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
Ault mentioned getting letters from citizens eager to volunteer for the post of
"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
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
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:
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
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