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The Last Face You'll Ever See: The Private Life of the American Death Penalty

The Last Face You'll Ever See: The Private Life of the American Death Penalty


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Donald Hocutt mixed the sulfuric acid bath that dissolved the cyanide that killed Jimmy Lee Gray. It was the first time the gas chamber had been used at Mississippi's Parchman State Penitentiary in 19 years, and it was the beginning of the end for the asphyxiation of death row prisoners. Gray's gruesome death shocked the nation and forced a move to lethal injections, but Hocutt acted as executioner for three more men before the switch. Journalist Ivan Solotaroff spent five years trying to understand the motive behind the death penalty by looking at executioners themselves, asking where and when and how, and the more difficult questions: Why do they do it and why do they want to do it? He interviewed men on death row, such as Wilbert Rideau and Douglas Dennis, editors of the acclaimed magazine The Angolite, who speak with remarkable eloquence, as well as witnesses to executions, such as Watt Espy, America's foremost historian of executions, who remarked, "I believe that more than one person dies with each execution." But most of those five years were spent with Hocutt and his one-time superior warden Donald Cabana. The two men had polar responses to their role as executioners--Hocutt, who used his violent disposition to control inmates, embraced his duty, while Cabana befriended the condemned to ease their passage--but both were ultimately broken by the ordeal. Solotaroff creates an intimate picture of these men's lives while presenting an unflinching account of execution. His purpose is not to argue for or against the death penalty, but rather to question the real motive behind it: do Americans pursue the death penalty for deterrence or punishment, to rid a society of a blight, or is it "something altogether different--an expression of an irrational urge far more subterranean than the will to justice"? This is a finely written and humane examination of a rare breed of people and of an act clouded by a strange brew of sensationalism and obscurity. Solotaroff has grappled with the hardest questions--of vengeance and responsibility--and though he doesn't pretend to have found the answers, what he does reveal is thought-provoking and indelibly unsettling. --Lesley Reed

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enlightening reading.

Having seen a tv programme about the American capital punishment system during which The author of this book was being interviewed, I thought I'd like to read his work. This book is very interesting and shocking in some ways. very good information, makes you stop and think from the executioners point of view, and also how deserving some prisoners are to be executed, while others perhaps not. Good informative reading, though not for the faint hearted.


I thought this book gave a great overview of the death sentence in America. The history of the death sentence and the laws that govern it was very informative and interesting..The book read like a novel and I would recommend it to anyone wanting more information on this subject.

A quick excellent read,can be knocked off in a free weekend

This is an excellent read and is more a narrative than any type of expose' on Capital Punishment.The author appears to distance himself and gives neither a pro nor con for Capital Punishment so if you you have preconceived strong notions either way you will not enjoy this book. The story describes a man in the south who after alot of different experiences in work and education finds himself the man who,"readies and pulls the switch",for Mississippi's gas chamber in the 90's. From the read,it is obvious the man does not enjoy his work but feels he is doing it to protect and give justice to the "small town" people who are terrorized by some of these violent criminals.He performs only 3 executions and announces he can no longer do it because it is causing stress and nightmares.There are graphic descriptions of the executions including "creature noises",etc.The book leaves little doubt that the gas chamber probably is not a humane form of capital punishment.One lady.a murderess,was told by the executioner to "breathe deeply and it will be more peaceful",retorted,"How in the Hell would you know"!After reading this book you will know too!!One interesting note in the book is the fact that the southern prison system does not relish in these executions and are in fact more empathetic to the condemned than I had ever imagined.This is one book you'll remember!

America's Sanctified Killers

Solotaroff did a commendable job maintaining his journalistic integrity and objectivity, especially when reporting on a topic as controversial as capital punishment, and that I think, is the key to successful reporting.The author provided a face to the otherwise annonymous executioners who serve the will of society (or at least the court system) by actually enforcing the sentence of death. Solotaroff choronicled the life and work of a number of executioners, and discussed the emotional repurcussions of serving as a state sanctified killer. He was able to capture the tumultuous emotions that accompany a life at the switch, and a life of "playing god." There seems to be a fine line between jailer and the jailed, executioner and murderer, and Solotaroff did a fine job of capturing these subtle differences, and providing the reader with food for thought in regards to the American death penalty.

Well written perspective of the men who pull the lever.

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'.

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