A few years ago a friend turned me on to a radio series called Sound Portraits. There were shows on ghetto life, Bowery flophouses, and the guy who repairs the Cyclone on Coney Island. But the one that really gripped me was called Witness to an Execution.

Here’s the intro:

“Witness to an Execution tells the stories of the men and women involved with the execution of deathrow inmates at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas. Narrated by Warden Jim Willett, who oversees all Texas executions, Witness to an Execution documents, in minute-by-minute detail, the process of carrying out an execution by lethal injection. Most of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice employees interviewed have witnessed over one hundred inmates be put to death. One-third of all executions in the US have taken place in Texas, since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977.”

The voices in Witness to an Execution tell a rare story. Major Kenneth Dean, a member of the “tie-down” team, describes the act of walking an inmate from his cell to the death chamber. Jim Brazzil, a death house chaplain who has witnessed 114 executions, remembers inmates’ last words to him. Former corrections officer Fred Allen discusses his own mental breakdown, caused, he says, by participating in one too many executions.

Witness to an Execution won a Peabody Award in 2000.”

Listen, weep, and tell me Fred Allen is not by far the sanest one of that bunch.

And if you’ve a mind to, check out as well Tolstoy’s 1899 novel Resurrection, about the abysmal Russian prisons and man’s (obviously continuing) injustice to man:

LEO TOLSTOY: 1828-1910

From Chapter XXX, “The Astonishing Institution Called Criminal Law”

He hoped to find an answer to this question in books, and bought all that referred to it. He got the works of Lombroso, Garofalo, Ferry, List, Maudsley, Tard, and read them carefully. But as he read he became more and more disappointed. It happened to him as it always happens to those who turn to science not in order to play a part in it, nor to write, nor to dispute, nor to teach, but simply for an answer to an every-day question of life. Science answered thousands of different very subtle and ingenious questions touching criminal law, but not the one he was trying to solve. He asked a very simple question: “Why, and with what right, do some people lock up, torment, exile, flog, and kill others, while they are themselves just like those whom they torment, flog, and kill?” And in answer he got deliberations as to whether human beings had free will or not. Whether signs of criminality could be detected by measuring the skulls or not. What part heredity played in crime. Whether immorality could be inherited. What madness is, what degeneration is, and what temperament is. How climate, food, ignorance, imitativeness, hypnotism, or passion act. What society is. What are its duties, etc., etc. 

These disquisitions reminded him of the answer he once got from a little boy whom he met coming home from school. Nekhludoff asked him if he had learned his spelling.

“I have,” answered the boy.

“Well, then, tell me, how do you spell ‘leg’?

“A dog’s leg, or what kind of leg?” the boy answered, with a sly look.



  1. Anonymous says: Reply

    And what are just causes & right intentions & who decides & how…. and, and…~Mary

  2. You know, Pope John Paul and the revised Catechism of the Catholic church argue that society NOW has adequate means by which to keep dangerous persons from doing further harm to others. So, capital punishment is no longer necessary.

    That is probably true. But it is also probably true that society has always had adequate means to keep dangerous persons locked up and out of our way, and to do this in a humane manner, making sure that they have shelter, food, medical care, spiritual guidance, the sacraments, etc.

    But this generally has not been done. Prisons have been notorious for being abominable places. Why is this?

    Because WE see certain people as having lost their dignity, and lost the rights that dignity would imply. We (the people in power in a given situation) have certain wants and when others get in the way of those wants, we dehumanize them.

    So, the Nazis dehumanized Jews, Gypsies, Poles and Priests. Nations at war dehumanize each other with anti-"them" propaganda. Spouses dehumanize each other when they have a bad argument. Pro-aborts dehumanize babies by calling them fetuses. Even atheists and Christians ridicule each other in the course of their arguments.

    And the legal system, the government, victims of crime dehumanize criminals out of anger, or a desire for "justice" (or retribution). A right to punish (which IS a real right in natural law) is used to the point of abuse, in order to "get what we want" whatever that may be. Of course, it also true that criminals dehumanize their victims as well.

    In terms of criminal justice, the criminal does not lose his dignity or his right to be treated humanely. He ought to be corrected, and probably that is best done in the context of confinement. But, for the most part, our system does not "correct" at all. It probably makes criminals worse. And I think that this happens for the most part because those "in charge" fail to view the criminal as a brother or sister in Christ, with rights and dignity that ought to be respected, for their sakes, but also for the sake of society itself.

    It doesn't mean we have to be namby-pamby in our treatment of criminals. While a few criminals may be beyond reform, most would benefit from a much more humane and Christ-oriented system.

    I think that for the most part, "we" are not really all that interested in reforming and correcting, but in getting criminals out of our way, in punishing them, and in taking revenge.

    Sorry to go on…

  3. Well, exactly. The impulse is to annihilate, not to see the criminal as a human being. And if you don't see the criminal as a human being, you're not fully seeing the victim as a human being either. Society is saying to the victim: Here's the way to make you whole, relieve your anguish: we're going to kill someone else for you. That's not what makes victims emotionally and spiritually whole. We have to acknowledge that they can't be made whole. There are no answers. We sit with them; we're in solidarity with their suffering.

    That's not to say people who commit crimes shouldn't suffer the consequences of their actions. But I think it's a very deep question: who of us is to equipped to judge? Who of us is equipped to dispense "justice" and administer punishment? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, Christ said, and of course no-one is "without sin." Again, no answers, except that killing people, under any circumstances, only leads to more violence, more killing, only corroborates that human life is cheap.

    And there is something particularly chilling about the fact that our executioners remain anonymous. Why? If it's such a great thing they're doing, why do they not proudly show their faces? Why does our "benevolent" state, one nation under God (right) shield the executioners from identify themselves, from being seen? Because what they're doing is craven, contemptible, dastardly and evil–we know because we've seen executioners who DO proudly show their faces and we are the first to jump out and identify those people as "the enemy." But you can't make an evil act "good" by covering your face when you commit it. So the enemy is us at times as well as the other.

    Christ himself died by capital punishment. Innocent…