Why you should care

Correctional officers shouldn’t bear the burden of the death penalty alone. 

Frank Thompson carefully strapped the prisoner’s wrists and ankles to the gurney, ensuring they would hold tight. But the death row inmate said the straps were hurting him. As Thompson loosened the buckles, the man looked him in the eyes and said, “Yes. Thanks, boss,” minutes before his execution.

As superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, Thompson performed the state’s only two executions in the last 54 years — just eight months apart. He once favored the death penalty, but now he’s a staunch abolitionist. The heavy burden of executing two inmates changed his mind.

Corrections officers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder at more than twice the rate of military veterans, according to a survey conducted by Dr. Caterina Spinaris, founding director of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach. The risk of violence at work and the high-stress nature of the job take an enormous toll. Correctional officers (CO) are trained to rehabilitate inmates, says Thompson. So forcing a CO to kill someone they’re trying to help is counterintuitive.

Jurors play an intrinsic role in carrying out the death penalty.

Frank Thompson, former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary

Why are we putting the onus on an already vulnerable population? Instead, let’s raise the stakes for jurors who condemn defendants to death. Randomly selected as they were for jury duty, one of the 12 should be tasked with injecting the deadly cocktail into the inmate they helped condemn. Prosecutors and state legislators who support the death penalty should also share the responsibility. If politicians run on platforms supporting capital punishment, they ought to be willing to pull the trigger, so to speak.

Last Thursday, Pope Francis declared the death penalty inadmissible, vowing that the Catholic Church will work toward ending the practice worldwide. But in the U.S., capital punishment is still permitted in 31 states and federally. What’s more, after decades of steadily declining support, a Pew Research poll in June found a recent uptick in death penalty supporters, with 54 percent of Americans favoring the death penalty for those convicted of murder, compared to 49 percent two years ago.

The “an eye for an eye” attitude of many Americans doesn’t bode well for nixing the practice nationwide. And while COs will likely continue bearing this burden, we should be willing to consider alternatives. While Thompson wants to abolish the death penalty entirely, this thought occurred to him after performing the two executions. He felt unable to disconnect his own empathy and humanity from the task at hand. Thompson, who is now retired, also saw the toll it took on his staff. After each execution, some COs asked never to be assigned the duty again, some had trouble sleeping and many left the job entirely. Why should his staff suffer while everyone else involved gets to turn a blind eye?

“Jurors play an intrinsic role in carrying out the death penalty,” Thompson says. “There is a responsibility to further carry it out.”

So could a policy like this ever be enacted?

Legal experts doubt it. “I don’t think your idea has legs,” says Frank Zimring, professor of law and an expert on the death penalty at University of California, Berkeley. Zimring is doubtful that any lawmaker would agree to take on such a burden. And the possibility that a juror could be selected to perform the execution would lead to bias in their decision-making during trial.

Gary Rose, a professor of government, politics and global studies at Sacred Heart University, agrees, arguing that jury members lack the proper training to carry out executions, unlike correctional officers.

But executions don’t always go smoothly as it is. In 2014, the lethal injection of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, for example, went horribly wrong, in part because the drugs were injected into soft tissue rather than the bloodstream, subjecting him to a painful death. Three other executions by lethal injection were problematic in 2014 as well, making it the worst year on record since the procedure’s inception in 1977.

If the death penalty is here to stay, better training for executioners is a must. But it doesn’t have to be just prison staff. We could surely train others to perform this grievous task. Those who allow it to exist should step up to bat.

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