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Allen Ault begins: "I can't always remember their names, but in my nightmares I can see their faces. As the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections from 1992 until 1995, I oversaw five executions."

Former Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison warden Allen Ault. (photo: Hollis Bennett/Getty Images)
Former Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison warden Allen Ault. (photo: Hollis Bennett/Getty Images)

I Ordered Death in Georgia

By Allen Ault, The Daily Beast

25 September 11


The state's former DOC commissioner on 'rehearsed murder.'

can't always remember their names, but in my nightmares I can see their faces. As the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections from 1992 until 1995, I oversaw five executions. The first two were Thomas Dean Stevens and Christopher Burger, accomplices in a monstrous crime: as teenagers in 1977, they robbed and raped a cabdriver, put him in the trunk of a car, and pushed the vehicle into a pond. I had no doubt that they were guilty: they admitted it to me. But now it was 1993 and they were in their 30s. All these years later, after a little frontal-lobe development, they were entirely different people.

On execution days, I always drove from Atlanta to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. I knew death row well: 20 years earlier, I had built it. The state had hired me as the warden of Georgia Diagnostic in 1971, where I renovated a special cell block for especially violent offenders. After I left Georgia in 1977, the state reinstated the death penalty and turned the cell block I had developed into death row.

The state executed Stevens first, in June 1993, and then Burger in December. In both instances, I visited them in a cell next to the electric-chair chamber, where they counted down the hours until they died. They were calm, mature, and remorseful. When the time came, I went to a small room directly behind the death chamber where the attorney general worked the phones, checking with the courts to make sure that the executions were not stayed. Then we asked the prisoners for their final words. Stevens said nothing, and Burger apologized, saying, "Please forgive me." I looked to the prison electrician and ordered him to pull the switch. Last Wednesday, as the state of Georgia prepared to execute Troy Davis despite concerns about his guilt, I wrote a letter with five former death-row wardens and directors urging Georgia prison officials to commute his sentence. I feared not only the risk of Georgia killing an innocent man, but also the psychological toll it would exact on the prison workers who performed his execution. "No one has the right to ask a public servant to take on a lifelong sentence of nagging doubt, and for some of us, shame and guilt," we wrote in our letter.

The men and women who assist in executions are not psychopaths or sadists. They do their best to perform the impossible and inhumane job with which the state has charged them. Those of us who have participated in executions often suffer something very much like posttraumatic stress. Many turn to alcohol and drugs. For me, those nights that weren't sleepless were plagued by nightmares. My mother and wife worried about me. I tried not to share with them that I was struggling, but they knew I was.

I didn't grow up saying, "I want to work in prisons." I had never even been in a prison or a jail before I became warden of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison. The commissioner at the time hired me to revamp the system, to implement case management, and work with inmates to make them safer. I had always worked in helping professions, and my main goal in corrections was always to reduce recidivism, so that inmates would leave prison better than they arrived. Over this course of time, the death penalty figured larger and larger into my work. I never supported it, but I also did not want to let it distract me from improving overall prison conditions. Death-row inmates are, after all, only a tiny fraction of the prison population.

When I was required to supervise an execution, I tried to rationalize my work by thinking, if I just save one future victim, maybe it is worth it. But I was very aware of the research showing that the death penalty wasn't a deterrent. I left my job as corrections commissioner in Georgia in 1995 partially because I had had enough: I didn't want to supervise the executions anymore. My focus changed to national crime policy and then to academia, where I could work to improve the criminal-justice system without participating in its worst parts. Today, I am the dean of the College of Justice & Safety at Eastern Kentucky University.

Having witnessed executions firsthand, I have no doubts: capital punishment is a very scripted and rehearsed murder. It's the most premeditated murder possible. As Troy Davis's execution approached - and then passed its set hour, as the Supreme Court considered a stay - I thought of the terrible tension we all experienced as executions dragged into the late hours of the night. No one wanted to go ahead with the execution, but then a court stay offered little relief: you knew you were going to repeat the whole process and execute him sometime in the future.

I will always live with these images - with "nagging doubt," even though I do not believe that any of the executions carried out under my watch were mistaken. I hope that, in the future, men and women will not die for their crimes, and other men and women will not have to kill them. The United States should be like every other civilized country in the Western world and abolish the death penalty. your social media marketing partner


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+71 # Barbara K 2011-09-25 13:56
It's time to stop executions in Georgia and in all states. Something is just wrong about America killing its citizens in such a heinous way, and we think we are civilized. We know that many innocent people end up being executed, and when there is just one thread of doubt, the death should not occur.
+9 # conniejo 2011-09-26 08:06
Boycott Georgia and Texas!!
+60 # ER444 2011-09-25 14:12
God save us all. Where are the "right to lifers" now.
+76 # mizlee 2011-09-25 16:35
Actually, there are very few true Right to Lifers: most are simply Right to Birth because Once a baby is born they in effect say, "we got you born: good luck with the rest of your life."
+9 # deadhead 2011-09-25 20:01
Hi mizlee -- I am an atheist, so I have no particular axe to grind when it comes to religion. In my life, however, I have had opportunities to meet and work with the folks from Catholic Charities. I know that they are true "right to life" people in that they abhor the death penalty and they work very hard to get "birthed" people placed with loving families. I really think that you give folks like this short shrift by lumping them into an amorphous group of people that care only for the unborn fetus. My experience and what I know has been different. No doubt there are people like that, but there are also many people who work for life in all its stages and they shouldn't be painted with the broad brush of narrow interests that you place them in. I am sure that there are others in organizations apart from Catholic Charities, it's just that my experience is limited to them.
+13 # Rick Levy 2011-09-25 20:49
But Catholic Charities would still ban abortions and force women to carry unwanted fetuses.
+17 # Lowflyin_Lolana 2011-09-25 22:20
It's the pro-war right-to-lifers that bother.
+74 # pgobrien 2011-09-25 14:21
This man sounds like an incredibly principled and decent human being. I hope he has reached a time in his life when he sleeps well again. His efforts on the part of abolishing the death penalty are all the stronger for his difficult and sad experience in the "industry."
+48 # msleepyhead 2011-09-25 14:56
Profound and important testimony.Thank you, Dean Ault.
+47 # kbarrand 2011-09-25 15:20
Murder is murder. We are in very select company with the death penalty: China, Iran, etc, etc. Are these really the countries we want to be like?
+38 # Erdajean 2011-09-25 15:37
Many thanks, Mr. Ault, for this sobering insight. The system is a tawdry, vulgar circus -- imagine holding a prisoner under near-certainty of execution for 21 years -- literally watching an accused killer grow up, before we methodically and deliberately end that life.
Yes, where I live, there are people about whom we decide, "He just ought not to be let live!" In times past, such an evil-doer was often NOT let live, by the victim's enraged family. Of course there is something wrong with that! But is it worse than the legal spectacle that comes with capital punishment? I don't think so. Truth is, what we as human beings are unable to make -- such as a human life -- we have no right to take. Not in war, not in murder, not in legal killing such as just befell Troy Davis, at the hands of the State of Georgia.
+38 # Peacedragon 2011-09-25 15:45
""The United States should be like every other civilized country in the western world and abolish the death penalty." Yes!
+41 # Lulie 2011-09-25 15:47
"The United States should be like every other civilized country . . . ."
He should take out the word "other."
+4 # dandevries 2011-09-26 18:06
+37 # John Locke 2011-09-25 15:57
Thank you Mr. Ault, you are not alone, many of us consider the death penalty an archaic punishment, especially as we KNOW innocent people are being murdered by a judicial system that lacks compassion, and also lacks justice ... many of us also believe there were too many questions surrounding Troy Davis for him to be Jeffrey Mc Donald who has been in prison for decades for a murder that has been acknowledged he never committed, the system fails continually and lives are being wasted...we in the legal system are aware and believe that 20% of the prison population in the US consists of innocent human beings, the subject of prosecutorial misconduct, and witness false memories... I for one felt sad at Davis should never have occurred, but for a lack of human decency and a court system that is out of touch with the times, and is still barbaric...may Davis Rest in peace!
+44 # aljoschu 2011-09-25 15:58
An honest confession by an honest man. Who would know better?

We should take his advice very seriously.
Yours respectfully!
+34 # jcadams 2011-09-25 16:07
This is a highly intelligent and sensitive assessment of the situation. The criminal justice system needs more people like Mr. Ault. The failure of the system in Georgia or oat the U. S. Supreme Court to stop the execution of Troy Davis was a travesty.
+27 # James Marcus 2011-09-25 16:09
Unfortunately, Texas and Georgia (& others) abound with megalomaniacs and hunter-killer types who actually love this business, together with their (often religious based) sense of 'Lawful Righteousness'.
It is premeditated murder, as Mr. Ault has stated. As such, All humans might refuse to participate in the Execution process.
No 'Go-fers'. Then what?
+45 # reiverpacific 2011-09-25 16:20
Would someone send this very moving and best-qualified post to Mr Ault's former employers (who have no doubt already seen it as he sent part of it to them), Clarence Thomas (who could have saved Troy Davis), Rick Perry, the Tea Party and it's thuggish howlers and the Mainstream Corporate Media.
-21 # seeuingoa 2011-09-25 16:33
Ok mister Allen Ault

If you had been a really moral person you would have said, if you do it, you have to do it without me.

All this exusing does not exonerate you.
You could have been outside the prison
at the time of execution with a banner
+22 # angelfish 2011-09-25 16:44
This man has made a good faith effort to come to grips with what is a TRULY barbaric job that victimizes ALL involved. How DARE you sit in judgment of him? He and several OTHER former Wardens and Prison Personnel wrote to the Georgia Prison Authorities who, it seems, IGNORED what they had to say! "Vengeance is MINE saith the Lord! Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!" I imagine you'd be right up there throwing stones as hard as you could! Your self-righteousn ess is pathetic!
-1 # maddave 2011-09-28 00:51
Bravo, seeuingoa!

You nailed it in much fewer words than I could.
+14 # teineitalia 2011-09-25 17:01
State sanctioned murder is nothing more than the Old Testament coming back to haunt us yet again. When are we going to turn the page? When will realize - as a nation - that state-sanctione d murder is still murder?

"An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind" bears repeating.

I feel for the author of this piece,and am glad to read that he has moved away from the horrific job of "supervising" executions. My only question is... why didn't he do it sooner? As long as society willingly participates in this charade we call "justice" i.e. revenge... then the killing will never stop.

We are long past due to join the civilized nations of the world who have abolished the death penalty.
+13 # kbarrand 2011-09-25 17:10
Killing people who kill people because killing is wrong????
+26 # coffeewriter 2011-09-25 17:14
5 Countries in the world with the highest execution (death penalty) rate last year include China, Iran, South Korea, Yemen and the United States.

Great company.
+18 # lookupandlive 2011-09-25 17:20
I understand what warden Ault and others are speaking about. I believe anyone who has ever worked a death row understands. I know of too many prople who have been found not guilty and released from prison to agree that the death penalty should be continued. The death penalty is not a deterrant, and it is wrong to place any staff members in the positionof participating in executing someone, and especially if there is doubt about the person's guilt. I would not have participated in the Troy Davis execution. It may have cost me my job, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do. If I had lost my job, I would have become an organizer along with the thousands of others and made sure the entire world knew what was done. It's time for everybody to do what they can to rid theis country of the death penalty.
+11 # webfoot doug 2011-09-25 17:42
Looking in to the eyes of Troy Davis, I could only murmur "Man you better be guilty, 'cause if you're not.........!

It's true, as Ault points out, the death penalty hardens and brutalizes those who carry it out, and in fact all of society.
This helps explain why those states which do not employ capital punishment have, on the average, lower murder rates than those like Georgia and Texas who do.

A horrifying example of this is Gov. Rick Perry bragging about all the executions Texas has carried out, while sociopathic Tea Party Conservatives scream their approval.

mizlee and ER444, one rare example of a true "Right to Life" politician was Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon, who recently died.
Though he opposed capital punishment and led the opposition to the Viet Nam war, Hatfield was disliked by many on the Left for also being anti-abortion. But that's where his strong faith led him.
+19 # pres 2011-09-25 18:15
How about the military? They kill thousands of innocents each year... and the murdered don't even have the luxury of a trial!
+9 # William Bjornson 2011-09-25 18:30
In the 'crime of passion', we mitigate in our minds certain otherwise operative values of condemnation because we recognise in our hearts if not our minds the ape that we all are. In 'premeditated murder', we do not mitigate at all the proscription of murder because we recognise serious social illness in the individual capable of carrying out such a premeditation. When the perpetrator is all of us, collectively, as is the case with premeditated execution, we can clearly see that a preponderance of us are seriously ill relative to a healthy herd. It would do us well as a people, Americans, to identify the generative locus or loci of this disease, current or historical, and attempt to remedy it. This being only one pustule of many upon the backs of us all.
+24 # hkatzman 2011-09-25 18:43
Maybe the judges who pass sentence and decide whether or not to have a stay of execution and the governor who signs the death warrant should also attend the executions to see first-hand, like Mr Ault, the direct results of their decisions.
+11 # gfelder 2011-09-25 20:25
Given the conduct of this Nation in WAR Crimes, The weapons like cluster bombs, weapons with fire power beyond any reasonable sane use- shock and awe , predator drones, Where is it that anyone can think of US having the capacity of Civil behaviour. Look at the policies of our Congress and their contempt for the basic human needs in this country - Civil behaviour not in our life time!
+3 # fhunter 2011-09-25 20:29
Those of you who are against death penalty of criminals, should be also against death penalty of totally innocents. Death penalty of some 20,000 by NRA and drunken drivers.
+2 # Lowflyin_Lolana 2011-09-25 22:19
Absolutely. And drivers who talk on cell phones. Headsets equally dangerous as handheld. It should be outlawed.
-16 # maddave 2011-09-26 01:15
I have absolutely no pity for you, Mr. Ault! By your own words you admit that, even while conducting executions, you were aware that the death penalty was ineffective as a deterrent, and you left the Georgia prison System in 1995 partially for that reason!

Fifteen years ago you knew in your heart that executions were State Sanctioned Murders, yet you remained silent until this very day - in a world in which YOUR WORDS may have changed an immoral system and saved the life of (at least) one probably innocent man.

Live with it, Sir.

The time to act was WHILE YOU WERE STILL IN THE SYSTEM and continuing thereafter until a law that you knew to be flawed was repealed!

Well, surprise, David Ault! You'll get no absolution from me or any other thinking human for your "nagging doubt" - your guilty conscience. Where doubt exists, there ought to be no execution! So live with it - and all of the rest!
+10 # angelfish 2011-09-26 06:41
Sorry to see that you belong right along side Seeuingoa, Mad Dave. How do YOU know that Mr. Ault hasn't spoken out before now? Walk a mile in his shoes before you criticize and accuse, Sir. I'm surprised at the venom of your statement. People DO evolve and learn. He will stand in front of his Creator, read his page out of the Book and receive the absolution you so judgmentally would withhold. You ALMOST sound like a ReTHUGlican! It must be satisfying to be so PERFECT and without fault! Try to remember to Judge NOT, lest YE be Judged. Peace.
+2 # maddave 2011-09-27 00:14
Anglefish: You say that people do evolve and learn. OK, I buy that wholeheartedly. By his own admission, (at least) 50% of the executions that Ault oversaw were of men who had evolved & learned. Troy Davis (who was probably innocent from the git-go) is another: his last words were forgiveness of his killers.

I am a secular humanist, schooled and raised in Southern Chain Gang mentality (40's & 50's in North Florida), and I say that any cold calculated deliberate killing, be it a condemned prisoner on a gurney or an abortionist in church (by a crazed christian), is evil and a sin against humanity.

The validity of the defense "I was just following orders" was argued and settled, internationally , once-and-for-al l in Nuremberg after WWII. to wit: When faced with the order to commit institutionaliz ed evil, one is obliged - at a minimum - to speak out and to refuse the order - regardless of immediate consequences.

Your ad hominem sarcastic, pious, pandering, proselytizing remarks bespeak orthodoxy and a shallow understanding of Mr. Ault's purpose: he is seeking - from us, the liberal community - an absolution which is available only in his own heart. It is not ours to give.

P. S. I will not judge in this space if you will not proselytize, OK?
+1 # angelfish 2011-09-27 11:05
Maddave, I don't think I was "proseletyzing" by sharing an opinion. I gave up on organized "Religion" a long time ago and try not to be such an ABSOLUTIST, but there ARE shades of gray and I think it's up to a Higher Power to sit in judgment of Mr. Ault and Humanity as well. I don't think Mr. Ault was seeking absolution, I think he is STILL grappling with the trauma of what he and others in the Penal System are required to do. It's encouraging to see people of conscience, AT LAST standing up and speaking to Power about the Toll Capital Punishment takes on ALL involved. Sadly, there are still the Rick Perrys of the World who rejoice at the thought of throwing the switch or pushing in the plunger, who cheer at the uninsured's dying because of "ignorance" and "lack of foresight"! It's up to US to get the Laws changed and abolish Capital Punishment once and for ALL! I believe that Life in Prison without parole is a Sentence most would rather avoid than the release of death. By the way, it's angelfish, NOT anglefish. P.S. I thought this site was a place to exchange ideas, learn and grow...? People believe what they want to believe anyway. I have always enjoyed reading your comments and just felt the need to ask why you were so certain of Mr. Ault's reason for his actions. Peace.
+12 # robertredcrow 2011-09-26 07:46
Many years ago, I attended a meeting with directors of mental health in Georgia to hear an address by Commissioner Ault. During the question period after discussing the cost of housing prisoners, I asked Commissioner Ault why he did not release prisoners whose sole crime was possession of drugs. He replied he had no authority to do so. If he had the authority, he would release them. I shall never forget his expressed compassion for inmates and his sincere concern for their welfare as well as the needs of the State. I found him to be a man of integrity, vision and dedication to his job as Commissioner.
+1 # maddave 2011-09-27 10:16
robertredcrow: If we learn anything practical in this life, it is that words are cheap: What one does speaks louder than what one says.
-3 # boudreaux 2011-09-26 07:53
Everything that is born has a right to life!!!
+7 # reiverpacific 2011-09-26 09:08
Having seen the Southern "Correction" system up close and personal, and met some of the wardens, judges and D.A.'s many of whom are openly racist and inclined to be callous and even brutal. I can truly say that EVEN NOW Mr. Ault is being courageous in coming out and being published, as he still lives and works in Kentucky.
Also, it sounds to me that he lived through the gamut of justification, numbness then rejection of the system and the trauma he has been through, as have some of the more feeling guards, and did the best he could whilst laying his own demons suffered at the hands of the system.
You who condemn him out of hand like knee-jerk reactionaries you seem to be, need to read this article of Mr. Ault's again and truly have no idea what the reality of the (especially) Southern humans-as-piece s-of-meat system is really like.
I note and fully appreciate the irony that he calls "capital punishment is a very scripted and rehearsed murder. It's the most premeditated murder possible".
I personally thank him for his article and pray that it is just one of the nails in the coffin of the death house system and a more human justice system in general -and that Troy Davis' name is given to the act of abolition when it becomes a federal law.
Have any of you watched the movie "The Green Mile"? Good illustration (set in the South).
+2 # dahnshaulis 2011-09-26 16:18
To get a feel of how dehumanizing prison work is, read Prison Stories at the Justice Policy Journal.
-1 # motamanx 2011-09-28 15:40
I don't like the death penalty, but also don't think spending 75,000 a year to keep axe murderers alive is wise, either.
0 # bobcatmacon 2014-03-26 11:00
This is a typical politician grabbing some publicity. All he did was drive a really nice state furnished vehicle from his cushy office in Atlanta to the state prison to run through a prepared script. I worked on Death Row for 6 years and participated in 9 executions and I worked with these men day in and out. Ault doesn't have a clue about what it means to execute someone just because he was the commissioner for a while. It's like being the President of the U.S. and claiming you have killed people because you are the commander-in-ch ief when it is the soldier on the battlefield who does the actual job. This guy was a desk Jockey! He had no clue what took place on death row in the day to day operations. The officers had to prepare the inmate, walk him on his last mile and strap him in the chair. Ault just read the execution order (that was signed by a judge, not him) in a microphone. He should try putting on a uniform and walking the walk. I despise politicians.

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