I grew up with a killer. My father. He didn't kill in a way that would ever send him to jail. He wasn't in the military. Instead, he used the death penalty. Sometimes he called and gave the order for inmates to be executed.
My father was damn good at what he did. We grew up in Montana, a small state with fewer murders each year than most cities. His job was to prosecute murderers. Retired now, he spent 21 years as the chief special prosecutor for the Montana Attorney General. And in 21 years, he lost one case—a case in which he fell on his sword for a friend after a botched police investigation. A great lawyer. A perfectionist. If you killed someone in Montana during those years, he was not the man you wanted sitting across from you in the courtroom.
Currently, only two men sit on death row in Montana, though during his career, my father secured the death penalty on four cases. Twice, during my childhood, condemned prisoners faced execution. Because prisoners with pending appeals can't be executed (except, probably, in Texas; and now, factually, in Oklahoma), a court sets an execution date once the appeals process has been exhausted. In Montana, near midnight, the prison went about the ceremony of preparing a man to die. At 12:01am, the sitting Attorney General was required to call the prison and state, "No appeals are pending for John Doe. Please put this man to death."
Attorney General is a publicly elected office in Montana. The men and women who run don't sign up to kill inmates. If they schedule their vacations properly, they avoid the emotional baggage brought by that phone call. Three times during my father's tenure, an inmate was sent to the state prison's Death Trailer. Twice, the Attorney General decided to take a vacation after the court set an execution date for an inmate, while my father sat in the Attorney General's chair, with a phone wired directly to the Death Trailer, and waited for 12:01am. Because he was next in line. And when the time came to make the phone call, he picked up the receiver and asked for a man to be put to death.
I was 13 when he called to kill Terry Langford in 1998. He walked home after that call, made a pot of coffee, and sat alone in his office in our basement while I slept in a room directly above him. I knew very little of what was happening, because at that age, the evils of the world rarely register in proper context. But I remember him seeing walk around the house like a shell of a man for more than a week, his eyes hollowed out and a blank look on his face. I'd heard that someone was set for execution, common fodder over the dinner table at my childhood home, but I hadn't asked any questions. It's frightening to be a child and see one act transform a firm, powerful man into a despondent figure going through the motions of his life.
I didn't ask him how it felt, or what happened in the moments that directly followed that phone call, until it happened again. When I was home from college for the summer at the age of 22, he made the call to kill David Dawson from his office, and then didn't come directly home. Perhaps he knew that at my age I would still be up, and I would have to see the look in his eyes that proceeded the hollowness. But at 22, I knew well enough to ask when I saw him the next morning, to ask how it felt once he hung up the phone and knew that, by his word, a man was being killed in a trailer 55 miles away.
"I cried," he said bluntly. Two of his co-workers stayed in the office with him. "We all just stood there, hugging, and crying."
Men like my father have tough jobs. Collateral damage exists. With one phone call, Montana's most powerful trial attorney could be brought to tears because he knew that, though he was simply following the statutory requirements of his job, he had just taken someone's life.
Now I know I was looking at the specifics of how our government, our society as a whole, kills its own citizens. With a phone call and a man in a room on the other end, and a team of almost-doctors pushing lethal drugs into the inmates. We do this as punishment, as a deterrent, to show other potential murderers that the legal system in this country is not built on half-measures.
Since my father retired from his job, he's fought to have the death penalty banned in the same state in which he sent four men to death row. It's barbaric. It wastes a ton of money. It doesn't actually act as a deterrent.
If you listen long enough, he will tell you about William Gollehon and Douglas Turner. Both men sat on life sentences at the state prison when, in 1990, they beat inmate Gerald Pileggi to death with a baseball bat. Charges were filed. The defense team received notification that the prosecution was seeking the death penalty. Shortly before their trials began, the two men helped orchestrate a riot at the prison, during which they murdered five more inmates. At no point was there any sign either man felt deterred by his pending case. People who commit these crimes don't think with the same logic as the rest of us. Consequences are not considered.
For three years following college, I worked in criminal defense. Growing up the son of prosecutor and a defense attorney, legal work consistently existed as the one profession I swore I would never enter. Yet, I ended up taking a job to advocate for the same people my father used to send to prison because I felt as though, by doing this, I could make a difference in the world.
It only took those three years to see that I couldn't—one too many trials of watching suspect evidence presented as absolute fact, of juries not seeing the defendants as people. But as I think back, I wonder if hearing my dad constantly preach against the death penalty, and having his arguments continually fall of deaf ears, influenced my own exit as well.
Still, during my career, I never met one person who told me they thought about murder, but stopped short because of the possible consequences. Deterrence is a powerful argument for the pro-death lobby (a lobby whose Venn diagram usually overlaps greatly with being pro-life), but deterrence, as both my father and I have witnessed, is a myth.
Lethal injection is the preferred form of execution in this country. Six states still allow the possibility to use an electric chair, while hangings haven't been taken off the books in two more. Yet, every state has to allow an inmate his choice of how he wants to be killed, and lethal injection has become standard because it's preached to the inmates, to the general public, to advocates and for and against the death penalty, that administering a lethal concoction of drugs is the most un-cruel and humane way for someone to die. Until recently, most states used a three-drug cocktail of pentobarbital to sedate the inmate, followed by pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride to poison them to death.
In 2013, a beacon of hope sprang up for people like my father, for the people who work for the Montana Abolition Coalition and similar groups in other states. The European Union pushed its members not to sell lethal injection drugs to the United States. This is America; we can't even manufacture our own methods of societal murder.
States scrambled. Missouri and Wyoming considered bringing back firing squads. Maryland wanted re-legalize the use of their electric chair. In Ohio, prison officials just tried to come up with a new concoction of drugs. They pumped them into Dennis McGuire in January. He started choking and gasping for air for fifteen minutes before he died. Texas, our country's champion of executions, secretly found a way to obtain a deadly sedative in order to execute two men within a week. Instead of staying executions, states just searched for other ways to kill, and kill quickly.
And then, Oklahoma. On April 29, Oklahoma planned to execute two men on the same day for reasons that, at no point, will ever feel logical. First up: Clayton Lockett. At the time of his execution, the state had difficulty procuring their lethal drug cocktail. Oklahoma decided to run roughshod over due process and attempt to execute Mr. Lockett with a new combination: midazolam (a sedative), vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride. Mr. Lockett did not die within the expected time frame. After sixteen minutes, prison officials decided it wasn't working. The injection had been botched, and Clayton Lockett eventually died 43 minutes after he was supposed to be executed, not from Oklahoma's secret death concoction, but from a heart attack[i]. In an obvious act of slight humanity, Oklahoma temporarily stayed the execution of the day's second victim, Charles Warner, for six months[ii].
"Cruel and unusual punishment" are the words that dominate the narrative about the death penalty, that allow men to be poisoned to death as opposed to firing squads or public stoning. So what words do we use to describe the executions of Dennis McGuire and Clayton Lockett?
I asked my father. Without the normal combination of drugs, what can be done?
"Does it matter?" he said. "The first is meant to sedate the prisoner. Because once he's sedated, it becomes OK to pump him full of poison. That, apparently, is not cruel."
"At least they're sedated," I said. I believed him but I wanted more answers. Devil's advocate.
"We can just sedate them and put them in front of a firing squad. Or, as long as they're sedated, why don't we just beat them to death? Why is poisoning someone a better way to kill than anything else?"
I didn't ask more questions. I understood the point. Oklahoma and other states will continue to search for their own poisons, Texas and Missouri have decided to skip the three-drug injection and simply pump a lethal dose of the sedative pentobarbital into condemned prisoners. States now refuse to reveal the supplier of pentobarbital and other drugs due to risks that the supply might run dry if people who find this practice completely barbaric threaten the company. Government transparency at its finest.
Why are these solutions viewed as not-cruel and not-unusual? Does simply sedating a prisoner give prison officials free rein to kill with the easiest method possible? What is kind about what we do to each person executed in this country? Nothing. It's cruel. It's unusual. It's why our country is one of only twenty-seven in the world that procedurally kills its own citizens (the list includes a collection of nations that we normally consider barbarous: Afghanistan, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, etc.).
I've heard my father give speeches about his experiences with the death penalty. We as a society, he points out, revere human life so much that once someone takes a life, we use all of our time, our money, and our resources to take the convicted person's life. Now, as it's become harder for our country to find ways to kill its own citizens, searching for new, secret drugs seems to be to be the ultimate incongruity. A kinder way to die, they seek. But no such method exists.
"Aren't we better than this?" my father asked at the conclusion of our conversation. My father who sent four men to death row, who made the phone calls to kill two of them because it was part of his job, not because he believed it to be right. "Aren't we?"
I didn't say anything. The answer, as proven by Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio, and many other states is no. We still sleep at night after hearing a new study estimating that one in every 25 prisoners sitting on death row in this country may actually be innocent.[iii] We sleep at night after reading detailed accounts of the innocence of people like Cameron Todd Willingham who were still put to death.[iv] We sleep at night because we as a society are not better than this. We are barbaric seekers of justice with blood on our mutual hands. People like my father hope that Clayton Lockett will be the turning point. I fear it won't, but I will continue to hope that someday our society will finally decide that we are better than the monsters that commit the crimes for which we eventually put them to death.
Christopher Connor is a fiction writer and essayist based in Oakland, CA
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]