What Executioners Can -- And Cannot -- Teach Us About the Death Penalty

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Executioners and others who come into close proximity with the condemned often come to reject the death penalty. They reject it not only in individual cases, and not only on the ground that the death penalty is poorly implemented. They conclude that capital punishment is wrong. I argue that the perspective of the executioner helps illuminate the debate about whether to abolish capital punishment, and raises the troubling possibility that support for the death penalty can survive only at a great remove. The essay responds to a recent article by Jeffrie Murphy focusing on the question of whether executioners can take pride in their work. I contend that the better question is whether anyone ought to be asked to do such work. On this latter question, the perspective of the executioner sheds important light. Like Murphy, I draw on works by and about Albert Pierrepoint, the “last hangman” of Britain. I also draw on the perspectives of numerous executioners, wardens, chaplains and other death row personnel. I argue that their perspectives offer a powerful argument against the main rationale for the death penalty: retribution. If retribution is keyed to the offender’s character as well as his wrongful act, then post-conviction character ought to matter. The executioners’ accounts share a common theme: that death row inmates change over time and hold the potential for redemption.