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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

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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