The Psychology of the Executioner - Pacific Standard

The Psychology of the Executioner

A look inside the minds of those who have participated in firing squads and lethal injections.
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(Photo: maxriesgo/Shutterstock)

(Photo: maxriesgo/Shutterstock)

There’s a funny fact about firing squads: People volunteer for them. When it comes to lethal injection though, it can be difficult to find an expert to with the right expertise to oversee the procedure. In 2006, Missouri state officials told a judge that they sent letters to 298 anesthesiologists, asking if they would help with the state’s executions. All refused.

Now, as Utah considers a bill that would allow the state to use firing squads in the case that it runs out of lethal-injection drugs, we thought we would take a look at those who participate in both. The mindsets of firing-squad volunteers and lethal-injection team members are the polar opposite with how most of those not involved in the process feel. After all, lethal injection is the first choice among all states that have the death penalty; other methods, including firing squads, can seem barbaric in comparison. A look at the psychology may also help inform a small part of the debate about whether American states should use firing squads at all.

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There’s not much academic study comparing the psychology of shooting versus injecting, but participants in both have talked with journalists and social scientists.

Executioners botch lethal injections about seven percent of the time, compared to three percent for other death-penalty methods.

In 2010, when Utah wanted to execute death-row inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner, it used five anonymous police officers who all volunteered for the job. Two other volunteer police officers stood by, in case anyone in the original five wanted to back out at the last minute. (None of the five officers got cold feet.)

About a week before Gardner’s execution, CNN talked with another officer who had volunteered for the firing squad that executed convicted murderer John Albert Taylor in 1996. The officer considered the job a rare chance to effect “100 percent justice.” “There’s just some people we need to kick off the planet,” he said. He described the process as instantaneous, professional, and not unduly gruesome.

In contrast, getting medical professionals—the equivalent of trained marksmen for lethal injections—to join death penalty teams can be difficult. Doctors, after all, take an oath to “first, do no harm.” Doctors’ groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Board of Anesthesiology, say physicians shouldn’t participate in capital punishment. “The ABA has not taken this action because of any position regarding the appropriateness of the death penalty. Anesthesiologists, like all physicians and all citizens, have different personal opinions about capital punishment,” the American Board of Anesthesiology’s statement reads. Instead, it’s about being “members of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so.”

Although some had hoped that including medical professionals in chemical executions would reduce the number of botched procedures, “there are simply not enough doctors or nurses willing to perform the job,” ABC News reported in 2007.

"There are simply not enough doctors or nurses willing to perform the job."

The workers who end up on lethal-injection teams may have no medical training and, perhaps because they’re hired to perform executions more than one time, seem to deal with more negative psychological effects. A 2005 survey of more than 200 members of execution teams—often states will include many people on such teams, so no one person feels responsible—found they deal with stress and cope by distancing themselves from the moral aspects of their work. ABC News talked with one man who executed 62 people by electrocution and lethal injection over his career. "To make that transformation from corrections officer to executioner ... it was hard,'' he said. "You have to get away from yourself. You have to eliminate yourself."

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The psychological effect of being part of an execution team is just one piece of the debate about firing squads. Opponents to Utah’s firing-squad bill consider it backwards and cruel. Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, thinks using firing squads would send the wrong message about the United States’ values to other nations. “The world is watching what we’re doing, just as we watch when terrorist groups execute people,” he says. Dieter’s center collects data about the death penalty in the U.S. and opposes capital punishment.

Yet lethal injection has its own problems. In recent years, several cases of botched executions have come to light. Improperly performed chemical executions can leave the condemned conscious, yet unable to move or speak, while they die. In 2013, journalist Vince Beiser argued in Pacific Standard that if the U.S. is going to use capital punishment, it should in fact just do it by firing squad. “A bullet to the head is a quick and painless way to die, far quicker and more certain than lethal injection, or any of our other historically favored methods,” he wrote.

Research may actually back Beiser up. Executioners botch lethal injections about seven percent of the time, compared to three percent for other death-penalty methods, Amherst College political scientist Austin Sarat argues in his book Gruesome Spectacles. Of course, firing squads can go badly, too, for example, if the prisoner moves before the squad fires and doesn't get hit in the heart. Then he must bleed to death over a longer period of time.

"I think eventually we'll get out of this whole business," Dieter adds. "This controversy might hasten that because it underscores the harshness of the taking of human life. There's no easy, pretty way of doing so."

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