, "The Burden of Execution," The American Prospect volume 12 number 21, 3 December 2001

Source: Vol 12 Issue 21 3 December 2001 via

I acknowledge that there appear to be people who don't discernibly benefit the human race in any way - people it seems everyone would be better off without.

In our bodies, at a cellular level, there are constantly cells which arrive at the point where they are no longer useful, and they then commit suicide - a natural process called apoptosis.  If a cell should commit suicide but for some reason doesn't, then the "cell police" (lymphocytes) go after it, hunt it down, and kill it.  If apoptosis didn't occur, our bodies would bloat and cease to properly function.  We would soon die.

Okay - I see where some death is good.  I believe life has a fractal nature.  Presumably in a perfect world it would become apparent when there are people who are no longer useful or necessary.  In theory, those who are executed could be among them.  My problem with capital punishment is that too many mistakes are made.  I don't want the responsibility for forcing another person's death (the human equivalent of a lymphocyte) and I question whether anyone should.

However, if a prisoner confesses guilt and expresses a desire to die, I have no objection.  But in that case I think that his/her death should be made pleasant - I see no reason why death must be accompanied by any pain, fear, or humiliation (this includes the deaths of all animals which become human food, too).

Likewise, when a person concludes on his/her own that life has become superfluous - and I presume he or she would know the same way cells seem to know - when all communication is cut off - then he/she should be able to undergo an apoptosis-like procedure whereby death was effected in a pleasant and painless (even pleasurable) manner (like in the movie Soylent Green).  It amazes me when I meet someone who is for capital punishment but against doctor-assisted suicide.

Good at Killing

The Master Executioner by Loren D Estleman, Forge, 270 pages

Hauntingly poignant despite its reserved protagonist and morbid subject matter, The Master Executioner follows Oscar Stone, a professional hangman, as he dispenses justice to axe murderers and army deserters - miscreants and ne'er-do-wells with something missing "who should be no more despised for this misfortune than a man with one leg or an infant with its heart on the wrong side.  It was Stone's job, once the man was judged and sentenced, to remove him as an inconvenience to both society and himself."  In his 18th western novel, Loren Estleman plumbs the question of what might attract a thoughtful carpenter fresh from the horrors of the American civil war to such a grisly occupation.

And at a cost, for Stone's calling drives his lovely young wife to flee in revulsion.  But Stone is driven to exploit a gift that marries professionalism with mercy.  A botched hanging that fails to snap the neck cleanly is cruel and unusual punishment indeed: too short a drop can strangle the prisoner; too long, take his head off.

The reader samples both grim fates in detail, for Mr Estleman has done impeccable homework on the finer points of what Stone would regard as a lost art.  Indeed, Stone's idea of real barbarity is the newfangled electric chair, which singes the flesh, shoots flames out the ears, and loosens the bowels to create "an indescribable stench".  More, "there was no more science in the thing than scalding a hog. Any fool could throw a switch."

Mr Estleman's prose is pithy, his dialogue tangy ("A man needs a wife, and if he don't have that he needs work.  God invented liquor for men that didn't have either.")  Even walk-ons, many of whom walk right off, thanks to Stone's ministrations, engender a distinctive pathos, though often guilty of harrowing crimes.  Mr Estleman skilfully shows that "genre" books are no more implicitly formulaic than literary novels, which follow rough rules as well.  The Master Executioner is no didactic tract on the death penalty, yet it implicitly questions whether the arrival of civilisation in the American west reduced violence or just made it more orderly.  On an intimate personal level, Mr Estleman movingly conveys the brutalising effects of killing for the law, even when you are terribly good at it.

Source: The Economist 4 August 2001

Not So Good at Killing?

Perspective: ACLU Pulls Ohio into Debate over Executioners' ID

by Julie Carr Smyth

Columbus, Ohio - Ohio has found itself in the crosshairs of the latest national debate over the death penalty: Should executioners' identities be protected?  The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio begged the question with a wide-ranging request for state records seeking information on the 24 May execution of an inmate whose veins took 90 minutes to find and whose death came a record-setting 16 minutes after the toxic drugs began to flow.  Among other things, the ACLU asked for the names of Christopher Newton's execution team - a group of volunteer medics and guards whose identities are routinely shielded by the state.

Though the hooded executioner is so common as to be iconic, the ACLU and other death penalty opponents say they have new cause for seeking complete information on the people carrying out state-sanctioned deaths by injection.  They point to the case of Dr Alan Doerhoff, a participant in Missouri's execution process who was revealed in press reports to have been sued for malpractice more than 20 times.  They also point to the December execution of Angel Diaz in Florida.  An autopsy found the needles were pushed through Diaz's veins into the flesh of his arms, possibly limiting the effectiveness of the drugs.  A commission created afterward to study the incident called for more training and better protocols for executioners.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes the death penalty, said the public can't properly scrutinise the effectiveness of capital punishment without adequate information on those carrying it out.  "Public executions should be as public as possible," he said. "They supposedly have nothing to hide, and as with anything government does, it benefits from more scrutiny.  For medical personnel, yes, there may be a cost.  But that's sort of like the cost that the state, or all of us, bear."

Nonsense, said Michael Rushford, president of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, California.  "The ACLU, which has staked out its turf as severely against the death penalty, will use this opportunity to out someone involved in an execution, and use it to put these people at risk," he said.  "Unfortunately, that's how important their cause is to them."  Rushford said the American Medical Association has threatened to sanction doctors who assist in executions - because it is a violation of their oath to "first, do no harm."  So the push by death penalty opponents to make executioners' names public, under the auspices of wanting to review their professional credentials, is meant to shrink the pool of willing volunteers and diminish the state's ability to execute criminals.

"They (the ACLU) were against the gas chamber 30 years ago - they said there was only one humane alternative and that would be lethal injection," he said.  "Now they're setting up this Catch-22, saying only a doctor can do that, and knowing the doctor's association won't let them do it."

Executions in North Carolina have been temporarily halted after running into just such a hitch.  State law that had simply required that a doctor be present during executions was taken further by a federal judge, who said the doctor needed to actively monitor the inmate for pain.  Doctors faced disciplinary action by the state medical board for doing so, however, so the process is in limbo.  Missouri and California are caught up in similar legal battles over whether their states can be forced to involve doctors in executions who are prohibited by their profession's code of conduct from facilitating a death.  Though doctors do not currently participate in Ohio's execution process, their role could also become an issue in the court battle also raging in this state.

Despite the obstacles they've faced, most states still balk at revealing the members of execution teams.  Most notably, Missouri lawmakers passed a bill May 21 protecting the executioners' anonymity and allowing them to sue anyone - including a news organisation - who discloses their identity.  The Missouri prisons director has said the state welcomes public scrutiny of its lethal injection protocol and the education and work history of its execution team - just not the names and addresses of participants.  Doerhoff's services are no longer being used.

Dieter said he believes protecting the identity of executioners helps √¶nesthetise the public to what takes place in the Death House.  "There is this distance that we want with the process," he said.  "That's why lethal injection came about, sort of to give a more medicinal, antiseptic feel to it.  Now it's backfired in that it's not working well."

But Rushford said executioners have a job that will naturally subject them to attacks and deserve to be protected by government.  "The state should certainly monitor their background and training, but these people should be no more subject to ridicule than an abortion doctor who's simply doing his job," Rushford said.  "The law should come down hard on anyone who uses someone's legal profession to raise harm against them.  It should be a hate crime."

Source: Associated Press 4 June 2007

Executioner: A Tough Job, but Somebody Has to Do It

Here he looks in my direction; I see his face and understand everything.

From The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

by Sergey Stefanov

"He Beheaded 200 Criminals..." is the title of an article published by Spanish El Mundo.  Meyssonnier praises the invention by monsieur Joseph Guillotin.  He himself, already suffering from liver cancer, isn't afraid of death.  "Everything happened very quickly.  Just three seconds separated the base of the guillotine from the blade raised above it.  However, an hour of suspense and strained, pressing silence were unbearable.  And when the blade dropped, I gave a shout.  Then blood gushed out of the wound, and several streamlets ran from the carotid artery.  I don't mean that these are things men can get used to; however, when you know what your objective is, you concentrate on the job only."  He felt no remorse.

The first execution Fernand Meyssonnier saw is his most vivid recollection.  When he was sixteen, his father was the chief executioner in Algeria, who beheaded 300 criminals within 30 years (1928 - 1958).  His son was a good successor: he beheaded no less than 200 people.  Meyssonnier the son happened to work mostly in the time when Algeria's people rebelled and started a national liberation struggle against the French colonialism.  He himself was a so-called pieds-noirs, an Algerian of French origin.  Meyssonnier reached the age of 72.  El Mundo doesn't describe him as a sadist or a bloodthirsty murderer; on the contrary, the executioner is described as an opera and ballet lover; it is said he was a strong champion of justice, a resourceful businessman, and the founder of a museum.  And what is strange, he had a humane attitude toward people.

Fernand Meyssonnier described his life in a book entitled Paroles de Bourreau.  He said he preferred the job of an executioner because of the privileges it provided: status in the society, body guards, paid vacations, friendship with important figures, et cetera.  On the whole, executioners never were hard up; Meyssonnier the father owned a restaurant, which brought in a good income good for the family.

Fernand Meyssonnier tells about the attitude he originally felt to the job of an executioner: "It is like a life-long subsidy granted in exchange for some definite services, which meant the execution of two or three men per year on average."  He says he felt no pleasure in the job, but strongly believed in the necessity of punishment.  "I executed a sentence, but no matter how guilty the sentenced was, I never felt hatred against him.  At the same time, I never demonstrated weakness, because I thought about his victims whom he probably tortured and about their relatives.  I am proud I was a punitive instrument of justice."  However, the executioner says he sometimes acted in his own way: "When several communists were sentenced to death for posting leaflets in the streets, I couldn't execute the punishment.  I said I was unwell and stayed home."

Even justice commits errors, and Fernand Meyssonnier was perfectly sure that it was much better to save the lives of 99 criminals than execute one innocent man.  The executioner says that the mentality of people has changed; they have become more advanced and sensitive, and for this very reason, many countries gave up the death sentence.  "I always knew whom I executed and for what crime.  And if the government entrusts us with this hard and sad duty, it means that we are considered just, honest, and not spiteful toward anyone."  However, El Mundo wrote: "Meyssonnier the son describes the ritual of execution so vividly that it gives shivers to readers."  At the same time, both the father and the son always stuck to one principle: they executed their job as quick and neatly as possible to alleviate the suffering of the sentenced.

By the age of 72, Fernand Meyssonnier already suffered from liver cancer and said at that, "Ha-ha!  May I, the man who beheaded 200 criminals, be afraid of death?  This would be absurd."

Source: written 3 October 2002, translated by Maria Gousseva 16 May 2003

For more articles on capital punishment, see also these pages found elsewhere in this section on prisons:

bulletDying Marv - For US$24 (NZ$56), batteries not included, American children, recommended age 13 and over, can experience the horrors of the death chamber in the role of executioner...
bulletMethods of Capital Punishment - How long is the interval of consciousness after the head is severed?  In France, in the days of the guillotine, some of the condemned were asked to blink their eyes if they were still conscious after the knife fell.  Reportedly, their heads blinked for up to 30 seconds after decapitation...
bulletAs Condemned Await Fate - Most are cooperative.  Gary Graham was not.  Graham's claims of innocence and an unfair trial became an issue in the presidential campaign of then-Governor George W Bush.  Corrections officers, working as an "extraction team," hit him with pepper spray, burning his eyes and lowering his defenses.  Less than a minute later, a tiedown team secured him to the gurney.  Immobilised, Graham seethed and waited to unleash a diatribe as witnesses filed into the two closet-sized viewing rooms...
bulletCountries Take Different Approaches to Executions - Amnesty International says Saudi Arabia carried out at least 123 executions last year, making it second only to China - which has almost 100 times more people.  Most were beheaded.  Bodies of those convicted of particularly gruesome crimes are crucified following decapitation, Amnesty says...
bulletDeath Penalty and Race - Death penalty statistics shine an ugly spotlight on racial justice in the City of Brotherly Love.  Philadelphia's death row of 135 men and women is larger than that of 42 states - 90% of Philadelphia's death row are racial or ethnic minorities.  During one recent period in the mid 1990s, 40 of 41 defendants sent to death row by Philadelphia juries (97.6%) were black or Latino...

For articles on white collar and petty crimes, injustice, capital punishment, race, executioners, freedom of the press, cheating, private prisons, punishment, retribution, prison labour, appeals, instant justice, electronic tags, lepers and second chances click the "Up" button below to take you to the Index for this Prisons section.

Back Home Up Next