In My Nightmares I Can See Their Faces

Article excerpt

Byline: Allen Ault; Ault is the dean of the College of Justice & Safety at Eastern Kentucky University.

Ordering Death in Georgia

I can't always remember their names, but in my nightmares I can see their faces. As the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections from 1992 until 1995, I oversaw five executions. The first two were Thomas Dean Stevens and Christopher Burger, accomplices in a monstrous crime: as teenagers in 1977, they robbed and raped a cabdriver, put him in the trunk of a car, and pushed the vehicle into a pond. I had no doubt that they were guilty: they admitted it to me. But now it was 1993 and they were in their 30s. All these years later, after a little frontal-lobe development, they were entirely different people.

On execution days, I always drove from Atlanta to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. I knew death row well: 20 years earlier, I had built it. The state had hired me as the warden of Georgia Diagnostic in 1971, where I renovated a special cell block for especially violent offenders. After I left Georgia in 1977, the state reinstated the death penalty and turned the cell block I had developed into death row.

The state executed Stevens first, in June 1993, and then Burger in December. In both instances, I visited them in a cell next to the electric-chair chamber, where they counted down the hours until they died. They were calm, mature, and remorseful. When the time came, I went to a small room directly behind the death chamber where the attorney general worked the phones, checking with the courts to make sure that the executions were not stayed. Then we asked the prisoners for their final words. Stevens said nothing, and Burger apologized, saying, "Please forgive me." I looked to the prison electrician and ordered him to pull the switch. Last Wednesday, as the state of Georgia prepared to execute Troy Davis despite concerns about his guilt, I wrote a letter with five former death-row wardens and directors urging Georgia prison officials to commute his sentence. I feared not only the risk of Georgia killing an innocent man, but also the psychological toll it would exact on the prison workers who performed his execution. "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," we wrote in our letter.

The men and women who assist in executions are not psychopaths or sadists. They do their best to perform the impossible and inhumane job with which the state has charged them. Those of us who have participated in executions often suffer something very much like posttraumatic stress. …