Q&A with Allen Ault

The ex-Georgia warden who tried to stop the execution of Troy Davis

In the hours leading up to the September execution of Troy Davis, protests and pleas for clemency could be heard from hundreds of voices across the nation. But none was more impassioned or surprising than a letter issued from six retired corrections officials, led by former commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections, Allen Ault, who personally oversaw the executions of five Georgia men before resigning in 1995. Here, Ault, now dean of the College of Justice and Safety at Eastern Kentucky University, describes the true cost of capital punishment and why, after sixteen years, he decided to speak up now.

Photograph by Ron Garrison

When you first started in criminal justice, what were your feelings toward the death penalty? Just after I became warden of the prison in Jackson in 1971, the death penalty was outlawed by the Supreme Court [in 1972], the laws declared unconstitutional. So I didn’t give the death penalty any thought at all. Later a law was passed in Georgia and declared constitutional, serving as a model for other states. There wasn’t a lot of research at the time, but I thought that, if it truly served as a deterrent, I could support it. But that was abstract—I wasn’t directly involved in any capital punishment, so I didn’t have any strong feelings at that time.

When did your feelings start to shift? It was in the early 1990s when I left my job as a private consultant in Atlanta to serve as new commissioner of the Department of Corrections. We had a lot of people on death row and executions were scheduled. In the past, as I understood it, the commissioner would stay in Atlanta and handle executions via phone in a conference room. But I have always thought that you don’t ask staff to do things that you aren’t willing to do, so I decided to go down to Jackson for the executions.

The first two men I helped execute were both involved in the same crime [Thomas Dean Stevens and Christopher Burger, who had robbed, raped, and murdered a cabdriver]. They were seventeen when they were incarcerated and [thirty-six] when they were killed, so they had spent [nearly] half their life on death row. I talked with them and got to know them. So when you go to execute them, that becomes very personal. It was no longer an abstraction. And it truly evokes some strong feelings of revulsion. It didn’t feel right, morally. It didn’t seem right.

I had been trained to kill people in the Army, but this was totally different. We had a manual about two inches thick. We rehearsed. And the electric chair was a very gruesome instrument.

How so? When they brought back capital punishment in Florida, they had several unfortunate incidents with electrocution. One inmate’s hair caught on fire. A couple times they had to executive two or three times because it didn’t work. Pretty gruesome. The ones I was involved in, we made sure that everything was just right before the execution. We didn’t want to make a circus out of it.

Taking a life is not something to celebrate.

Believe me, there is a lot of political grandstanding in corrections. Politicians appeal to the base instincts of their electorate.

You’ve spoken before about civilians writing you to volunteer to flip the switch themselves. I had several of those messages. Confucius said that if you set out for vengeance, you need to dig two holes in the earth. I think that’s true: If you’re out for vengeance, it’ll destroy you.

Is that what capital punishment is, revenge? Well, all the research indicates it is not a deterrent. All the inmates I’ve ever talked to who had killed people told me that they hadn’t thought through to the consequences of their act. Some people say, “You deterred the guy you executed.” Well, I’ve talked with Charlie Manson and Sirhan Sirhan and those people have certainly been deterred—they’re in prison.

Besides, capital punishment is very expensive. It’s in the millions of dollars now, once you get through all the court proceedings. It’s a lot less expensive to keep someone in prison for life.

And I can understand, I have ten grandchildren and one great-grandchild and I know that if anything happened to my family, I would have feelings like that. I would want the individual caught and put away. But I would hope that I would not be lusting for blood as revenge.

I’ve talked to victims’ families, and it really diminishes them. I have seen some families whose faith or moral compass . . . after their initial feelings of wanting revenge, their healthier feelings prevail. They even end up forgiving the individual, so they could live with themselves. They knew that killing them wouldn’t bring their son or daughter back.

When you were commissioner, you didn’t allow victims’ families to witness executions. I did not. I certainly allowed them in the institution. We provided chaplain and counseling services. We served them a meal. But we kept them and execution witnesses separated. I didn’t want the families to see the executed as a victim of their revenge.

You’ve met Manson and Sirhan Sirhan. I understand you have visited the prison where Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, and the first World Trade Center bomber were held. Even these people, who have perpetrated crimes killing dozens or hundreds of innocents, they don’t deserve death? In all honesty, the killing of Osama bin Laden did not bother me. Morally I’m against taking the life of another, but if they had taken him alive, they would have made a martyr out of him and that, I believe, might have caused the deaths of thousands more. So do I justify it by degrees or by the numbers they kill? I’m not sure.

But I still have a problem with this society saying we’re going to deter people from murdering people by murdering somebody. It just seems hypocritical and illogical. And research shows it doesn’t work. I would not have minded at all if McVeigh had spent the rest of his life locked up. That is tremendous punishment. I know from spending thousands of hours working in prisons, that if I thought I couldn’t walk out that door, that would have been supreme punishment.

So you think the death penalty is an easy way out for criminals? Death is an easy way out.

But it isn’t easy on those who administer the death penalty. Describe the toll it took on you, personally. The first two executions were horrendous. And as we went on, the third, the fourth . . . We were providing psychological help to staff who wanted it and needed it, but I realized that I was not getting any help. I wasn’t handling it very well at all. I was having nightmares . . . it’s very analogous to post-traumatic stress disorder, which wasn’t really defined at the time. Your mind just can’t grasp or justify what you are doing. You have feelings of guilt. My conscience really hurt.

I think the best people I ever met in corrections, who were the most effective, were the people who got into it as a helping profession. When you’re trained that way, killing people is not a part of your psyche that you can accept. This isn’t my line, but I read it somewhere: “Killing is easy. But living with it is hard.”

And these feelings of anguish are in regards to people who are, in your mind, guilty beyond reasonable doubt, many who have confessed as much. How much worse would it be when there is a significant doubt, as with the Troy Davis case? With all the scientific advances in DNA, they’ve found so many on death row who were actually innocent. I’ve seen all the research on how jury selection impacts whether or not they get the death penalty, all the research in how unevenly the death penalty is applied. And I’ve been involved with the system long enough to know that it isn’t about justice—it’s about winning. It’s an adversarial system, and that doesn’t always bring about the best justice. So how do you execute anybody with any certainty that you’re not executing an innocent person? For me now, and a lot of others, that doubt makes personally applying the death penalty impossible.

You couldn’t do it anymore. You left the GDC in 1995 to work with National Institute of Corrections, to, as you said at the time, “work to improve criminal justice, without participating in the worst parts of it.” Then this September you re-enter the fray by coauthoring the letter against the Troy Davis execution. What was it about this case that brought you into the death penalty debate? There was a strong feeling that here was a case with a lot of doubt. I’ve never experienced that directly, where there was a lot of doubt presented about the guilt of an individual I was going to execute. And I would think that level of doubt would magnify the emotions in those performing the execution a thousand times. That was my concern.

That, and it was occurring in the prison where I had been warden, in the state where I had directed the [GDC]. That made it very personal.

What do hope is the legacy of the Troy Davis case and the attention his execution garnered nationwide? I would hope some of the things that came out of that case would make people think or re-think their position on the death penalty, and that there might be movement in one or two states to abolish it. Several states have abolished it, and their violent crime rate is lower than states that haven’t. But in the [United States], corrections isn’t guided by research or best practices, it’s guided by politics, appealing to the basest instincts of human beings. I would hope we could move beyond those politics. But I don’t have any great faith that Troy Davis is going to change the death penalty in Georgia.

Many supporters of the death penalty say that there is no proof that an innocent person has ever been executed in the United States. I think we’re just kidding ourselves if we think we haven’t.


Tony Rehagen is our senior editor.
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