Q&As: Kirsten Han, anti-death penalty advocate in Singapore

In the third of the DPRU's (Death Penalty Research Unit, University of Oxford, Faculty of Law) series of Q&As with death penalty experts from around the world, Kirsten Han, an anti-death penalty advocate in Singapore, tells DPRU Research Officer Jocelyn Hutton about her current work and about her involvement in the case of the recently executed Nagaenthran Dharmalingam . Can you tell us a little bit about the work that you do in relation to the death penalty? A lot of my contribution to the campaign to abolish the death penalty in Singapore has to do with storytelling, since that fits with the skills that I have as a writer and journalist, and because abolitionist perspectives, or any in-depth coverage of capital punishment, are missing from the local government-controlled mainstream media. I write about death row prisoners and the experiences of their families, try to humanise this issue. For many Singaporeans, it’s so distant and so abstract that it’s very easy to dismiss; so

As Arizona resumes the death penalty, a former executioner tells his story

Jim Klein participated in 17 executions for the state of Arizona. With executions scheduled to resume, Klein is ready to share his story.

Jim Klein says he stopped talking to his family about his job early in his career.

“They didn’t want to hear about it.” he said. “They just couldn’t process it. They didn’t understand how I could deal with so much death.”

And so for the past 30 years, Klein, now 68, kept his thoughts mostly to himself about his time working as an executioner.

Arizona, like many states, has laws on the books that protect the identity of “any person ... who participates in or performs any ancillary function(s) in the execution, including the source of the execution chemicals, and any information contained in records that would identify those persons.”

Corrections officers who took part in executions in the past rarely speak about their participation.

But as Arizona resumes the death penalty this week, Klein decided to talk with The Arizona Republic about the executions he was involved in, because he believes the lack of publicly available information has led to misconceptions about the people who carry out capital punishment.

In an exclusive interview (video) with The Republic, Klein spoke on the record for the first time about his participation in 15 lethal injection executions and two executions by gas chamber with the Arizona Department of Corrections execution team. The executions took place from 1992 to 2001 at the state prison in Florence.

Arizona returns to the death penalty

On Wednesday, Arizona will execute a man in the name of all its residents for the first time in nearly eight years. The state suspended executions in 2014 after the botched lethal injection of Joseph Wood.

The state claims it has refined its execution protocols and is planning to use a single drug, pentobarbital, for executions, instead of the combination of drugs that were used on Wood. Pentobarbital was used successfully by the federal government in a series of executions conducted in 2020. 

Clarence Dixon is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection May 11 for the 1978 murder of 21-year-old ASU student Deana Bowdoin. 

Dixon’s execution marks a return to the death penalty for Arizona after a troubled history that includes attempting to acquire execution drugs illegally in 2015 and more recently failing to accurately determine the shelf life of the pentobarbital the state plans to use moving forward. 

'We’ve got a job for you'

In October 1984, Klein was working at a gas station in Chandler, where prison employees would often stop for sodas on their way to work. One day, Klein says he got into a scuffle with a customer who tried to drive off without paying.

“I reached into the car and pulled the guy out through the driver’s side window,” he said. “Evidently, some of the corrections officers saw what happened. And the next day, one of them brought me an application and said they thought I’d be a great fit.”

Klein was intrigued and turned in the application. He said the state prison in Florence quickly called him in for an interview and psychological evaluation.

The interview board asked him what he would do in a hypothetical situation where he was in a guard tower, and he saw that a staff member was about to be attacked by prisoners with knives. “I told them I’d sound the alarm and shoot the prisoners’ heads off.” Klein said he was offered a job the next day.

Klein grew up in Illinois and landed in Tempe when he was 17 after his family moved for his father’s job. He worked in food service and drove garbage trucks before working at the gas station. 

He felt like getting a job with the state at the prison was a big accomplishment. “I was proud to be there,” Klein said, “I worked hard, and I enjoyed the challenges it presented.”

After a year as a corrections officer, Klein volunteered to be on the prison’s Tactical Support Unit, a specially trained unit that responds to riots and assists with dangerous situations such as cell extractions.

During one incident, Klein said, a prisoner made a spear and was threatening employees in one of the units at the Florence prison. Klein responded with the rest of the tactical unit, whose members took turns firing less-than-lethal munitions at the prisoner to try and subdue him.

After his colleagues failed to incapacitate the prisoner, Klein said he fired a round called a “knee knocker,” which is meant to be bounced off the floor and hit a person in the legs. Klein aimed directly at the prisoner’s head. 

In a debriefing of the incident the next day, Klein's superiors asked what he was thinking, why he would shoot a round like that at a prisoner's head.

“I told the tactical commander, ‘Just what you taught me — the principles of marksmanship: sight picture, sight alignment, breath control and trigger squeeze,’” Klein said.

“And he responded, ‘No, I mean, when you shot the rounds at his head, you could have killed him. What did you think about that?’ And I said, ‘Sight picture, sight alignment, breath control, and trigger squeeze. That's all I thought about.’”

Hearing this response, Klein said his superiors told him, “We’ve got a job for you.” They offered him a spot on the prison’s execution team.

In all three incidents — the gas station altercation, the initial interview and the use of force on a prisoner as a Tactical Support Unit officer — Klein says he thinks he displayed behaviors that the prison administrators were seeking.

“What they saw was, I didn’t have any fear,” Klein said. “I didn’t hesitate. I knew what needed to be done. And I did it. They knew that mentally, I could handle the stress of taking a human life and that I wouldn’t dwell on it.”

Klein said those same characteristics allowed him to successfully lead the execution team for the next decade.

'The first time, I couldn’t get it out of my head'

At the time Klein joined the department’s execution team, the gas chamber had not been used in 30 years, due to a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty brought about by the Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia.

When he was first assigned to make sure the gas chamber was in working order, prison officials gave Klein a hand-drawn diagram to follow. Klein said he had no clue what he was doing.

“Not even close. I learned as I went along,” he said. “But it was like every other job they ever gave me. I went out and I learned as much about it as I could.”

In 1992 when Arizona resumed executions after the Legislature revised Arizona’s death penalty statute, he ran the controls on the gas chamber for the execution of Don Harding. Harding was convicted for the 1980 murders of Allan Gage, Robert Wise and Martin Concannon.

During a gas chamber execution, Klein said the prisoner is placed in a chair in the gas chamber and restrained with straps on their arms and legs and across their chest.

Klein used control levers to drop cyanide into a container of acid underneath the restraint chair, which released the gas that would kill the prisoner.

He said Harding made obscene gestures to the witnesses as the gas began to take effect.

“He had his hands pointed up in the restraints, and he displayed his middle fingers the whole time he was being executed,” Klein said. 

Despite being in a sealed metal chamber, Klein said he could hear Harding struggling to breathe. “We could hear him just trying to draw air. But the way cyanide works is it blocks the exchange of oxygen between the cells and the muscles.”

He said Harding’s arms were twitching and spasming and his body continued to react violently to the process for 12 to 13 minutes.

Harding’s attorney described his death as “slow, painful, degrading and inhumane.” 

Klein said it looked painful. “I thought to myself, 'If it was up to me, I wouldn't be choosing that. I definitely don't want to be suffocated. I don’t want to go out like that.'”

But Klein maintained that it was not difficult to watch. “Because it wasn’t personal. I wasn't getting any enjoyment out of it. I didn't feel bad about it. It was just a job.”

Klein said others watching the execution, including then-Attorney General Grant Woods, were very affected by it.

“He looked pale,” Klein said of Woods. “He looked like he might fall over.”

Woods later advocated for moving away from gas chamber executions, and Arizona voters approved a referendum in 1992 adopting lethal injection as the new method of execution. However, to this day, prisoners sentenced to death for crimes they committed before 1992 still have a choice between the gas chamber and lethal injection.

Two such prisoners, Clarence Dixon and Frank Atwood, were recently scheduled for executions, causing the Department of Corrections to make sure its gas chamber was again in working order. Dixon was sentenced to death in 2008 for the 1978 killing of Deana Bowdoin, a 21-year-old senior at Arizona State University. Atwood was sentenced to death in Pima County in 1987 for the murder of an 8-year-old girl, Vicki Lynne Hoskinson.

Plans to refurbish the gas chamber generated national attention after The Guardian reported the state was planning to kill inmates using "the same lethal gas that was deployed at Auschwitz."

Klein also participated in the gas chamber execution of Walter LaGrand in 1999, which was documented by witnesses as lasting 18 minutes and characterized as agonizing. LaGrand, the last person in Arizona to choose the gas chamber over lethal injection, was a German national convicted in 1984 for his role in the death of Kenneth Hartsock.

But Klein said the Harding execution is the one that stayed with him because it was the first one he experienced.

“I just couldn’t get it out of my head,” he said. “I kept replaying it and replaying it and replaying it.”

Klein said the prison conducted debriefing sessions after executions, but they didn’t always allow him to fully process the feelings he was having. He says after Harding’s execution was over, he developed a simple routine.

“I had a long drive home from the prison. And when I got home I’d go get some tacos and eat them and think about what happened and how it affected me,” he said. “And then usually, the next day, I didn’t think about it anymore.”

Tools of the state

After nearly 10 years, Klein says he asked to be taken off the execution team in 2001. He says it wasn’t so much the executions themselves, but rather the six weeks of stressful planning for each execution and the necessary coordination of employees that eventually wore him down. 

Klein continued to work for the Department of Corrections until 2005 and retired as a deputy warden.

While he personally supports the death penalty, Klein sad he understands that many are against it.

“I’ve seen protesters get all up in arms and call us murderers and everything. But it was not like that,” he said. “It was not personal. We didn’t get any enjoyment out of it.”

“If people have a problem with the death penalty, then do what they did when they took away lethal gas as an option — change the system,” he said. “But don't demonize the people who are carrying out the laws that society created.” 

“People need to understand that we are just like those syringes on the table,” Klein said. “The difference is we breathe — we feel. But we are ultimately just tools of the state.”

A self-taught team, with no supervision

“We were a self-taught group,” Klein said of the execution team. “We had no supervision or accountability."

Klein said the execution teams were usually made up of about 10 people who worked for the Department of Corrections as corrections officers and in other roles.

He said execution team members were told the prison medical staff did not participate in executions because they had taken the Hippocratic oath. That meant the complex task of performing the executions was left up to a group of prison employees who usually had no medical background whatsoever.

“They didn’t even want to put the heart monitor pads on the prisoner, so that usually was my job, too,” Klein said of the prison medical staff. As with the gas chamber, he says he was provided with a hand-drawn diagram showing how to put a heart monitor on the prisoners.

After the state made the switch to lethal injections, Klein said the Department of Corrections hired a medical consultant to train the execution team on how to insert catheters and IVs and other skills necessary to carry out the execution.

“I had never done anything like that,” Klein said of inserting IVs in someone’s arm. He said they first practiced on a prosthetic arm.

“Somehow, it held fluid in the rubber hoses that represented veins,” he said. “But it looked like an arm. And we could practice hitting the vein, because there's a certain point where you have to stop, or you'll go all the way through the vein.”

Klein said he and some of the team members eventually practiced by putting catheters into each others’ arms.

He said in most instances, there were no problems starting a catheter or administering the lethal injection drugs to prisoners, and the executions usually took a matter of minutes. But Klein said there was one prisoner whose prior drug use had damaged his veins so badly, it was too difficult to insert an IV. He says at that point, the medical consultant performed a “cutdown” on the prisoner’s ankle, which involved making an incision to access the vein.

Like with all other members of the execution team, Klein said prison officials went to great lengths to protect the identity of the consultant. “The gate officers never questioned why he didn’t show ID to them,” Klein said. “I would bring him into the prison with me through an obscure gate.”

Klein said there was a Department of Corrections physician who acquired the drugs used for executions, but the physician did not participate in any other way.

Federal public defenders say the state has not provided enough information about the drugs it is planning to use to execute Clarence Dixon, and they fear they may be contaminated or expired.

Klein said he did not recall ever having any problems with the shelf life of the drugs that might have affected their potency. 

“There were expiration dates on the bottles,” he said. “I would tell the doctor what drugs we needed, and he would order them.”

Klein said the prison doctor would keep the lethal injection drugs in a black toolbox secured with a padlock in his office.

The Arizona Department of Corrections did not respond to requests to comment on Klein's tenure for this story, but the agency has seemingly evolved from hand-drawn diagrams. A spokesperson for the Department pointed The Republic to the agency's execution procedures, which outline in great detail the roles and duties of all involved parties, as well as the required protocols starting 35 days before the scheduled execution.

The procedures discuss ethical considerations, confidentiality guidelines, parameters for execution witnesses and responsibilities for legal representatives.

While the procedures mandate certain training requirements for execution team members, intravenous team members are only required to participate in “at least one training session with multiple scenarios within one day prior to the scheduled execution.”

Unlike Klein’s experience, at least two members of the IV team are now required to have some medical experience, and the protocols state, “All team members shall be currently certified or licensed within the United States to place IV lines.”

Pushing the drugs

After a prisoner was restrained in the lethal injection chambers and IVs were hooked up to each arm, Klein said they developed a very closely choreographed process for administering the drugs. 

At the time, the state used a combination of drugs, which made the process extremely complex, Klein said. The consultant advised them in which precise order to inject the drugs, he said, but he and another execution team member were left to come up with a system to administer the drugs. 

“We would kind of watch each other out of the corner of our eye while we were pushing the plungers on these large hypodermic needles, to keep them as even as possible,” he said. “Because if we went too fast or out of sync, there was a chance that we could blow out a vein.”

“The needles have lines hooked up to them which go into the prisoners arms, and we would usually push eight syringes worth of drugs into them,” he said.

Gallows humor

Despite the intense pressure of the execution process, or perhaps because of it, Klein said condemned prisoners would often make jokes with the execution team members.

“In one instance, I was having trouble getting a catheter into the prisoner’s vein,” he said. “And after two or three sticks he looked at me and said, ‘What are you trying to do Klein, lethally inject me or stab me to death?’”

Klein said when prisoners were transferred to death row at the Florence prison in those days, they were allowed to smoke or chew tobacco. In another example of gallows humor, Klein remembers one man’s reaction to the privileges granted to death row prisoners. 

“This inmate is sitting on the bunk. He's got his feet up on the stainless steel commode. He's got a cigarette going in one hand, he's holding a cup of coffee in the other, and he looks over at me and he says, ‘You know Klein, if I knew you were going to treat me so good, I'd have come over here a long time ago.”

'Empathy is for the prison chaplain'

Klein said he thinks execution team members would sometimes get too emotionally involved.

“We had people who would get upset if the inmate got a stay of execution,” Klein said. “And I would take them to the side and say, ‘What is your problem? What do you have invested in this, that you're worried about the state of the execution? It's not our worry. We are part of the process. We’re here to facilitate what needs to be done.”

He said if his colleagues persisted in making the execution personal, then he would ask the warden to remove them from the team.

“Don’t take it personal and don’t make it personal. That was my guidance to execution team members,” he said. “We are doing the ultimate exercise of justice for the state of Arizona, in the most professional, efficient way it can be done.”

Now retired and living in Utah, Klein said he does not remember all the names of the people he executed, nor does he feel haunted by being a part of the process.

Klein says he is a Christian, but he doesn’t practice any organized religion, and working on executions didn’t conflict with his faith.

While acknowledging the potential for some subtle changes over the years, Klein doesn’t think being a part of so many executions has had a significant psychological or emotional impact on him.

“I think most people would say I’m pretty much the same as I always was,” he said.

What others might see as a cold or callous attitude, Klein says comes from his purposeful efforts to practice “professionalism and objectivity.” He said it is a mindset that was instilled in him at the Correctional Officer Training Academy in order to keep a professional distance from the prisoners. 

"Empathy is for the prison chaplain," Klein said. "If I had felt empathy for the inmate, I probably couldn't do the job." 

Klein says he was able to compartmentalize the executions in his mind. He used the hour drive to and from the prison as a way to create a mental barrier. 

“When I got in the car in the morning, I’d start to think about what I needed to get done that day, so that by the time I got to work, I was prepared,” he said. “And on my way home, it was the opposite. I would use that time to decompress.”

He kept work and his personal life separate, never letting one touch the other, mentally or otherwise. 

But there was one instance where his job crossed the prison walls and entered his home. 

“When my daughter was 5 or 6, she was watching television, and one of the TV stations had parked a camera truck across the street from the prison,” he said. “And they were shooting the camera down into the industrial yard, which is on the other side of the wall from the Death House. And myself and one of my partners were pushing the gurney to the hearse. And they got us on TV. My daughter says, ‘Hey, Mom, Dad's on TV.'”

When he got home, he said he had to explain to his daughter what was in the black bag he was transporting.

“My wife told me, ‘You need to have a talk with your daughter because she saw you.’ So I did. I explained it very carefully and told her it wasn’t something we talked about. I told her it wasn’t anything that would affect her, it was just another one of my jobs.”

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Source: hazcentral.com, Jimmy Jenkins, May 9, 2022

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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