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Capital punishment traumatizes everyone involved

LEAVEN PHOTO BY JILL RAGAR ESFELD Allen Ault, a former warden in Georgia, gives the keynote address at the 2012 Abolition Conference, sponsored by the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

LEAVEN PHOTO BY JILL RAGAR ESFELD Allen Ault, a former warden in Georgia, gives the keynote address at the 2012 Abolition Conference, sponsored by the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Speaker Shares Experience as a Death-row Warden


by Jill Ragar Esfeld

OLATHE — “Life doesn’t always go as you plan,” explained former death-row warden Allen Ault in his keynote address at the 2012 Abolition Conference, sponsored by the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

During his time as a warden in Georgia, Ault said, he had the responsibility of overseeing executions.

The trauma he witnessed — and experienced — has left him an advocate for life in prison without parole as a humane alternative to capital punishment.

“There are a lot of reasons I’ve been given by a lot of people to justify the death penalty,” he said, and then proceeded to present facts and research to disavow each reason.

Ault began by stating that “there is no credible evidence anywhere that [the death penalty] is a deterrent.”

He explained that punishment is effective only when it’s very certain it will happen every time, and it happens right after the behavior you want to modify.

“The death penalty doesn’t meet either of these criteria,” he said.

Ault then demonstrated how cost ineffective the death penalty is when compared to the alternative of life without parole.

In Kansas, data from a 2003 legislative audit found capital cases were 70 percent more expensive than comparable non-death penalty cases.

“But,” said Ault, “legislators have not been renowned for using research to make their decisions — the name of the game is reelection.”

And unfortunately, many people in the United States favor the death penalty even though our only companions in the practice are Iran, Iraq and China. All other civilized countries have abolished it.

Ault went on to discuss the erroneous assumption that the death penalty is reserved for the most egregious and horrific crimes. But it’s not so.

“The most beneficial thing happened last year in Connecticut,” he said.

A Connecticut study analyzing 34 years of murder cases found that the   cases of inmates on death row are indistinguishable from equally violent offenders who were not sentenced to death.

“Of the 32 cases judged the most horrific, only one resulted in the death penalty,” added Ault.

The evidence was conclusive.

“Connecticut took that research and abolished the death penalty,” Ault said.

The study in Connecticut also found corporal punishment to be discriminatory — a circumstance that exists across the nation.

More than 80 percent of those executed in the United States were convicted of killing a white person, even though African-Americans are the victims in at least half of all homicides.

Ault also addressed the risk of executing the innocent.

“When I executed people,” he said, “they always told me they were innocent.”

And some of them might have been. Ault explained the mission of the Innocence Project — an organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing.

“Since the project began, 135 on death row have been found innocent,” he said.

He then explained the very personal reasons for his own opposition to capital punishment.

“The last words many said before execution were ‘I’m innocent,’” Ault recalled as he began to describe in detail the experience of putting prisoners to death.

“I would turn to the electrician,” he said, “and he would throw the switch.

“What we observed was a tremendous amount of electricity surging through their bodies.

“Let me tell you that the first one shook me to the core.”

Eventually, Ault said, he couldn’t take part in the executions anymore. He couldn’t rationalize the brutality of the process.

Ault recounted seeing the faces of the men he’d executed when he tried to sleep at night, he said.

He also discussed the traumatic effects of capital punishment on all the corrections officials responsible for carrying it out. He said the punishment extended far beyond the criminal, and rarely brought solace to the victim’s family.

Ault ended his talk by encouraging his listeners to consider what we really mean by promoting the sanctity of life.

“If you care about human life,” he said, “it is not just the fetus you care about.”


What You Can Do

As part of the Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty you can:

Pray for victims of crime and their families, those who have been wrongly convicted, and those awaiting execution.

Learn about Catholic social teaching, U.S. criminal justice policies, and the policies in your state. Go to the website listed below for more information about the death penalty.

Educate people in your parish or community about Catholic social teaching and the criminal justice system. Visit the websites listed below for Vatican and U.S. bishops’ statements on the death penalty as well as statements from individual bishops and various state Catholic conferences.

Advocate by contacting your elected officials. Discuss Catholic teaching on the death penalty and what steps could be taken at the state and national level to curtail or end its use. To receive information on efforts regarding the death penalty at the national level or to link with a particular state’s efforts, visit the websites listed below.

Join the coalition

Kansas is one of 33 states with the death penalty. The Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty is a not-for-profit organization that promotes public education about capital punishment and disseminates information about the death penalty and effects of executions. To learn more visit the KCADP website at:

Educate yourself

To receive information regarding the Catholic Church’s work on the death penalty at the national level, or to link with a particular state’s efforts, visit the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website at: www.

To join the Catholic Mobilizing Network for the Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty in the United States, visit the website at: www.catholicsmobilizing. org.

Some Facts About the Death Penalty

• 33 states have the death penalty; 17 do not.

• Recent Supreme Court decisions have limited the use of the death penalty by declaring it unconstitutional to execute persons with mental retardation and juveniles under the age of 18, or to impose the death penalty when no murder occurred or was intended. The court has also ruled that defendants are entitled to have a jury decide whether to impose the death penalty.

• Approximately 3,261 inmates are on death row in 37 state, military, and federal prisons.

• Since 1973, there have been 138 exonerations of death row inmates.

• Since 1976, there have been a total of 1,246 executions in the United States, including 12 in the first few months of 2011.

• The California death penalty system costs taxpayers $114 million per year beyond the costs of keeping convicts locked up for life.

*Source: Death Penalty Information Center

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

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