Executioners : Secrecy Shrouds Disquieting Duty

Associated Press

In the nation’s prisons, some mornings are more to be dreaded than others. Those mornings, the death clock ticks, and the ritual of public execution drag-steps forward.

The nearly 1,650 condemned men and women on Death Rows in America await a rendezvous with unsmiling, duty-bound citizens who have volunteered to take their lives.

That anonymous someone will throw the switch that unleashes the jolt of electricity, will push the plunger of the syringe that sends the poison racing toward the heart, will lower by lever the cyanide crystals into the acid to produce the gas, will stand shoulder to shoulder with other riflemen and pull the trigger.

Anonymity shrouds the executioners. They do their work in secret chambers, behind drawn curtains.


In Florida, the executioner is a hooded stranger, picked up at roadside in the dead of night. In Nevada, the execution team is drawn from distant parts of the prison. The first time the condemned sees them is the last.

Preparations are meticulous. In Florida, the team’s rehearsals require that a volunteer, roughly the same size as the condemned, be strapped in the electric chair. At San Quentin in California, the executioners rehearse several times a year, although they have not executed anyone since 1967. In Idaho, the six-man firing squad is drawn from a list of 40 state police volunteers. They practice the procedure once a year. They have not killed since 1957.

The California Supreme Court in striking down the death penalty in 1972 said: “We have concluded that capital punishment is impermissibly cruel. It degrades and dehumanizes all who participate in its processes. . . .”

Nonetheless, polls show that most people in this country favor capital punishment.

Mostly the executioners are law enforcement people. Some never touch the person they kill. Some never see anything more than a hooded target in a chair. Some share the last thoughts of the condemned. Some must confront the desperate eyes, seeing for the last time.

Each carries dark memories away from the death chamber, things like the jerk of the body, the cough as the gas enters the lungs.

Legality does not always free the conscience. Many of those in the execution ritual need time to forget. One man putters around the house, one sees the execution again in a dream, one seeks relief in drink. In Idaho, the firing squad is sequestered with a psychologist for 24 hours after the execution.

Said one Nevada prison official: “You shouldn’t do it if it’s going to bother you. . . . I’m a very compassionate man, but it does not bother me to execute somebody. I don’t look forward to it. But it’s a job. So I do it in a businesslike way.”

The execution teams have devised rituals to make the job easier, to divide the responsibility into smaller pieces, to distance themselves from the condemned.

Simple on the streets, killing in the hands of society is a complicated act. The aim is to provide death with some dignity as quickly and as painlessly as possible. In many cases, the executioner is dealing with people who are better at killing than he is. In Texas, prisoners behind bars killed 27 times last year, while the state of Texas executed only six.

The U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down most state statutes in 1972 because they permitted too much discretion in dealing out death, clarified guidelines for capital punishment in 1976. States began revising their laws. Gary Gilmore was the first to be executed--in Utah, by firing squad--under newly written legislation on Jan. 17, 1977. Fifty have been executed since then.

For all, the way station between Death Row and death chamber is called variously Death Watch or Segregation or Last Night Cell.

The two most active means of execution are electrocution and lethal injection. Each ritual, some invented decades ago, says something of how the executioners cope with the death work that most citizens cannot bear even to watch.

In Florida, one of 16 states that electrocutes, the condemned inmate is removed to Death Watch about 30 days before execution, two segregated cells down the hall from the big old oak chair with brown straps lying lank across its sturdy arms and burnished seat.

Well before, Maxie Reddish, the deputy supervisor of maintenance for the Florida State Penitentiary at Starke, will fill a galvanized laundry tub about three quarters full with water. It mimics the electrical resistance of the human body. He then places the electrical leads into the tub and throws a switch. The water begins to move between the active lead and the ground. It almost boils.

The governor sets the week of execution. Supt. Richard Dugger, the warden, sets the day and hour. The inmate is informed, the guard force increased. A week before execution, a corrections officer is stationed at the cell door to provide what the inmate needs--a cigarette, a library book, a phone call, a visit with his minister.

But, most of all, he is there to prevent the inmate from using drugs or taking his own life. Society insists that the prisoner face his punishment aware, alive.

The person in direct control of the inmate at this point is Deputy Supt. Hamilton Mathis Jr., a lean, calm man of 38, a veteran of 13 years of prison work. He is Dugger’s right hand.

“There aren’t any secrets kept from the inmate, none,” Mathis said. “I personally don’t like surprises. I don’t think many people do. When it appears to me that all avenues to the court have been exhausted, I’ll go myself to the inmate, ask the officer to leave, and we’ll have a conversation. I’ll tell him detail by detail, second by second, minute by minute, what will happen over the next matter of hours.”

On the last day, the inmate is allowed final visits.

Mathis begins the execution day early. The task ahead, to him, is merely an added duty.

“I treat it as I do any job that has to be done,” Mathis said. “I treat it like a portion of a workday. It’s on my appointment calendar. Execution.”

About 6 p.m., he goes home for dinner with his family. He plays with his two young boys, ages 2 and 4.

“I try to catch a few winks if I can. Usually I can’t sleep. Then I’ll come back around 4:30 a.m., check on all the procedures going through my mind . . . exacting detail . . . better for the inmate, better for the staff and witnesses.”

Meanwhile, the final character in the drama enters. The warden selects him from an unwritten list in his memory. If the names were written down, the brief list would become a public document under Florida law and no longer secret.

The man is telephoned and a pick-up place is agreed upon, usually in the pre-dawn hours.

A prison van, driven by a lieutenant, goes to the the rendezvous point, “and not by the straightest route either,” Mathis said. “It’s like going to Jacksonville via Alabama to get there.”

The driver parks at the designated place and a man gets into the rear of the van, where he dons a black hood and robe for the silent drive to the prison. The driver knows his face but not his name. Dugger knows his name but never sees his face.

Prison officers were accused of maltreating John Spenkelink when Florida reinstituted electrocutions in 1979. So, from 1 a.m. on, an impartial witness is present.

In the small hours of the morning, the condemned inmate eats his last meal that he ordered the day before--anything that can be obtained locally and prepared in the prison kitchen. One man ordered oysters because he had never tasted them before.

About 5:30 a.m., Mathis and other officers go to Q Wing, the site of Death Watch. They bring a suit, towels, shoes and shaving apparatus. In front of the cell, they shave the inmate’s head and the back calf of his right leg. The inmate showers, puts on clean clothes and is left to meditate, smoke a cigarette. Warden Dugger joins him.

“They talk about whatever is on the inmate’s mind,” Mathis said. “I wouldn’t put it in the form of a confessional, but it might be if that is what he needs.”

A few minutes before the execution, Mathis and his team escort the inmate the few steps to the execution chamber. He is strapped firmly to the oak chair and Mathis attaches the leg cuff to the bare right calf. Dugger asks if there are any last words. Forty witnesses watch from beyond the glass partition.

The hooded executioner, first into the death chamber and last out, has already been stationed behind a partition with a stubby finger-long switch at about waist level, its red paint worn.

Cable Fastened

Mathis and the electrician attach a chin strap that brings up the crown of the head. A sponge apparatus is held in place by a leather cap. The electrical cable is fastened to a copper post emerging from the cap, fixed in place with a large wing nut.

Dugger checks one last time with the governor over an open phone. If there are no stays, Dugger gives a signal. The electrician and Mathis close switches, bringing the current to the ready.

Then the executioner flicks his switch a quarter turn to the right. An automatic sequence delivers cycles of 1,800 volts to the brain. It is usually stopped after two. Dugger says death is instantaneous.

When all have left, the hooded executioner returns to the van. He is handed $150 in cash and driven back whence he came.

Mathis may go home briefly before starting another workday, admittedly drained by the stress of completely focusing on the details.

Dugger, who had the job before becoming superintendent, said: “I don’t think you ever get over it. It’s always in there somewhere. It’s probably a couple of days before you get to functioning normally.”

They work, he said, at isolating the whole set of circumstances. “We just simply say, we do this when we have to do this and we don’t deal with it any other time. When it’s over, it’s over.”

Nevada performed its first lethal injection last December. The condemned man was Carroll Cole, a small, gray-haired man, pleasant to talk with, the admitted killer of five women. He volunteered for execution, refused to let lawyers appeal his case and offered his brain to science so researchers could look for abnormalities.

His was the last of 18 executions in 1985. There were 21 in 1984.

Nevada switched from cyanide in part because the old gas chamber leaked. Besides, lethal injection is quicker. The victim just goes to sleep.

The visible part of the team include Warden Harol T. Whitley and the assistant warden, Pat Anderson, who helped write the procedures, a doctor, and George Sumner, a soft-voiced man who was warden at San Quentin and now directs the Nevada prison system.

In an effort to strip the ritual of its mystery, Nevada officials allowed members of the execution team to respond to written questions from the Associated Press, provided their identities were not revealed.

Two officers said that in the weeks before the December execution they were apprehensive, aware of the “tremendous responsibilities.”

One, later describing his first execution, said: “My wife’s feelings were of support, although she is avidly against the destruction of any living thing.

“On the day of the execution, things began happening very fast, movement of the inmate, last-minute changes and more rehearsals. This was my day off, and I was called in, which I was glad of, because I didn’t relish the idea of sitting at home thinking about it. All the activity kept my mind off what was to take place at 2 a.m.

“At approximately 11 p.m., three hours before the execution, a small group of team members--myself and four others--sat quietly . . . talking small talk and drinking coffee. At approximately 1:30 a.m., all visitors and press were secured outside the death chamber and (we were told) that it was time.

“It is about 300 yards from the captain’s office to the stairs leading to the death chamber, two gates and two flights of stairs to reach it. During this walk, I felt a closeness develop that I have never felt before in the four years of working with the same people. I don’t recall saying a word, but a lot was said.”

Inside the Death Chamber

The only visible equipment in the old death chamber is a wooden table, equipped with eight straps. Witnesses watched Carroll Cole walk in before the blinds were drawn. “We want them to see that the person is alive and well,” the warden explained.

Most often, the inmate is resigned, emotionally spent. Few resist. Cole tried to get up on the table himself but was too short. He had to be helped.

The execution team began the critical preparation, inserting IV needles into each arm of the condemned. One needle is a backup.

Although a doctor is on hand, he does not participate.

IV insertion can be tricky. Some inmates have pounded their arms to depress the veins. The blood vessels of drug users are often scarred. In Texas, officers had to cut down into an arm in search of a usable vein, a bloody procedure. Nevada officials say they will use a blood vessel in a leg rather than attempt a cut-down.

Small Distractions

Working on Cole, one officer admitted to small distractions: “The presence of the Catholic priest watching me set the IV’s. This disturbed me, being Catholic myself.”

Then Cole, unable to move because of the straps, asked the officer to please scratch his ear, “which I did, and he thanked me. The way he said, ‘Thanks,’ and the look in his eye stopped me for a moment.”

Finally the team withdrew and the shades were opened again. An innocent IV solution circulated to keep Cole’s veins open.

Cole nodded to friends among the witnesses. From the needles in his arm, a tube extended to the alcove where the executioners waited, each with a syringe containing a different poison. The syringes were connected to the tube through three pigtails, or shunts, off the IV.

George Sumner told the warden to go ahead. The doctor interrupted. “Wait a minute now,” he said. “There’s no turning back once you start.”

“I know,” Sumner said.

The executioner remembered: “The nod was given to inject, which we did, and 90 seconds later inmate Cole was dead. All that was left to do was have the doctor pronounce him dead. The other officer turned to me and said: ‘What a humane way.’ I agreed with a nod.”

‘Dead in 20 Seconds’

Sumner, more experienced, also feels that way. “One poison went in, and then another and another. The first killed him, although it was not apparent to the witnesses. He was dead in 20 seconds.”

Anderson, a woman with a matter-of fact manner, said simply: “Within five seconds, he was in a deep coma. He didn’t feel anything.”

Later, an execution team member remembered: “I took the following three days off and just worked around the house. This helped me. . . .

“There is not much that goes on in a prison that inmates don’t know. News spreads fast, and maybe I was paranoid, but I felt everyone knew. Now, three months later, I don’t have those feelings.”

For almost all, there is an emotional tiredness. One team member said he went through “some flashback, sleeplessness and increased alcohol consumption.”

Death Row Backlog

Executions go forward at a modest pace, considering the backlog on Death Row. There are 230 waiting in Florida, 210 in Texas, more than 180 in California and 115 in Georgia.

Thirty-eight states have a death penalty. Twenty-nine states maintain Death Rows, but so far only a dozen execute.

Supt. Dugger in Florida favors capital punishment and calls it outright revenge against someone whose crime is unforgivable. Warden Whitley says the deterrent value is lost because of the long wait between sentencing and execution, an average of six years. If punishment were quicker, it would deter, he says.

For the execution team in Nevada, the episode of last December is now forgotten. “In those three months,” said one team member, “I have only discussed the execution once, and that was with the same member of the team I first talked to. We pretty much had the same thoughts.

“We also talked about the possibility of being asked to do it again.”

Would he? He left the question unanswered.