The Moral Toll of Executions on the Consciences of Executioners

Allen Ault is the retired director of the Georgia Department of Corrections and former warden of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison which handled Troy Davis. Ault oversaw executions for the state of Georgia. He is now Eastern Kentucky University’s dean of “College of Justice and Society” and well-informed from an academic perspective about the outrageously unjust unevenness of the application of the death penalty.

Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow interviewed Ault last night to discuss the callously and murderously unfair execution of Troy Davis on the sloppy grounds of faulty eyewitness testimony, the majority of which was recanted. The heartbreak, moral conviction, and despair in Alt’s voice was profound and affected me quite a bit, even as I am someone who generally considers a death penalty morally permissible (if not necessary) in extreme cases where there is (a) 100% certainty of guilt, (b) a far more just (and racially blind) system than we presently have for determining who gets convicted of crimes and sentenced to death, and (c) the guilty are irredeemable sociopaths or psychopaths or tyrants. In all honesty, I feel the need to go rethink my views after this interview. It really struck me that hard.

Ault’s conviction that execution is premeditated murder—even when you believe the convict is guilty—was striking. You rarely hear someone so condemnatory of legal actions in which he himself partook so prominently, or a law official willing to publicly express such trauma over carrying out his duties.

No matter your views on the death penalty, he has enough practical experience, theoretical knowledge, and personal emotional investment in the issue, that his quavering sure voice demands to be heard. Below is the video, and then below the fold are some key quotes from the transcript of the interview and the letter that Ault and fellow retired senior corrections officials wrote to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles asking them to reconsider their decision to execute Troy Davis.

A full transcript can be found with the video on MSNBC.com.

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Key remarks:

As the commissioner of corrections I was involved in several executions. And it’s one thing to theorize or talk about it abstractly. but when you’re in the death chamber ordering an execution, and even if you in your mind [are] a man of conscience actually believing somebody is guilty, it’s still a very premeditated murder. I mean, it’s scripted and rehearsed, it’s about as premeditated as any killing that you can do—and then when there is doubt…  Either way it exacts a heavy toll on those who are charged by the state to execute somebody.

Ault on the application of the death penalty

I think that we have found so many in the last few years with scientific advances that were innocent that we continue to execute people when there is doubt , I don’t think that haswe continue to execute people when there is doubt, I don’t think that has anything to do with justice.

When asked about whether the case of Troy Davis would change people’s attitudes in the country:

Well, at one time I had hoped that that would happen. But you know we have presidential candidates who say that signing execution orders doesn’t bother their conscience at all. But I still think that [for] men of conscience, it does bother them. And if people were aware of all the facts about capital punishment, I think logically they would change their mind. But logic does not always prevail as you well know.  I still think that men of conscience, it does bother them. If people were aware of all the facts about capital punishment.

On the struggles corrections officers feel:

I didn’t ask staff to do something I wouldn’t do. But I know we tried to get psychological and psychiatric help for all the people that participated. and one day I fully understood that I was finding it for everybody but me, and then I realized what a heavy toll I had taken on me and my conscience. I still have reocurring problems with that. And I’m sure I will the rest of my life. I’ve talked to toher colleagues who have participated as I did in other states or with the federal government. And those people, people of conscience, had the same type of struggle that I did. If I thought that it actually deterred and I tried to use that rationale when I was participating, that I thought if I’d save one life maybe it was worth it. But I soon realized that is not what capital punishment is all about.

And it is not just harsh on the conscience when you know the executed is innocent:

it exacts a toll whether you believe they’re innocent or they’re guilty. You’re actually killing somebody. Now there are people without conscience, psychopathic types, some politicians and sadists who would volunteer. I had letters volunteering to kill people. But I think the state—I would hate to see us fall to be that depraved that they would let people like that do the executions. I have—after I have reviewed all the research as a professor and as a dean, and I know that it does not deter crime. I can’t see the justification. And if we’re just reaping vengeance for somebody, I don’t see the justification in that, either. I have talked to a lot of families of victims who didn’t feel fulfilled after the executions took place. I can’t speak for all the families of victims, but I know I’ve talked to many.

And the letter Ault signed onto calling for reconsideration in the Davis case:

We write to you as former wardens and corrections officials who have had direct involvement in executions. Like few others in this country, we understand that you have a job to do in carrying out the lawful orders of the judiciary. We also understand, from our own personal experiences, the awful lifelong repercussions that come from participating in the execution of prisoners. While most of the prisoners whose executions we participated in accepted responsibility for the crimes for which they were punished, some of us have also executed prisoners who maintained their innocence until the end. It is those cases that are most haunting to an executioner.

We write to you today with the overwhelming concern that an innocent person could be executed in Georgia tonight. We know the legal process has exhausted itself in the case of Troy Anthony Davis, and yet, doubt about his guilt remains. This very fact will have an irreversible and damaging impact on your staff. Many people of significant standing share these concerns, including, notably, William Sessions, Director of the FBI under President Ronald Reagan.

Living with the nightmares is something that we know from experience. No one has the right to ask a public servant to take on a lifelong sentence of nagging doubt, and for some of us, shame and guilt. Should our justice system be causing so much harm to so many people when there is an alternative?

We urge you to ask the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to reconsider their decision. Should that fail, we urge  you to unburden yourselves and your staff from the pain of participating in such a questionable execution to the extent possible  by allowing any personnel so inclined to opt-out of activities related to the execution of Troy Anthony Davis. Further, we urge you to provide appropriate counseling to personnel who do choose to perform their job functions related to the execution. If we may be of assistance to you moving forward, please do not hesitate to call upon any of us.

Respectfully and collegially,

Allen Ault – Retired Warden, Georgia Diagnostic & Classifications Prison
Terry Collins – Retired Director, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction
Ron McAndrew – Retired Warden, Florida State Prison
Dennis O’Neill – Retired Warden, Florida State Prison
Reginald Wilkinson – Retired Director, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction
Jeanne Woodford – Retired Warden, San Quentin State Prison

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • August Pamplona

    Saudi executioner interview. Not much sign of a toll on his conscience other than some unpleasantness as a child witnessing his executioner father performing his duties before him (of course, we cannot know what is going on in his head or how he arrived there).

  • August Pamplona

    “But you know we have presidential candidates who say that signing execution orders doesn’t bother their conscience at all.”

    The mistake here is in thinking that politicians are necessarily men of conscience.

  • Tisha Irwin

    I feel pretty much the same way you do about the death penalty in theoretical terms. For truly heinous murders who have killed multiple people, I think it’s justified. However, I think (1) it is sought in way too many cases and (2) I have little to no confidence in our legal system accurately determining guilt.

    I think Dr Ault’s comment about presidential candidates having no compunctions about ordering executions bothered me the most. That’s just bloodthirst, plain and simple. It saddens me that people like that have a real shot at leading this country.

    • August Pamplona

      @Tisha Irwin:

      It’s not bloodthirst. It’s good politics. No one loses votes by being a “law and order” or “tough on crime” candidate and such a cavalier attitude toward executions is one way you show yourself to be such a candidate. Sad but true.

  • Didaktylos

    “I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the easy way and hands over the responsibility for revenge to other people…The trouble with the death penalty has always been that nobody wanted it for everybody, but everybody differed about who should get off.” – Albert Pierrepoint

  • Roland

    http://mises.org/books/resist_not_evil_darrow.pdf
    Free PDF by Clarence Darrow, defense atty at the Scopes Monkey Trial. This book will change every view you ever had about govt., prisons, and punishment.

  • stephenk

    Fiction, but similar theme. Written 75 years ago…

    http://homepage.mac.com/klock/upfield/jelly.html


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