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Executioners : Secrecy Shrouds Disquieting Duty

March 16, 1986|JOHN BARBOUR | Associated Press

In the nation's prisons, some mornings are more to be dreaded than others. Those mornings, the death clock ticks, and the ritual of public execution drag-steps forward.

The nearly 1,650 condemned men and women on Death Rows in America await a rendezvous with unsmiling, duty-bound citizens who have volunteered to take their lives.

That anonymous someone will throw the switch that unleashes the jolt of electricity, will push the plunger of the syringe that sends the poison racing toward the heart, will lower by lever the cyanide crystals into the acid to produce the gas, will stand shoulder to shoulder with other riflemen and pull the trigger.

Anonymity shrouds the executioners. They do their work in secret chambers, behind drawn curtains.

In Florida, the executioner is a hooded stranger, picked up at roadside in the dead of night. In Nevada, the execution team is drawn from distant parts of the prison. The first time the condemned sees them is the last.

Preparations are meticulous. In Florida, the team's rehearsals require that a volunteer, roughly the same size as the condemned, be strapped in the electric chair. At San Quentin in California, the executioners rehearse several times a year, although they have not executed anyone since 1967. In Idaho, the six-man firing squad is drawn from a list of 40 state police volunteers. They practice the procedure once a year. They have not killed since 1957.

The California Supreme Court in striking down the death penalty in 1972 said: "We have concluded that capital punishment is impermissibly cruel. It degrades and dehumanizes all who participate in its processes. . . ."

Nonetheless, polls show that most people in this country favor capital punishment.

Mostly the executioners are law enforcement people. Some never touch the person they kill. Some never see anything more than a hooded target in a chair. Some share the last thoughts of the condemned. Some must confront the desperate eyes, seeing for the last time.

Each carries dark memories away from the death chamber, things like the jerk of the body, the cough as the gas enters the lungs.

Legality does not always free the conscience. Many of those in the execution ritual need time to forget. One man putters around the house, one sees the execution again in a dream, one seeks relief in drink. In Idaho, the firing squad is sequestered with a psychologist for 24 hours after the execution.

Said one Nevada prison official: "You shouldn't do it if it's going to bother you. . . . I'm a very compassionate man, but it does not bother me to execute somebody. I don't look forward to it. But it's a job. So I do it in a businesslike way."

The execution teams have devised rituals to make the job easier, to divide the responsibility into smaller pieces, to distance themselves from the condemned.

Simple on the streets, killing in the hands of society is a complicated act. The aim is to provide death with some dignity as quickly and as painlessly as possible. In many cases, the executioner is dealing with people who are better at killing than he is. In Texas, prisoners behind bars killed 27 times last year, while the state of Texas executed only six.

The U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down most state statutes in 1972 because they permitted too much discretion in dealing out death, clarified guidelines for capital punishment in 1976. States began revising their laws. Gary Gilmore was the first to be executed--in Utah, by firing squad--under newly written legislation on Jan. 17, 1977. Fifty have been executed since then.

For all, the way station between Death Row and death chamber is called variously Death Watch or Segregation or Last Night Cell.

The two most active means of execution are electrocution and lethal injection. Each ritual, some invented decades ago, says something of how the executioners cope with the death work that most citizens cannot bear even to watch.

In Florida, one of 16 states that electrocutes, the condemned inmate is removed to Death Watch about 30 days before execution, two segregated cells down the hall from the big old oak chair with brown straps lying lank across its sturdy arms and burnished seat.

Well before, Maxie Reddish, the deputy supervisor of maintenance for the Florida State Penitentiary at Starke, will fill a galvanized laundry tub about three quarters full with water. It mimics the electrical resistance of the human body. He then places the electrical leads into the tub and throws a switch. The water begins to move between the active lead and the ground. It almost boils.

The governor sets the week of execution. Supt. Richard Dugger, the warden, sets the day and hour. The inmate is informed, the guard force increased. A week before execution, a corrections officer is stationed at the cell door to provide what the inmate needs--a cigarette, a library book, a phone call, a visit with his minister.

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