Friday, August 13, 2010

Warden critical of death penalty

By Lynne Tuohy, published in the Nashua Telegraph

A former prison warden who carried out eight executions urged a New Hampshire commission Thursday to stay away from the practice, saying the memories of those he has put to death haunt him.

“It’s nothing but a premeditated, ceremonial killing, and we do it to appease politicians who are tough on crime,” Ron McAndrew said after his testifying at the Legislative Office Building. “The state has no right to ask people to kill others on their behalf.”

McAndrew, a former warden in Florida and Texas and now living in Florida as a prison consultant, said he supported the death penalty until “these men came and started sitting at the edge of my bed at night.”

McAndrew helped perform three electrocutions in Florida and oversaw five lethal injections in Texas. Since he has been speaking out against the death penalty, he said, many former corrections officers who participated in executions have sought his counsel.

“We spent hours on the phone, trying to process the horror we went through,” McAndrew told the panel. “We never admitted it at the time. That would have shown weakness in a job that demanded strength.”

“I implore you, don’t get into this business,” McAndrew told the commission. “Honor your corrections officers and don’t force them to go through what I went through – what so many of us have gone through and have suffered for.”

The last execution in New Hampshire took place in 1939. The state has one convict on death row, cop killer Michael Addison, whose appeals have just begun to wend their way through the courts. The state Supreme Court is still shaping how to evaluate the fairness of the state’s death penalty laws.

Since October, the New Hampshire Commission to Study the Death Penalty has heard testimony from both advocates and opponents of the death penalty and is scheduled to issue its report in November.

Testimony included people on both sides of the debate, from a relatives of a crime victim to a law expert.

Laura Bonk, a Concord woman whose mother was murdered in Massachusetts in 1989, urged the panel to repeal the death penalty.

She told them Thursday would have been her mother’s 69th birthday. Bonk’s sister, 16 at the time, was also shot by the son of a sick friend her mother was visiting in Littleton, Mass.

“My mother was opposed to the death penalty,” Bonk said. “I ask you to recommend repeal. It would honor me and, most of all, my mother.”

Bonk said her aunt called three years ago to tell her the killer died in prison of natural causes. She told the panel his death brought no comfort or closure.

“It does not lessen the pain,” she said. “It does not help victims heal.”

The panel also heard from New York Law School professor Robert Blecker, who argued in favor of keeping the death penalty but applying it “only to the worst of the worst of the worst.”

Those who kill during drug transactions should not be death be death-penalty eligible, he said, adding, “It is understood in the drug game that there are certain killing offenses.”

He also would exempt from the death penalty battered spouses who hire a killer.

Acknowledging that his opinion would not be popular in New Hampshire, Blecker also said a robber who shoots an officer to avoid capture – the scenario in Addison’s killing of Manchester Officer Michael Briggs – should not be subjected to a death sentence.

“I revere police officers, but they are strapping on a gun as a condition of employment,” Blecker said. Killing a juror should be added to the list of crimes eligible for death, he said.

Also, Blecker said, the commission should not view life without parole as a viable alternative to a death sentence, saying “lifers” typically earn the most privileges and get the best jobs behind bars.

He said he visited the state prison Wednesday and saw inmates painting, sculpting, building furniture and playing sports outdoors. Panel member and defense attorney Lawrence Vogelman noted that Blecker appeared angry while describing his prison visit.

“I am angry,” Blecker said. “I see justice not being done. I know they have murdered heinously and they spend their day in play.”

Blecker also said he opposes lethal injection because executions should involve pain.

“For the torture killers, for the rapist killer of children, a quick but painful death sometimes is the only response,” Blecker said. “It’s more appropriate than an opiate haze.”

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