In the waning hours of protests against the execution on Troy Davis by the state of Georgia last Wednesday, one action drew particular notice: a group of six former wardens and correctional officials pleading for clemency and suggesting that prison staffers be allowed to refuse to take part in the death process.
"While most of the prisoners whose executions we participated in accepted responsibility for the crimes for which they were punished,” the wardens’ statement read, “some of us have also executed prisoners who maintained their innocence until the end. It is those cases that are most haunting to an executioner….
“Living with the nightmares is something that we know from experience. No one has the right to ask a public servant to take on a lifelong sentence of nagging doubt, and for some of us, shame and guilt. Should our justice system be causing so much harm to so many people when there is an alternative?”
This public statement was quite unusual for such officials—even in retirement—as I’ve learned in many years of researching capital punishment. (My new e-book on the subject, Dead Reckoning, was published this weekend.) Occasionally, an official will voice callous views or, even more rarely, refuse to take part in the process, but generally they explain that they derive no pleasure from planning to put someone to death, and are intent only on making the process tolerable for everyone involved, including the inmate.
It’s a long way from the days, not so long ago, when many executioners expressed a certain pride, even pleasure, in their profession. Half a century ago, Camus reported that an assistant executioner in France referred to colleagues’ allowing themselves “the fun” of pulling the hair of the condemned man on the guillotine—it was unclear whether the heads were still attached to necks at the time. The same fellow spoke of a chief executioner who was “batty about the guillotine. He sometimes spends days on end at home sitting on a chair, ready with hat and coat on, waiting for a summons from the Ministry.”
When the legendary executioner Albert Pierrepoint was called to testify before a British commission on capital punishment in 1950 he took a somewhat different approach, but still stood proud. Asked if people often asked him about his official duties, Pierropoint replied: “Yes, but I refuse to speak about it. It is something I think should be secret…. It is sacred to me, really.” (Later, in his memoirs, he came out against capital punishment.)