I can’t always remember their names, but in my nightmares I can see their faces. As the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections from 1992 until 1995, I oversaw five executions. The first two were Thomas Dean Stevens and Christopher Burger, accomplices in a monstrous crime: as teenagers in 1977, they robbed and raped a cabdriver, put him in the trunk of a car, and pushed the vehicle into a pond. I had no doubt that they were guilty: they admitted it to me. But now it was 1993 and they were in their 30s. All these years later, after a little frontal-lobe development, they were entirely different people.
On execution days, I always drove from Atlanta to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. I knew death row well: 20 years earlier, I had built it. The state had hired me as the warden of Georgia Diagnostic in 1971, where I renovated a special cell block for especially violent offenders. After I left Georgia in 1977, the state reinstated the death penalty and turned the cell block I had developed into death row.
The state executed Stevens first, in June 1993, and then Burger in December. In both instances, I visited them in a cell next to the electric-chair chamber, where they counted down the hours until they died. They were calm, mature, and remorseful. When the time came, I went to a small room directly behind the death chamber where the attorney general worked the phones, checking with the courts to make sure that the executions were not stayed. Then we asked the prisoners for their final words. Stevens said nothing, and Burger apologized, saying, “Please forgive me.” I looked to the prison electrician and ordered him to pull the switch. Last Wednesday, as the state of Georgia prepared to execute Troy Davis despite concerns about his guilt, I wrote a letter with five former death-row wardens and directors urging Georgia prison officials to commute his sentence. I feared not only the risk of Georgia killing an innocent man, but also the psychological toll it would exact on the prison workers who performed his execution. “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,” we wrote in our letter.
The men and women who assist in executions are not psychopaths or sadists. They do their best to perform the impossible and inhumane job with which the state has charged them. Those of us who have participated in executions often suffer something very much like posttraumatic stress. Many turn to alcohol and drugs. For me, those nights that weren’t sleepless were plagued by nightmares. My mother and wife worried about me. I tried not to share with them that I was struggling, but they knew I was.
I didn’t grow up saying, “I want to work in prisons.” I had never even been in a prison or a jail before I became warden of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison. The commissioner at the time hired me to revamp the system, to implement case management, and work with inmates to make them safer. I had always worked in helping professions, and my main goal in corrections was always to reduce recidivism, so that inmates would leave prison better than they arrived. Over this course of time, the death penalty figured larger and larger into my work. I never supported it, but I also did not want to let it distract me from improving overall prison conditions. Death-row inmates are, after all, only a tiny fraction of the prison population.
When I was required to supervise an execution, I tried to rationalize my work by thinking, if I just save one future victim, maybe it is worth it. But I was very aware of the research showing that the death penalty wasn’t a deterrent. I left my job as corrections commissioner in Georgia in 1995 partially because I had had enough: I didn’t want to supervise the executions anymore. My focus changed to national crime policy and then to academia, where I could work to improve the criminal-justice system without participating in its worst parts. Today, I am the dean of the College of Justice & Safety at Eastern Kentucky University.
Having witnessed executions firsthand, I have no doubts: capital punishment is a very scripted and rehearsed murder. It’s the most premeditated murder possible. As Troy Davis’s execution approached—and then passed its set hour, as the Supreme Court considered a stay—I thought of the terrible tension we all experienced as executions dragged into the late hours of the night. No one wanted to go ahead with the execution, but then a court stay offered little relief: you knew you were going to repeat the whole process and execute him sometime in the future.
I will always live with these images—with “nagging doubt,” even though I do not believe that any of the executions carried out under my watch were mistaken. I hope that, in the future, men and women will not die for their crimes, and other men and women will not have to kill them. The United States should be like every other civilized country in the Western world and abolish the death penalty.