Of Living with The Death Penalty: The Aftermath of Killing and Execution in the United States
By Courtney Vaughn
During the winter of 2001, I ran into a friend of mine, Carol McAlester, a former warden in three states and then an associate corrections director.
"You look pretty rough, Carol," I commented.
"Killing people takes it out of you," she said.
"What are you talking about?"
"I've been executing people. You should do a study on how it affects us corrections officials. I know people you could talk to."
Carol's words left me with little to say, something that didn't occur too often. A college professor for over two decades, I privately chided myself for being largely unaware of what sacrifices other state public servants were making. Aside from experiencing the short-lived popularity of a few movies and books, I had never really considered the far reaching affects executions might have on those who conducted them. No doubt, many other Americans were the same. After Carol and I parted, I began to investigate.
After interviewing corrections officials who had worked throughout the U. S., keeping and sometimes killing inmates, I knew I had heard only part of the story-to survive untimely death, live with the consequences, and search for what it meant to be among the living. Lucky to have many friends and colleagues who paved my entry into numerous homes and places of business, I then interviewed an older offender who forever try to atone, chaplains who attempt to comfort many, attorneys who fight for their own view of justice, and victims who struggle for meaning and healing. The last group includes survivors of murdered love ones and relatives of the executed. I told each person's story within social, historical, legal and my own personal context as a rape victim. Despite each one's similarity to or difference from the others, sacrifice, isolation, and resiliency were common. I came to sew us as pieces of cloth, partially torn from the greater human fabric, waiting to be re-sewn.
Most of the people I spoke with had heretofore been publicly silent. To protect all of the participants' identities, I changed names and circumstances involved with conducting and setting up the interviews and a few other identifying details. Because some of the murder cases gained national attention I changed minor details of a few. Unfortunately, murder is so common that those slight adjustments made those cases resemble many others. The security of confidentiality seemed to enhance the participants' candor. Unlike books such as Dead Man Walking and other works of fiction, none of the individuals in my book are composite characters. The content and context of each person's experiences and attitudes remains authentic.
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