I think I’ve mentioned it before, but in the interests of total transparency I think I should say it again: I’m a podcast junkie. One of my absolute favorites is Criminal, with Phoebe Judge. I find her stories interesting and, at times, completely riveting. Her most recent episode, “The Job,” captivated me completely.
It’s an interview with Frank Thompson, retired superintendent of an Oregon prison at the time when Oregon revived the death penalty in the 1990s. Oregon had opted to change from the previous method, gas chamber, to lethal injection, and no one in the penal system at the time had administered or supervised an execution of any kind, so Frank did his research (by contacting and/or visiting states with a process in place), wrote the current Oregon manual on administering lethal injections to prisoners sentenced to death, and personally trained select staff to perform the duties outlined in the manual.
I was struck by Frank’s very compassionate creation and implementation of a policy that has been, and will always be, controversial. His concern for everyone involved is patent in every carefully chosen word. He tells the story much better than I can, and since it’s his story I highly recommend you listen to the podcast: https://thisiscriminal.com/episode-95-the-job-7-20-2018. What prompted this blog post was what he is doing now that’s he’s retired—he’s arguing AGAINST the death penalty and trying to get Oregon to repeal the law.
During his time as superintendent, there were two executions; one in 1996 and one in 1997. In his words, he was doing his job. He was carrying out the will of the people of the State of Oregon. His frustration these days is the assumption by people who don’t know him who assume he has more compassion for the inmates than the families of the victims. His assertion is that this assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. His entire approach to this issue is one of compassion and concern for all involved, and especially for those who are part of the execution process. In his words, by providing what the law calls “justice” for the victims’ families we are creating more victims—namely those who carry out the will of the people and participate in executions.
No matter the reason—no matter how anyone might feel about the inmate and whether or not he or she deserves to die—taking a life is still taking a life. That act changes we humans in a way it doesn’t change other animals. And for normal, sane human beings killing another human, in Mr. Thompson’s words, “doesn’t get any easier.” The mental and emotional toll is unfathomable by anyone who has never had to kill someone. Soldiers, more specifically veterans, understand the magnanimity of the act, and the military offers mental health services to help them deal with it because the assumption is that they will need help coping with it when their service is over.
This has me asking the question: Why do we subject normal citizens to the task of participating in taking a life, knowing the toll it will take on them? Even the Harry Potter books talk about how taking another human’s life fractures the soul. Works of fiction aside, I think nearly everyone probably believes, at the very least, that killing another person changes you and that the change can’t be a positive one.
I’m not sure I have much else to add to this. I’m writing it simply because until today I’d never thought of the prison staff and executioners as victims and I needed to embed that in my psyche. I would add to this that I’m not sure I would want to be a juror who participated in sentencing someone to death. I believe they are also victims of the process.
My big-picture question is not whether capital punishment should be banned. I'm not sure where I fall on this on any given day and I don't want to debate that here. My question is whether we, as humans, have a clear enough understanding of what we are asking our fellow men and women to do when we ask them to mete out punishment that ends in death.