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Modern Day Executioners

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I am against the death penalty. Feel free to tell me all of the reasons why I’m wrong. I encourage open discussion. First, though, you should know that I’ve read all of the arguments, facts, statistics and convoluted reasons both for and against. I’ve even written to an admitted murderer who sits on death row, one who plead guilty and (initially) asked for the death penalty, in order to get a personal view from the inside. I’m comfortable where I stand and I stand firmly in this spot.

But my point today is not to discuss the merits for and against the death penalty. I want to talk about the people whose job it is to carry out this government-sanctioned murder - the executioners.

An October 2011 issue of Newsweek had an article on professional executioners. These are people the majority of us never think about. The trial is over, the killer sentenced. The media moves on and so do we. Years, often decades, later, the sentence is carried out by a nameless, faceless person. We get a blip on the news. We might remember who that killer is, though chances are high many of us will not. That person is put to death, as if by the wave of a government magic wand.

You might be surprised to learn that many whose job it is to execute a death row inmate do not believe in the death penalty.

What would it feel like to be forced to kill another person as part of your job? In essence, you are a paid assassin. As you read this, your first instinct might be to say you’re doing the country a service, the inmate deserves to die. And, if that’s your stance, perhaps you are the right person for the job. But before you move on, sure of your position, really think about it. You’re killing another human being; one who might have committed one rash act two decades ago. One whose guilt you might not be convinced of. Are you positive that would not negatively affect you?

Newsweek introduced a few executioners, whose perspective I think is important to consider. We need to think about what we are asking these people to do; what we are asking them to live with.

Jerry Givens is a 59-year-old man, whose job for 17 years was to execute death row inmates in Virginia. During that time, Givens put 62 men to death. In all 62 of those cases, the official death certificate reads ‘HOMICIDE’.

Givens states, “I had to transform myself into a person who would take a life.” That’s a profound position to find yourself in. He also states, “The person that carries out the execution itself is stuck with it the rest of his life. He has to wear that burden. Who would want that on them?”

Indeed.

Another person interviewed by Newsweek was Jeanne Woodford, who spent much of her career as warden of San Quentin prison in California. In 2004, shortly after her appointment as director of all California prisons, she resigned. Her reason? “I knew I couldn’t carry out another execution,” she said. “I knew I just couldn’t do it.”

From the start of her career, Woodford opposed the death penalty. Her words struck me deep: “...it never made sense to me that we would believe killing a human being would make up for killing a human being.”

Her position against the death penalty was not only personal. As a prison warden, Woodford concluded that capital punishment made no fiscal sense. She calculated that her state spent $4 billion to execute 13 inmates between 1992 and 2006. That is roughly $308 million per execution. 

Studies - and numbers - prove that keeping a prisoner on death row, and eventually executing that prisoner, is far more expensive than keeping that same person in prison for life. As of 2009, the cost of prosecuting death penalty cases cost an average of $184 million more each year than it would cost to give these same prisoners life without parole. Woodford believes that extra money would be better spent on hiring more cops. In California alone, half of all murders go unsolved. We simply do not have enough manpower to do the job.

Jeanne Woodford, a career employee within our prison system, a warden, and, at times an executioner, believes that, “The death penalty shouldn’t exist at all.”

Allen Ault was the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections from 1992 until 1995. During those short years, Ault oversaw five executions.

Ault states that he left his job in part because he did not want to supervise more executions. Two quotes of his, included in that Newsweek article, require no further comment from me:

“Having witnessed executions firsthand, I have no doubts; capital punishment is a very scripted and rehearsed murder. It’s the most premeditated murder possible.”

“The United States should be like every other civilized country in the Western world and abolish the death penalty.”

The death penalty remains legal in 36 U.S. states. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, between 1973 and 2010, 138 death row inmates were exonerated. That is 138 innocent people who, without intervention from an independent organization, would have been put to death. As I said, my point is not to argue the merits of the death penalty itself. We have to remember we have no robots that ultimately kill these inmates. The sentences are carried out by men and women, not much different from you and me. Are we asking too much from them?