A Very Premeditated Murder

Posted by Margo Schulter on September 28th, 2011

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In the immediate wake of the tragic execution of Troy Davis, killed by the State of Georgia despite serious doubts concerning his guilt and widespread appeals for clemency even from usual death penalty supporters, one of the most moving voices was that of Allen Ault, former Director of the Georgia Department of Corrections, who had himself supervised and helped carry out executions in Georgia.

As part of the movement to save Troy Davis's life, Ault had joined with former San Quentin Warden Jeanne Woodford and other retired corrections officials asking the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to reconsider its decision denying clemency to Davis, a decision reached according to one account by an agonizingly close 3-2 vote.

Interviewed by Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC only minutes after the execution of Troy Davis, Ault spoke directly about the experience of carrying out a death sentence:

"It's one thing to theorize about it or talk about it abstractly, but when you're in the death chamber ordering an execution, and even if you… actually believe somebody isguilty, it's still a very premeditated murder. It's scripted and rehearsed. It's about as premeditated as any killing you can do."

Talking with Maddow about the special burdens placed on "people of conscience" carrying out an execution where there are doubts about guilt, as in Davis's case, Ault emphasized the more general issue of killing itself:

"It['s] exacting a toll whether you believe they're innocent or they're guilty. You're actually killing somebody.”


Ault mentioned getting letters from citizens eager to volunteer for the post of executioner.

"There are people without conscience, psychopathic type people, some of them politicians, and sadists who would volunteer. I would hate to see us fall; to be that depraved that they would let people like that do the execution.”

"I can't see the justification. If we're just reaping vengeance for somebody, I don't see the justification in
that either. I talked to a lot of families of victims who didn't feel fulfilled after the execution took place. I can't speak for all the families of victims, but I know I've talked to many."

That same day, one of those family members, Ross Byrd in Texas, experienced, as did Ault, the sadness and defeat of an execution after he had struggled for clemency. Byrd is the son of James Byrd, an African-American who became the victim of an especially horrible act of racist hate: being tied to a motor vehicle and literally dragged to his death. As Byrd explained, in words much like those of Ault, why he sought clemency for Lawrence Brewer: "We can't fight murder with murder."


As mentioned above, one of the signers of the appeal by retired corrections officials to save Troy Davis's life is Jeanne Woodford, now Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus. Like Ault, she learned at first hand "how empty and futile the act of execution is."

"As the warden of San Quentin, I presided over four executions. After each one, someone on the staff would ask: `Is the world safer because of what we did tonight?'

"We knew the answer: No."

With the killing of a prisoner where innocence is at issue such as Troy Davis -- or Tommy Thompson in California (July 14, 1998) -- the toll on corrections officials and officers may be especially high. But the psychological and spiritual price of brutalization is too high in any execution, not to mention the price, human and fiscal, exacted upon society at large, which means us all. As Woodford sums things up:

"To say that I have regrets about my involvement in the death penalty is to let myself off the hook too easily. To take a life in order to prove how much we value another life does not strengthen our society. It is a public policy that devalues our very being and detracts crucial resources from programs that could truly make our community safe."

To honor Troy Davis, and also Officer Mark MacPhail for whose murder he may have been executed although innocent, Death Penalty Focus and the SAFE California campaign will continue our movement to abolish the death penalty in California at the ballot box in 2012 and provide better support to law enforcement and victims' services. That would be a fitting legacy for these two victims of homicidal
violence.




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