The Burden of Execution

The Last Face You'll Ever See: The Private Life of the American Death Penalty

By Ivan Solotaroff. HarperCollins, 232 pages, $25.00

Legal Lynching: The Death Penalty and America's Future By Jesse L. Jackson,
Sr.; Jesse L. Jackson, Jr.; and Bruce Shapiro. New Press, 174 pages, $22.95

Ivan Solotaroff states early on in The Last Face You'll Ever See that
he is agnostic on the subject of the death penalty. His book, he writes, will
make no attempt to answer the question of whether the death penalty is moral or
not; he instead will focus on "the motive of capital punishment." He asks: "Is an
execution a rational mechanism--i.e., a tool of deterrence, punishment, or
jurisprudence... ? Or is it something altogether different--an expression of an
irrational urge far more subterranean than the will to justice?"

In posing such a question, Solotaroff has put his finger on one of the most
important moral quandaries in the debate. Yet he wants his readers to know that
he didn't write the book to persuade them one way or the other. And for the most
part, he pulls it off. His agnosticism is apparent throughout; he is always a
reporter, always presenting facts as straightforwardly as possible, without
judgment. But as I read, I was reminded of books about war that are seen to be
antiwar--All Quiet on the Western Front, for example. What writer
who understands combat well enough to write about it escapes without some tinge
of antiwar outrage?

Solotaroff, a magazine journalist and the author of a book of essays, provides
a brief and intelligent narration of the recent legal history of the death
penalty, going back to the 1970s. He introduces us to M. Watt Espy, who runs the
"unfunded, unaffiliated, one-man attempt to collect every available fact about
the American death penalty" known as the Capital Punishment Research Project out
of his wood-frame house in Headland, Alabama. Espy, at the time of Last
Face
's publication, had chronicled the details of 18,812 executions by
"hanging, shooting, electrocution, gassing, lethal injection, burning, beheading,
entombment, gibbeting, breaking on the wheel, boiling in oil, roasting,
drowning," and other means, and can recite from memory dozens of examples of
botched executions and the condemned's last words. The conversation with Espy,
who comes off as having more a sense of academic detachment than a bent for
thrill seeking, nevertheless does much to remind the reader of the strange
subculture that has sprung up around murderers in our country.

But this is primarily the story of two executioners, Colonel Donald Hocutt and
former warden Donald Cabana. Both served for years at Mississippi State
Penitentiary at Parchman and participated in several executions. Hocutt's life is
traced from when he was a small boy, riding by the penitentiary on a train, to
his time inside (including a description of a drunken brawl he instigated as a
guard at Parchman that came perilously close to ending in just the kind of murder
that puts people on death row). Cabana--whose own book, Death at Midnight:
The Confession of an Executioner,
is an eloquent, openly anti-death-penalty
work--spent years in corrections before becoming warden at Parchman in 1984.

On the cover of The Last Face You'll Ever See, Hocutt stands in a white
prison-guard's uniform, scowling, with his huge arms folded, at the door of a gas
chamber. His face looks young, perhaps fortyish, but his hair is white. It's hard
to read the scowl on his face: He seems a little defiant, angry, determined;
there's even a bit of "look what you made me do," but without any trace of
remorse. He resembles the death penalty in America today--haggard, unhealthy, but
still doing a job. Or more accurately: Like the death penalty, he looks like
whatever you want to see.

Hocutt worked at Parchman for 20 years before retiring in 1995. By way of
introduction, we're told that Hocutt is "easily 300 pounds, with thick, baby-face
features that cloud over dramatically when he concentrates or falls into one of
his moods." He experiences a "weird 'crackling' that comes into his head every
time he's in [Parchman] now," he drives too fast, he carries a .45 loaded with
hollow-point bullets (he doesn't want to die, he says, trying to get his gun
loaded), and he suffers from "gout, maturity-onset diabetes, diverticulitis,
arthritis in his upper body, [and] partial deafness in one ear," Solotaroff
reports. "His mind hasn't been right for years. Depressions steal over him, and
for weeks he finds it almost impossible to get out of bed... . At the slightest
provocation, he falls into rages." State-sponsored killing, we see, takes its
toll, even on tough men like Hocutt.

Solotaroff's ability to bring to life the guards who work at the Parchman
penitentiary as well as the men imprisoned there gives the executions he
describes a harrowing power. We are meant to understand why the executioners
chose this work; while that might not be possible, it is as if we are in the room
with them as they do it. Hocutt tells of the 1983 gassing of Jimmy Lee Gray for
the 1976 rape and murder of three-year-old Deressa Jean Scales. The execution
went horribly wrong (there were even rumors that Thomas Bruce, who oversaw it,
was drunk at the time). Gray was finally pronounced dead after 47 minutes, having
foamed at the mouth and beaten his head violently against a metal pole just
behind the chair.

Hocutt remembers stopping afterward for a hamburger at a nearby McDonald's and
listening to people talk about the Gray execution. "To call what he had done
twelve hours earlier a job," Solotaroff writes, "was absurd. That had nothing to
do with employment. To say it was 'the law' either evaded the truth or missed the
point altogether. What he had done was the right thing to do. And it wasn't some
abstract will of the people that he'd carried out. It was the will of the people
in that McDonald's."

We see, as well, Cabana visiting with condemned inmate Edward Earl Johnson
before Johnson's execution in 1987. When Cabana asked if Johnson wanted a
last-minute injection of Valium before going to his death, Johnson "blinked
slowly, like a curtain coming down," and responded: "I want a clear mind when you
walk me in there... . Will you be needing one for yourself?... I want you to know
exactly what you're doing when you execute me. I want you to remember every last
detail, because I'm innocent, Mr. Cabana. I'm innocent."

Later that year, Connie Ray Evans was strapped into the chair in the gas
chamber and asked if he had any last words. He replied that he did, but only for
Warden Cabana. Cabana stepped back into the chamber and Evans said to him: "From
one Christian to another, I love you. You can bet I'm going to tell the Man how
good you are."

"In the classic image," Solotaroff writes, "a part of the executioner dies
with his prisoner. Now it was palpable. Cabana felt a part of his life slip
away."

People often say that they'd volunteer to be executioner, and one of the most
chilling aspects of Solotaroff's book is the difference in attitude between the
men who actually participate in executions and the prosecutors who seek them. In
one scene, two Mississippi prosecutors discuss the death penalty. They say a lot
of things that death penalty advocates say, such as how they'd have no trouble
pulling the switch themselves. "I'd pull the switch and eat spaghetti.
Bzzzzzzzzz," one of them remarks.

In the end, Solotaroff, the agnostic, comes to a conclusion: "We execute to
exert power over what horrifies us most supremely," he tells us. "And we execute
imperfectly--randomly, cruelly, unusually--because murder itself seems exactly so
to civilized eyes." Recent Harris Poll results showed that 94 percent of
Americans believe that innocent people are sometimes convicted of murder and that
67 percent support the death penalty nonetheless. That support, along with the
staggering randomness of executions--fewer than a hundred a year in a society
that suffers 16,000 homicides annually--gives credence to Solotaroff's
conclusion.

That the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson and his son, Illinois Congressman Jesse L.
Jackson, Jr., are anything but agnostic on the death penalty is evident at once
from the title of the book they've written with Bruce Shapiro: Legal Lynching.
The authors wish this book to be a "tool for all Americans engaged in the new
debate over the death penalty." Indeed, it reads like a strong, comprehensive
speech about how the death penalty debate has changed in the last four years.
Each chapter tackles a different facet of the argument--from "A Question of
Innocence" to "Deadly Numbers: Race and the Geography of Execution" to "Sleeping
Lawyer Syndrome and Other Tales of Justice for the Poor." The book provides both
important historical context and a summary of the latest information on the
topic. The text of Representative Jackson's National Death Penalty Moratorium Act
of 2001 is included at the end.

The Reverend Jackson's preface takes us to the center of one of the more
troubling executions of the last decade, that of Gary Graham in June of 2000.
Graham, as Jackson points out, was 17 at the time of the murder for which he was
convicted, was identified by only one witness (there was no corroborating
physical evidence), and had a "low-rent" trial lawyer. Jackson spent an hour with
Graham on his final day and was a witness to the execution. In urging his readers
to find the courage to "stand with those on death row," Jackson acknowledges his
own moments of uncertainty "when the violence of which individuals are capable
seems overwhelming." This acknowledgment, rare among the most committed activists
in the anti-death-penalty movement, is a vital part of the message of the
book--because it is a vital part of the national ambivalence about the death
penalty. As chapter after chapter unfolds, outlining the history of the death
penalty and the myriad problems with the system as it exists today, the reader
can't help thinking back to the preface and hoping that Jackson is correct when,
echoing Dr. Martin Luther King, he argues that there isn't any reason to believe
that the death penalty is immune to the same "long arc of education, activism,
and reform" that ended apartheid in South Africa.

Legal Lynching includes some sloppy errors (for example, Oklahoma City
bombing victim Julie Marie Welch is called Jennifer here). But its passion and
its detailed arguments make the book important. We are in a time when random
murderous violence can seem overwhelming, a time of heightened anger against that
which "horrifies us most supremely." Almost certainly, this will make moral
arguments against the death penalty more difficult. Still, Legal Lynching
makes a strong case that the American system of capital punishment is too gravely
flawed to be morally acceptable.

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