Former warden 'haunted' by executions

Last modified: 8/13/2010 12:00:00 AM
Two former prison wardens offered New Hampshire officials another reason to abolish the state's death penalty yesterday: Putting someone to death is irreparably traumatic for the prison staff involved.

'Many colleagues turned to drugs and alcohol from the pain of knowing a man had died at their hands,' said Ron McAndrew, who oversaw executions in Florida and now speaks internationally against the death penalty. 'And I've been haunted by the men I was asked to execute in the name of the state of Florida.'

McAndrew was one of several people to testify before a death penalty study commission created by lawmakers last year to assess whether the state's death penalty law deters crime, targets the right offenses and is better than a sentence of life without parole. Its creation followed the state's prosecution of two death penalty cases, one of which resulted in a death sentence, the other a life sentence in prison.

The commission is scheduled to put its conclusions in a report by the end of November.

Yesterday's speakers also included a New York law professor who said he supports the death penalty but not in the case of Michael Addison, who was sentenced to death in 2008 for killing a Manchester police officer. Professor Robert Blecker said people who shoot a police officer while fleeing and being shot at by the police should be given a life sentence without parole instead.

But in the Addison case, no police officers had fired at Addison before he shot and killed Officer Michael Briggs in a Manchester alley. No one on the panel noted that distinction for Blecker to address, and he couldn't be reached after the hearing to say whether that fact would change his opinion.

Perhaps the day's most emotional testimony came from Laura Bonk of Concord, whose mother would have turned 69 yesterday had she not been murdered in Massachusetts in 1989.

'My mother had a clear and strong moral code that guided her life,' said Bonk, at times crying. 'She opposed the death penalty, and I ask you to repeal it. It would honor me and, most importantly, my mother.'

Bonk, who serves on Concord's school board, said her mother and 16-year-old sister were checking in on an elderly woman when the woman's son shot them in Littleton, Mass. Bonk's sister survived. Bonk flew home from Paraguay, where she was serving in the Peace Corps, and assumed the role of caretaker for her two sisters.

Waiting a year for the killer's trial was painful enough, Bonk said. Her family would have suffered even more, she said, had the death penalty been an option. The death of the killer wouldn't have helped then, nor did his death from natural causes three years ago in prison.

'There is a false belief that death brings closure,' Bonk said. 'It does not. It does not bring the victim back. It does not solve anything.'

McAndrew, the former Florida warden, and Allen Ault, who oversaw executions as a prison warden in Georgia, echoed that sentiment. Ault is now the dean of the College of Justice and Safety at Eastern Kentucky University. Commission members watched a video of his comments and then spoke with him by telephone.

Ault said his experience in Georgia prisons convinced him the death penalty did not deter crime or save taxpayers money. And the method of execution did not change the amount of suffering it caused prison staff who carried out the procedure.

'Lethal injection is certainly more humane than the gas chamber,' Ault said. 'But execution is gruesome any way you do it.' Sometimes members of the public would offer to do the job for him, Ault said.

'I didn't want sadists to do it,' he said, adding that no one with a conscience can carry out an execution and feel no regret or pain. 'I wanted a human being to do it if we had to do it.'

McAndrew described a botched execution where the inmate's flesh began burning. 'The executioner asked me if we should continue,' McAndrew said. 'What a question.'

McAndrew said he's gotten calls from distressed executioners and prison staff since he began speaking out against the death penalty. He said some corrections officers have committed suicide because of guilt and regret.

'Being a corrections officer is supposed to be an honorable profession,' he said. 'The state dishonors us by putting us in this situation. This is premeditated, carefully thought out ceremonial killing.'

During his testimony, Blecker, the law professor, said New Hampshire should neither repeal nor leave untouched its death penalty law.

Lawmakers should rewrite it, he said, to make only the 'worst of the worst of the worst' eligible for execution. That group, in Blecker's view, includes serial killers, people who rape and kill, those who torture and kill children, and people who kill jurors.

Blecker also supports the death penalty for people who kill someone from law enforcement if they target the person because they are a police officer. But he did not elaborate on what scenarios that would include.

Blecker said he'd eliminate most murder-for-hire killings, except for those who do the killing, and remove additional penalties for substantial planning and meditation before murder. Spontaneously pushing a child into water and watching him or her drown is no less horrible than planning a person's murder for days, he said.

And those defendants who are given life in prison without parole instead should be punished while incarcerated, Blecker said. He toured the state prison yesterday before addressing the commission and said he was angry to see inmates with televisions in their cells and access to gym equipment, pool tables and drama clubs.

'They are not locked in some cage to never see the light of day,' he said. Then he pulled out the list of items available for purchase by inmates. It includes sunglasses and sunscreen.




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