Former death row commissioner: ‘If you seek revenge, dig two graves’

(By Deutsche Welle) The US Supreme Court has ruled states can use a disputed drug in lethal injections. Dr. Allen Ault, who oversaw executions, tells DW about the human cost of the death penalty for the condemned and their executioners.

Did Clayton Lockett suffer severe pain before he died? Nobody knows for sure. That’s what official records say. But his execution did not go according to plan.

The state of Oklahoma uses a three-drug “protocol” for lethal injections. Midazolam is supposed to render the condemned unconscious; vecuronium bromide paralyzes the body; and potassium chloride stops the heart. An execution by lethal injection is supposed to take about 10 minutes.

Lockett’s execution took 43 minutes. After the drugs were administered, witnesses reported that the confessed murderer jerked against the gurney restraints and made noises. Many death penalty abolitionists believe midazolam was the culprit.

Oklahoma and other states turned to the sedative agent, which is used in some surgeries and for other medicinal purposes, after American and European pharmaceutical companies refused to sell them sodium thiopental, the drug traditionally used for executions.

In the aftermath of Lockett’s execution, attorneys representing four death row inmates tried to convince the courts to stop any further executions, arguing that the midazolam drug cocktail may cause “severe pain, needless suffering, and a lingering death.”

While the Supreme Court deliberated over whether or not to consider the case, one of the defendants was executed with the midazolam protocol. Charles Warner, a convicted child rapist and murderer, said “my body is on fire” after the lethal injection was administered. He died 18 minutes later.

On Monday, the nation’s highest court ruled that states can continue using midazolam in executions.

‘I murdered a human being’

The executioners are not sadists or psychopaths. According to Allen Ault, they’re conscientious human beings. And they too suffer severe pain from the death penalty, though they don’t often speak publicly about it.

Ault never used lethal injection. Georgia’s method of execution was the electric chair. The trained psychologist served as the commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Corrections from 1992-1995. He oversaw five executions.

Unable to cope with the psychological trauma, Ault left his job. He told Deutsche Welle how he came to oppose the death penalty:

The attorney general and I went from Atlanta 40 miles down to Jackson.

We met with the witnesses and fed them in the warden’s conference room. There was a lot of nervous laughter. The victim’s family was down at the other end of the corridor.

When I heard the laughter, I went down and explained to them that the laughter was just out of nervousness, that these people had never participated in an execution.

Later, we were in the death chamber, and the attorney general and I were in the room directly behind the chair, looking through a window. And we could see the witnesses through another window.

I talked to the inmate, he was in a cell adjacent to the room I was in. I had been down and talked to him before. I had got to know him.

The attorney general had three telephones: One to the Supreme Court, one to the governor’s office, and one to the parole board. He checked with those entities and said there would be no stay.

At nine o’clock, or whatever the time was, it’s listed on the death warrant, I signaled to the warden who was standing in the chamber and he asked the inmate if he had any last words. And the inmate as I recall said, “please, God, forgive me.”

The electrician was standing behind me but was facing toward the apparatus on the wall. So then I said, “It’s time Brad,” and he never ever looked at the condemned person. He just threw the switch.

What we observed was a really violent body movement when the voltage hit the body, and then five or six seconds later it slumped in the chair.

It was at that moment that I realized that I had just murdered a human being.

It’s a real human being you’re dealing with. A human being that unfortunately I got to know. You had communication with him, personal communication with him. It isn’t some impersonal concept.

All the rationale that I had used up to that point, to get to that point, sort of evaporated. It really impacted me personally and psychologically.

So I started to do the research, trying to find a good justification that I could live with and found that there was zero credible research that said it acted as a deterrent.

Then you get the rest of the facts, that it’s extremely expensive. If you’re killing somebody so it’s more economical – that’s totally untrue. I’ve talked to a lot of victims’ families who didn’t get the closure they thought they would.

There were four other executions. I don’t remember their names, but I still see their faces. I think psychologically I blocked them out.

I realized I was getting psychological help for everybody else involved but me and the attorney general. So the attorney general, he stopped riding down with me and he channeled it by being tough on crime and running for governor.

He would ride down with his publicist and talk to the media at the gates before we went in.

I didn’t do that. I didn’t want to turn it into a circus. He handled it in a different way.

I was functioning in the rest of my job. But I was having a real struggle outside of my job and even inside of my job emotionally.

Even though I’m a psychologist, I sought help from a psychologist who I trusted. And that marginally helped. The only thing that helped was to go find another job and get the hell out of town.

I finally realized what I was doing was society’s revenge, and I was the avenger, that’s all you could say it is.

I had heard the saying, “if you seek revenge, dig two graves.” And I found myself in the second grave psychologically.

The condemned man in Ault’s account was named Christopher Burger. The 17 year-old army enlistee was sentenced to death for the 1977 rape and murder of cab driver and fellow serviceman, Roger Honeycutt. His execution was carried out in 1993. Burger was 33 years old when he died.

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