Last week, when Pope Francis made his much-discussed change to the Catechism entry on the death penalty, I happened to be reading a journalist’s memoir about Death Row. The author is an Associated Press reporter, Michael Graczyk, who retires this month aged 68, after witnessing more than 400 state executions.
This has made me think back to my time working in America in the 90s for the Times and Mail when I would regularly have to attend the executions of some of the USA’s most notorious serial killers.
The experience of attending an execution (press are usually allowed inside the jail but not the execution chamber) is both surreal and personally challenging to write about rationally. I found it difficult to remain morally detached.
What disturbed me most was the extent to which executions in America were forms of public and media entertainment, often with showbiz beat reporters standing outside state prisons as killers were turned into gruesome celebrities. A good example of this was the execution in Chicago in May 1994 of John Wayne Gacy, aka the Killer Clown. The scenes outside the prison – all night – were like that of a saturnalian pantomime with people dressed as clowns holding fireworks and placards. I wondered at the time whether America had lost its capacity to be morally shocked.
The first execution I reported on was in April 1992. Robert Alton Harris was the first person to be executed in California’s notorious San Quentin prison for 25 years. Born two months prematurely after his father had kicked his mother in the stomach, he suffered severe foetal alcohol syndrome for all his of short life outside prison.
He had been convicted of shooting dead two innocent boys in a car before stealing the vehicle and robbing a bank. Harris was buckled into his chair to be given his lethal injection – only to have a stay of execution issued at the 11th hour on the grounds that using Zyklon B poison (as used by the Nazis in Auschwitz) was “cruel and unusual” punishment.
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