The Death Penalty ~ Not Your Standard Dinner Party Conversation

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File:SQ Lethal Injection Room.jpg

I’ve been thinking a lot about the death penalty lately. It’s not something that often comes up around the dinner party table, and when it does, there are often debates on both sides of the issue. I’m guessing it’s probably even more heated, and more difficult to talk about, among those who are personally, even professionally, connected to executions in some way.

The reason why it has been on my mind this week is because I heard two contrasting–both intimate–outlooks on capital punishment.

Watching a Human Die

The first was while listening to a CBC Radio show called How to Do It: The Guide to Things You Hope You Never Need to Know. Tuesday’s episode was entitled “How to Die,” which included spoken excerpts from Carroll Pickett, who served as a death row chaplain in Huntsville, Texas at the “Walls” prison unit. Pickett was initially all for the death penalty. But after spending 15 years in this role, witnessing nearly 100 executions, he is now a firm advocate against capital punishment.

Pickett began as the Walls’ chaplain in the early 80s when Texas began to employ lethal injection. His role involved spending time with those being executed for the last 18 hours of their lives (from 6am until midnight—the time they were lethally injected). Here is an excerpt of what Pickett said as featured on the CBC radio show:

“It was a stressful situation all the way up and down from the director to our wardens and our staff because we just didn’t know and not knowing is what hurts so bad. We didn’t know how a man was going to react to being six or eight feet from the death chamber all day long. He could sit there—he was in a cell—waiting, knowing that at midnight he was going to go in that big grey, heavy iron door…I can tell you honestly that most of them didn’t even eat.  How in the world do you eat at 6 o’clock knowing you’re going to die at 12?”

Pickett described that he would escort each inmate into the death chamber and stay with them until they died, with his hand on their knee:

“All of them wanted me to maintain physical contact with them. I couldn’t [hold] their hands like they wanted because they were strapped. Part of my responsibility was to watch the different drugs go in and signal to the warden because he couldn’t see them. And then I would stay inside there until the funeral director came…If you watch one person die and have no feeling about it then you got a problem.”

Executed for the Safety of Others

While watching Season 1, Episode 8 of Most Evil (a documentary-style TV show presented by forensic psychiatrist Michael Stone) there was some chilling footage of Westley Allan Dodd.

Dodd was a child molester and serial killer convicted of murdering three kids. Some reports say he molested over 50 children.

The scene in the Most Evil episode shows Dodd on the stand at his sentencing hearing:

“What would be your intention if you were forced to live in prison?”

Dodd: “Do everything I can to escape and if necessary kill prison guards on the way out and I’ll go right back doing what I did before as soon as I hit the streets.”

“Which is what?”

Dodd: “Kill kids.”

“Kill and rape kids.”

Dodd: “Yes.”

“So you should be executed for the safety of others?”

Dodd: “Yes.”

Dodd was executed by hanging in 1993.

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Currently the death penalty is legal in 32 states, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). In May 2013, capital punishment was abolished in Maryland. (Between 2007 and 2012, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, and Illinois also abolished the death penalty).

According to the DPIC’s 2012 Year End Report, “The number of new death sentences in 2012 was the second lowest since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.” (2011 had the lowest death penalty sentences.) In 2012, nine states carried out a total of 43 executions. As of August 6, 2013, there have been 23 executions so far this year in the United States.

As the death penalty debate continues, there are many viewpoints to consider:

  • What if a vicious criminal cannot be rehabilitated?
  • What if someone who is actually innocent is sentenced to death row and executed?
  • What if your loved one was brutally killed—would you want the murderer to be executed?
  • What if your loved one was on death row?

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