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Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
To beat the clock on the expiration of its lethal injection drug supply, this past April, Arkansas tried to execute 8 men over 1 days. The stories told in frantic legal filings and clemency petitions revealed a deeply disturbing picture. Ledell Lee may have had an intellectual disability that rendered him constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty, but he had a spate of bad lawyers who failed to timely present evidence of this claim -…

What I Learned From Executing Two Men

Oregon's death chamber
Oregon's death chamber
Planning an execution is a surreal business. During a prisoner’s final days, staff members keep the condemned person under 24-hour surveillance to, among other things, ensure that he doesn’t harm or kill himself, thus depriving the people of Oregon of the right to do the same. I can understand the administrative logic for this reality, but it doesn’t make this experience any less strange.

During the execution itself, correctional officers are responsible for everything, from strapping the prisoner’s ankles and wrists to a gurney to administering the lethal chemicals. One of the condemned men asked to have his wrist straps adjusted because they were hurting him. After the adjustment was made, he looked me in the eye and said: “Yes. Thanks, boss.”

After each execution, I had staff members who decided they did not want to be asked to serve in that capacity again. Others quietly sought employment elsewhere. A few told me they were having trouble sleeping, and I worried they would develop post-traumatic stress disorder if they had to go through it another time.

Together, we had spent many hours planning and carrying out the deaths of two people. The state-ordered killing of a person is premeditated and calculated, and inevitably some of those involved incur collateral damage. I have seen it. It’s hard to avoid giving up some of your empathy and humanity to aid in the killing of another human being. The effects can lead to all the places you’d expect: drug use, alcohol abuse, depression and suicide.

But the job gets done — despite the qualms and the cost. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Capital punishment keeps grinding on, out of sight of society.

The average citizen will never find himself looking a death row prisoner in the eye, administering a lethal injection and stating the time of death in front of observers and reporters. But we all share the burden of a policy that has not been shown to make the public any safer, and that endures despite the availability of reasonable alternatives.

I am encouraged that Oregon now has a moratorium on executions, and there have not been any in the state since the ones I oversaw. Nationwide, in the past few decades, executions have also been declining, from a high of 98 in 1999 to 15 so far this year. But people continue to be sentenced to death.

Since I retired from corrections in 2010, my mission has been to persuade people that capital punishment is a failed policy. America should no longer accept the myth that capital punishment plays any constructive role in our criminal justice system. It will be hard to bring an end to the death penalty, but we will be a healthier society as a result.


Source: The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, Semon Frank Thompson, September 15, 2016. Semon Frank Thompson was the superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary from 1994 to 1998. An interview with him appears in the forthcoming “Death: An Oral History,” edited by Casey Jarman.

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