Ivan Solotaroff's book skirts around the endless debate over the pros and cons of capital punishment and instead focuses with an unbiased look at the men who are responsible for carrying out death sentences. A brief history of executioners is given, but the main subjects of this book are Donald Hocutt and Don Cabana, the executioner and warden of Parchman prison in Mississippi in the 1980's.
I was relieved to to see that Solotaroff did not attack Hocutt for his job nor try to moralize an abolitionist position. Instead, he documents Hocutt's narratives not only about mixing chemicals and pulling the lever to release gas into the chamber, but also the rigors of being a guard in the maximum security unit at one of the nation's roughest prisons. The inmates are not made out to be angels, for their crimes are described in full, but we do see how isolation from society makes them despondent and desperate.
The dangers and visual horrors of execution via cyanide gas are well conveyed in this book. The 1983 execution of inmate Jimmy Lee Gray (who kidnapped, brutally raped a 3 year old neighbor before suffocating her in mud) did not go as planned. Hocutt, who was in direct sight of the inmate, watched as his body went into spasm from the gas and he repeatedly slammed his head into a steel support pole behind the chair to which he was strapped. Cabana, who was then with the Missouri Dept. of Corrections, was in the witness area -- contemplating the possibility of soon having to conduct an execution in his prison with this method.
The book embraces and seeks to shed light on that troubling question - how do these corrections officials deal with knowing they will put an inmate to death? Neither are enthusiastic about their responsibility (Cabana ultimately retired after conducting three executions at Parchman as it's warden and is now an abolitionist lecturer) but it is interesting to read how they endured stress and unease to varying degrees.
Having witnessed executions first hand, I can relate to some degree of the experiences of these men. It is not something to be taken lightly. If society decides that death is a justifiable penalty for certain egregious crimes (something which I support), then it is up to someone to carry out those sentences. We need not demonize them, for the book makes clear that these men have normal lives and families.
In closing, I am reminded of a line of dialogue in the 1967 film version of the novel 'In Cold Blood' between two reporters.
"Who is the executioner?"
'We the people'.