Hello, I’m NPR investigative reporter Chiara Eisner. I’ve been covering execution workers for more than a year, to find out what it’s like to do these kinds of jobs. I tracked down 26 people who worked on executions across 17 states and the federal death chamber. They were executioners, lawyers, correctional officers, prison spokespeople, wardens, corrections leaders, a researcher, a doctor, an engineer, a journalist and a nurse. It’s hard to report on this – many of the people I talked to shared their names and stories publicly with me for the first time. Some had never even told their families about their roles before.

A few said they volunteered for the jobs they did and that it didn't bother them much. But many more said the work was often a required part of their jobs, and it took a toll. Most of the people I interviewed told me they suffered serious mental and physical repercussions – and just one person said they received any kind of psychological support from the government to help them cope.

The workers told me the experience was enough to change many of their views on capital punishment. Out of all the people whose work required them to witness executions in Virginia, Nevada, Florida, California, Ohio, South Carolina, Arizona, Nebraska, Texas, Alabama, Oregon, South Dakota and Indiana, none told me they still support the death penalty today – even those who started off their jobs in favor of capital punishment.

Here’s the story NPR published about it in November which aired on All Things Considered (check out the photos there of some of the execution workers I spoke with). Here’s a slightly different audio version of the story that aired the next day, and here’s the twitter thread I wrote up about some of the reporting. Here’s a photoI took while reporting in Nevada – it’s of the gas chamber where Catarino Escobar, a former corrections officer who volunteered to pretend to be executed so other staff could rehearse the protocol, became convinced he was about to die. And here’s a shameless selfie from back at the NPR studio.

So ask me anything – about the execution workers, what it was like to find them and report on this, the death penalty in America today or whatever else comes to mind! We'll be starting at 1 PM ET!

Comments: 529 • Responses: 27  • Date: 

SolitaryMarmot311 karma

What is the general state of health care in prisons with a death row? There have been stories of people who couldn't be executed as scheduled because their health was too poor (which feels like very dark irony.) Is that common?

npr377 karma

It is common for people to have poor health in prison. People who are convicted of a crime are supposed to receive the same quality of care inside prison as they could receive outside, and I know there are good prison doctors and nurses who try their best to meet that standard, but from my reporting and what I've read of others' reporting on healthcare in prison, this standard is often not met. One reason for that now is understaffing. I spoke to a corrections officer in Missouri who works at Bonne Terre, the prison where that state does its executions, and he told me the understaffing crisis has reached the heath care teams, too. You can read about what it's like from prisoners themselves. Here's one story written by a prisoner who had a cancer scare.

ttystikk281 karma

For those who changed their minds about the death penalty, what were their reasons?

npr606 karma

Hey u/ttystikk, great question. A lot of the ones who were neutral about the death penalty or full fledged supporters told me they changed their minds because they saw how hard the jobs were on them or their coworkers. They saw the immense stress they and their colleagues went through every time there was an execution -- and the consequences many of them suffered afterwards, like alcoholism, depression, serious moral injury (learn more about that here), and they began to think differently about a policy that required someone to have to experience that.

ttystikk20 karma

I'm familiar with the term "moral injury" from journalism about current and former combat drone pilots operating aircraft in theaters like Afghanistan.

What exactly did they say was the source of their moral injury?

npr153 karma

Some felt responsible in the death of the person being executed. Some came to see the act as murder, so what would that make them, the people who helped carry out the act? Even so, some people kept doing the job, two told me they kept at it to prevent other people from having to suffer like they did.

So think about that. If someone kept going back to the death chamber to help put prisoners to death -- but they did that in order to protect another worker from having to do the job, because somebody was going to have to -- are they murderers? Are they saviors? Can someone be both? Can they be neither? Many of them mentioned they had recurring insomnia and nightmares after the fact. I think you can begin to see why.

prylosec-7 karma

It kind of sounds like they aren't against the death penalty per se, but more that they're against people having to watch the prisoners die. Like they'd be OK with it if it was done in an empty room. That's kind of messed up.

npr31 karma

I see it differently. I think people speak from experience. These ones spoke from their experiences, and told us how their work made them feel and why it changed their minds. No executions are carried out in America in an empty room. Why should they talk about the abstract when they are some of the few people in this country who can talk about the reality?

have_this147 karma

Is there a strict protocol for executions? I mean, like a specific person who looks at vital signs, someone who inserts iv cannula, a person preparing lethal injections, one administering the injection.. or is it just like whatever? What kind of reporting is done? Obviously, in hospitals, nurses, for example, try to avoid mistakes leading to the death of the patient, so everything is documented. Is that rendered useless in executions? Thanks for having an AMA!

npr220 karma

There are protocols for executions. Each state and the federal government have different ones. They're not always made public, though. I spent many months trying to review South Carolina's protocol last year and the state refused to provide the document to the public. One of the reasons they gave was it was a danger to security. You can read more about that here.

But most states do share more about their protocol publicly. Some state protocols about lethal injection can be read here.

The question is, how do we know this protocol is followed? Executions are not open to the public. You can only attend one as a witness if you belong to a specific group -- if you're the family of the victim, the family of the person being executed, a lawyer who is asked to attend, a reporter who covers the execution for their job (even then, only a few reporters are picked, and sometimes the state refuses reporters. That happened this year in Arizona.

And even then, those official witnesses see just a fraction of what actually goes on in the execution. The grand, grand majority of the protocol describes what the prison does in the weeks leading up to the execution. None of that process is witnessed by any member of the public. And inside the death chamber, the witnesses only see what the prison allows. In Alabama, when they struggled to find the vein of the man they were trying to execute by lethal injection, most of that process happened behind closed doors. You can read more about that here.

here-for-the-kitties107 karma

For the person who received psychological help through their employer, do they think it helped? Do they continue to seek treatment now? Was it a part of their employees EAP, or something else?

npr223 karma

Only one of the 26 people I talked to said they received any kind of psychological help through their employer, and what's ironic is that she was actually the worker I talked to who needed to have needed it the least. She talked to a psychologist for a few minutes briefly after she saw a man literally sit up after he was supposed to have been executed to tell the team that he was still alive. She said that was the most traumatizing experience of her life. From what she told me, she didn't seek counseling outside of that because she was for the most part okay, she mentioned she had a great relationship with her faith and that is what helped her get through watching more than 30 executions without worse consequences. She didn't go through an EAP, in that instance, it was a psychologist that the state of Ohio made available to workers shortly after the execution. I should say though, her experience was uncommon. Most of the workers I talked to didn't feel like they should show emotion or show weakness by seeking help -- through an EAP program or anything else.

EAP programs, by the way, are insufficient to deal with the kind of effects these workers experience, psychologists told me. They're designed to deal with short-term problems, the counselors aren't specially trained to deal with this specific kind of trauma or moral injury, and since they're optional, workers can and do avoid using them. Multiple execution workers told me they they thought support should be mandatory instead.

hellohihowareyah51 karma

He sat up after they administered the method of death?!?

npr3 karma


Brave_Perspective_2435 karma

Interesting!! Was faith and spirituality a common theme among the 26 people? Did this turn them toward religion or strengthened their religious bonds?

npr79 karma

One said he went from going to church every Sunday to stopping altogether because he didn't feel like he belonged there anymore. But it was more common workers to tell me their execution jobs strengthened their faith in the long run.

here-for-the-kitties10 karma

Is there a push to make counseling available and/ or mandatory for employees involved in execution?

npr15 karma

Stay tuned for more reporting on this! I'm going to try to find out if the article has changed any minds regarding what kind of counseling should be offered.

here-for-the-kitties81 karma

Did any of the workers think that the person sentenced to death was innocent/ wrongly convicted?

npr230 karma

I did speak with one worker who was a law clerk on a death penalty case where the person ended up being exonerated based on DNA evidence that had been available to the state but they hadn't considered. She said that's the case that made her realize she couldn't be neutral about the death penalty anymore -- she felt like that man's death would have partly been on her, if she worked on his case, he was innocent, but the state executed him anyway. This is what she said: "It just really pointed out to me how wrong things can go and how wrong things can be sometimes."

npr59 karma

Thank you for your great questions! I'll be talking more about this reporting on an upcoming episode of the Up First podcast, which you can download on Spotify or Apple or wherever. The episode should drop at 8am this coming Sunday. Listen in if you're curious! You can also keep asking questions here and I'll try to get to them if and when I have the chance. And I report on other things, not just executions. If you know about something that you believe shouldn't be happening or is causing harm in your community, send me an email: [[email protected]](mailto:[email protected]). To keep up to date with my reporting, you can follow me on twitter at chiaraeisner

HHS201957 karma

How many of them had experience with state-sanctioned killing (military, law enforcement) prior to their job involving execution? Did that make a difference?

npr203 karma

There were quite a few who had military or law enforcement experience before becoming corrections officers. But almost all of them who did have that previous experience made it very clear to me that carrying out executions was totally different. I talked to someone who was a marine before he became an executioner in South Carolina.

Let me share a direct quote from one of our conversations: "If you're in the military, you're fighting a war. And when you're fighting a war, you have soldiers shooting at you and you are shooting back at the soldier. There's a difference in the killing of a person like this than shooting in a war. Because they're firing at you and you're firing back. Here, every single one of the death certificates says 'state assisted homicide.' And the state was me."

Losingthedream51 karma

Ok, first you wrote a great article and it solidified for me that the trauma of the people who are voluntarily or involuntarily involved is a thing. I sent this to my mother who is a death penalty supporter to show she needed to think about more than the person being executed. There are real people doing their job getting harmed in the process. She responded back with that the people involved with the execution should meet with the victims families and that this would make them feel ok about performing or being part of an execution. What do you think from your interviews? Personally, I think this is asinine reasoning on her part to negate the effects on those who carry the penalty out.

npr99 karma

Thank you!

As for your question, I think logistically, her suggestion would be difficult to coordinate. I only talked to two executioners -- everyone else was more distantly involved. But that didn't make a difference for many of them. They still felt complicit, even those whose work was less directly connected to the act of the execution still suffered mental and physical side effects. So if you wanted to get each one of those hundreds of workers who have some role to play in the execution -- from the time someone is sentenced to die to the time they're executed (which by the way, takes an average of around 20 years) -- it would take forever! Also, perhaps it's important to consider, is it the responsibility of the victim's family to make these workers feel better? Is the wellbeing of workers a burden that the victim's family should bear, in addition to the one they already carry every day?

S_A_9639 karma

Did you ask participants why they supported the death penalty (if they did before participating in executions)? If so, what what were common responses and changes in reasoning?

npr168 karma

One of the common answers to this question was that they thought the death penalty was a fair punishment for people who commit the most heinous crimes. I'm paraphrasing their words, a lot of them did use that word "heinous" when describing their opinions to me. Many changed their minds because they realized that although someone might deserve to die, workers like them didn't deserve to have to be involved with putting them to death.

Another common response for why they changed their minds was that they realized through working on executions that it just wasn't fair. A lot of the workers whose jobs were inside prisons -- like wardens and corrections officers -- they dealt with people every day who committed murder but were sentenced to prison for life. They couldn't see much difference between the people who were executed for murder and the people who died in prison of old age. Why did one get the death penalty but not the other, if they committed the same crime? Seeing that disparity up close was also part of it for those guys.

Brave_Perspective_2433 karma

Was there a type of execution -- injection, shooting, hanging, etc -- that these folks struggled with the most? I can imagine injecting someone might feel less murder-y than shooting someone, for example.

npr108 karma

More than the type of *execution,* it was actually the type of *person* being executed that made a difference for the workers. I noticed that the workers tended to be much more affected after executions if the person sentenced to die was intellectually disabled. That was very, very hard on people who had to be involved with putting those prisoners to death. Remember, some of these workers knew the people they had to later watch die. I'll give you one example. I talked to a doctor in South Carolina who treated each of the people he watched die in the death chamber, he was their clinican in prison, so he knew their mental health issues and any disabilities they had better than almost anyone else. He told me the hardest execution for him was when the state executed someone there who was severely intellectually disabled. The doctor maintains he wasn't exactly *involved* in exections because he only declared them dead -- so he's not one of the people I interviewed for this NPR story, I talked to him when I was working for The State in South Carolina. But he was still present in the death chamber when this intellectually disabled man died. And that one was the worst for him, he told me. You can read more about that doctor here.

Also, workers told me they struggled more with executions when something went wrong. Ron McAndrew was the warden when the head of a man on Florida's electric chair caught fire. He still can't forget what burning flesh smelled like, and he had to make the call on whether or not to shut off the electric chair when the flames started rising and smoke started filling the death chamber. That may seem like an extreme example, but unfortunately, it's not uncommon for executions to be botched or to something to go wrong -- and it doesn't just happen with the electric chair.

In the past two months, execution workers in Alabama, Texas and Arizona have all struggled to place IVs into prisoner's veins for lethal injection executions and those executions have been delayed sometimes for more than an hour as workers tried and failed to just find the veins of these prisoners. I'd consider that an execution not going according to plan, and from what I've heard from workers, that's what is hardest on them -- when they have to deal with that responsibility and stress and moral injury afterwards. You can read a doctor's perspective on lethal injections going wrong here.

HHS201932 karma

Did you meet anyone who relished the chance to be part of an execution?

npr104 karma

Not a single person. Everyone told me they did not enjoy it. Some said it was the worst part of their jobs, others, the worst part of their lives.

bigbuba6832 karma

What were some of the specific reasons these workers cited? Was it the graphic nature of the executions themselves or something else?

npr171 karma

Here's some of Frank Thompson's story. Frank grew up in the segregated South and remembers when two white men tortured and lynched 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. He used to believe that people who did things like that could deserve to die. But when he was the working as a superintendent in Oregon in the 90s, the state suddenly held two executions. Oregon hadn't executed anyone in more than 30 years. It came as a surprise to many of the people working there who hadn't realized that was going to be something they would have to be involved in. No one on staff had any experience in executions by then, so everything they did to prepare for those two executions -- the training, the research to see how to actually pull it off, building the tools they needed to carry out the executions -- all of that they did from scratch.

Thompson said the stress of so many inexperienced people trying to do this thing they had been ordered to do by the court without any problems was immense on everyone involved. Everyone had negative effects, he said, including himself. Frank said even the governor was incredibly affected. The governor had to decide whether he'd give clemency to the two people sentenced to die (he didn't, but later issued a moratorium so the state wouldn't have to be in that position again).

After coordinating those two executions, Frank said he realized that carrying executions just expands the number of victims involved with the death penalty. By those new victims, he meant the staff in the prison and their families. Frank is one of the people I interviewed who has shared his story before. You can read more about why he changed his mind in this piece he wrote, published by the NYT.

S_A_9624 karma

For those who did not directly witness executions, and still supported the death penalty, did you get the sense that they knew about or understood the traumatizing effect it has on those who had to witness it?

npr65 karma

There were two people I spoke with who did not directly witness executions and still supported the death penalty. One was a radiologist who took MRI and CT scans of the body of a man who had been executed after the fact. The other person was a corrections officer who had been on one of the teams involved with getting the prisoner to the death chamber, but he didn't actually go inside and watch the man die afterwards. I didn't get a sense from the radiologist that he knew about or understood the traumatizing effect on others. On the other hand, I did get a sense from the corrections officer that he understood that others might be affected by the work, even though he hadn't been. But he still thought the death penalty was a warranted punishment.

hbctdscotia42022 karma

Is it the possibility of executing an innocent that affected them more or just the general involvement in the unwanted end of a life? Also a question about NPR when working at NPR do they invite everyone working to the Tiny Desk concerts?

npr40 karma

I would say it was more the general involvement in the process. Sometimes the people being executed said they were ready to die, but most of them didn't want that. Whether they were bothered by whether a person was innocent or not wasn't something they mentioned too often, except in one case where the worker was a lawyer who was involved in a case where the man who had been sentenced to death was exonerated based on DNA evidence. She changed her mind about the death penalty after that.

npr65 karma

Oh! And about Tiny Desk concerts! Yes, I've been to a couple. NPR is great about that. Any staff member can sign up to see the artists perform, and sometimes, they just announce on the loudspeakers that they're having a Tiny Desk with a great artist, and we should all run upstairs for a second and catch it. It's got to be the world's best excuse to take a short work break.

MayorBobbleDunary22 karma

Do you think that the teenage mutant ninja turtles would have been as popular if they were cats not turtles?

Follow up do you think if they were cats they would have faired any different in their cross over fight with Batman?

npr32 karma

Teenage mutant cats sound awesome! Would they have been as popular as the turtles? If the show had the same creative team and writers behind it, then yeah, I think they would have been just as popular.

timoleo21 karma

Is execution worker a PR term for executioner?

Serious question.

npr91 karma

Serious answer: No. "Executioner" is a specific title that I use every time it applies, to be as precise as possible. For example, I spoke with two executioners who pushed the buttons on electric chairs and pushed the drugs into people's veins with plungers. Now, "execution worker" is a more broad term that applies to executioners AND everyone else who worked on executions but didn't do the specific job of pushing the buttons/drugs. For example, I also spoke with a correctional officer who was part of the team that escorted a prisoner into the death chamber before he was executed. That man would be an execution worker but not an executioner.

The_Gutgrinder14 karma

What are these workers feelings about lethal injection when compared to other execution methods? Many things can go wrong with lethal injection, and the whole process seems unnecessarily slow and drawn out to me. Would these workers prefer another method of execution, such as firing squad or gas chamber?

npr50 karma

I talked to an executioner who carried out executions by lethal injection and electric chair. He worked in South Carolina, and last year, South Carolina announced it would start executing people by firing squad (but a judge recently ruled that method unconstitutional.) While the firing squad was still on the table, though, he was absolutely appalled by the idea of a firing squad and in complete opposition to it. He thought it would be gruesome for the people who would have to pull the triggers and watch what happened to the body afterwards, terrible for the people who would have to clean up afterwards, potentially unsafe (he was worried about a bullet ricochet) and just "backwards," as he put it.

Harbinger_of_tomb13 karma

What did you think of the What Next podcast episode yesterday with Elizabeth Bruenig?


npr17 karma

u/Harbinger_of_tomb, you're more up to date than I am! I haven't listened to it yet!

jh937hfiu3hrhv912 karma

Can justice be achieved after a killing or is it too late?  Is the death penalty justice or revenge? Does the death penalty reduce crime?  Are those who authorize and perform the death penalty killers as well?

npr59 karma

As a reporter on this issue, I stay away from matters of opinion. But I can answer one of those questions, as it is a matter of fact: Does the death penalty reduce crime? So far, the available evidence points to no. States that have the death penalty generally do not have lower crime rates or murder rates than states without capital punishment. State that abolished the death penalty have not been showing significant changes in rates of crime or murder. You can look at some of the data and learn more about that here.

Apprehensive_Yak69306 karma

Do anyone of them know if they were directly involved with the execution of an innocent person?

npr15 karma

Nobody mentioned this to me.

better_off_red-38 karma

26 whole people? Obviously a representative sample size. Defund NPR.

npr25 karma

26 people is a lot when you're talking about a secretive group like this. States prohibit the names of many of these workers from being revealed. there's no database where you can just look them up. Then when you do find someone, it's hard to earn their trust to the point where they're willing to let you tell their story to hundreds of thousands of people -- especially when they're talking about something they may not be particularly proud of. That takes a lot of time. For every one of these 26, there were plenty more who I found who refused to talk to me -- or people who did talk with me but then decided they didn't feel ready to share their story publicly.

All good journalism takes some time. Investigative reporting can take even longer. NPR is a nonprofit.