Not all the condemned men proclaimed their innocence to their last breath, far from it. A handful said that they were getting what they deserved; others that they were guilty and, having changed in character their time incarcerated, regretted what they had done and asked for forgiveness from the relatives of their victims who attended their execution. Still others admitted that they were guilty, but inveighed against the death penalty which (according to them) only speeded the cycle of violence in society or was useless. Henry Earl Dunn junior, who at the age of 19 abducted, robbed and killed a 23 year-old man with an accomplice called Donald Loren Aldrich (Dunn was black while Aldrich, executed seventeen months later, was white, an example of interracial cooperation), wrote in his final statement ‘Please continue to struggle and fight against the death penalty, as its only use has been for revenge, and it does not deter crime,’ the latter a disputable claim, and not a decisive argument if true. By contrast, Aldrich, who was 29 at the time of the crime and might therefore be assumed to have been the leader in the enterprise, merely asked for forgiveness. Was his survival on Death Row longer by a year for a crime committed at the same time proof of systematic racial bias in his favour, or even against him, or was it merely a sign of the bureaucratic capriciousness of the system?
As might be expected in such a book, there were few lighter moments, though one could hardly repress a smile when one learned that a last requested cigarette was denied to those to be executed on the grounds of the no smoking policy of the prison, at least on Death Row. Surely only the bureaucratic mind could think of such a denial, the mind that unites bureaucrats the world over. One prisoner asked for the vegetables that he requested in his last meal be washed (he was afraid, presumably, of the carcinogens in which, unwashed, they might be covered), and one of the executed, having eaten his last meal, said ‘My compliments to the chef.’ But I have to confess to the thought, frivolous in the circumstances, that the last meal requests of the condemned men reveal and reflect the terrible diet of Americans, at least of the class most likely to be executed.
The memoir by Michelle Lyons began with a memorable anecdote:
I don’t remember his name . . . What I remember most is the nothingness. No family members, no friends, no comfort. Maybe he didn’t wasn’t them to come, maybe they didn’t care, maybe he didn’t have any in the first place. There was nobody bearing witness for his victim either.
At the moment of his execution:
The man didn’t look to the side. When the warden stepped forward and asked if he wanted to make a last statement, the man barely shook his head, said nothing and started blinking. That’s when I saw it: a single tear at the corner of his right eye. A tear he desperately wanted to blink away. It pooled there for a moment before running down his cheek The warden gave his signal, the chemicals started flowing, the man coughed, sputtered and exhaled. A doctor entered the room, pronounced the man dead and pulled a sheet over his head.
The quasi-medical way in which executions were carried out—the anaesthetic from whose bourn no traveller returns—appals me (they disinfect the condemned man’s skin before inserting the cannula though which the fatal chemicals are to flow, another instance of the operation of the bureaucratic mind). I am far from sure also about the presence of witnesses from what I suppose I must call both sides, as at a wedding—although it is not clear at an execution who is the bride and who is the groom.
The author, who began as a firm partisan of the death penalty, and who accepted her attendance at execution as a job like any other, believing herself to be unaffected by what she saw, gradually began to experience a vague unease, and finally came to the conclusion that the death penalty was wrong. In this, she followed the trajectory of Albert Pierrepoint, the British hangman who executed over 600 people in his career, including at Nuremberg, and who at the last came to believe that his life’s work in this field (he was only semi-professional, he also ran a pub) had served no useful purpose. That, surely, must have been a burden on his conscience, to have killed 600 men to no good end, or to have done so believing it to have been to no end, whether ‘objectively’ it was to no end or not. I once found new and previously unsuspected evidence that the death penalty, in Britain at least, had deterred crime, but efficacy is not a complete defence of the practice, except perhaps for a crude utilitarian.
If the death penalty is wrong, are the last words of one convicted murderer, kept eleven years on Death Row, justified: ‘I forgive all of you and hope God forgives you too’?