Voices: Frank Thompson

“No one can speak personally about conducting and being personally responsible for killing people in the name of society better than I can.”

“No one can speak personally about conducting and being personally responsible for killing people in the name of society better than I can,” says former Oregon State Penitentiary superintendent Frank Thompson. As superintendent (warden), Thompson oversaw the only two executions Oregon has carried out in the past 52 years.

When he interviewed for the job in 1994, Thompson was asked if he would be able to conduct executions and, at the time, he supported capital punishment, and said yes. He had served in Korea, he says, and was “a good soldier. I was familiar with the need to take a life under certain circumstances.” Eighteen months later, he was tasked with conducting Oregon’s first execution in 32 years.

“My team and I had to re-write the whole execution process because the state had switched to lethal injection [from the gas chamber]. If I had come in with the protocols already in place, I quite possibly would have gone through step by step and never given it much thought. But I wrote the protocol, dotted all the i’s, crossed all the t’s. I personally taught the executioner how to depress the plunger into the syringe so it wouldn’t come out with too much force. . . . This intimate experience to deliberately, premeditatively, meticulously plan how to take a person’s life made me stand back and really confront what I was doing and how it made me feel.” The doubts grew when he actually stood in the death chamber with Douglas Wright, the first person whose execution he supervised in September, 1996.

“I stood over that person, watching him breathe, and realized it was my job to stop him from breathing. I was hired to kill somebody, get the mission done. Society shouldn’t put men and women in the position of taking a human life in a process that has not been proven to work.”

The misgivings were especially hard for the 72-year-old Thompson because his belief in capital punishment dated back to his days as an African-American growing up in the segregated South. Civil rights workers were murdered, a church bombing in Alabama killed four little girls, black boys and men were being beaten and killed, and the communities he grew up in supported capital punishment for the perpetrators. In addition, his cousin, Louis Perry Bryant, an Arkansas state trooper, was killed by a murder suspect, and a classmate at the Arkansas Police Academy was also killed in the line of duty. All of these experiences, coupled with his military service, “gelled” his support for the death penalty.

So Thompson’s doubts were complicated. He says his opposition to capital punishment is more practical than emotional. “I believe that when a person commits a heinous crime, that person needs to be held accountable. But I am convinced that the death penalty is immoral. It doesn’t deter, it doesn’t make society any safer, it reeks of racial discrimination, and it’s applied arbitrarily. In Oregon, two people can commit the same crime, and in one county they’ll get life without parole, and in another the death penalty.” And he is troubled by the number of people on Death Row who have been exonerated, indicating that “innocent lives have been taken.”

Take the emotion out of the debate, Thompson says, and it is hard to make an argument for capital punishment on a public policy level. “Reasonable people, really interested in a functioning society, can’t support a public policy that can’t be shown to work. Stop focusing emotionally on the individuals and hold up capital punishment to sound, evidence-based criteria. Does it save lives? Is it equitably administered? Is it more cost-effective than life without parole? It fails on all counts.”

Thompson is also concerned about the effect the death penalty has on prison staff. Having execution as part of your job description can take its toll even if you support capital punishment. After his second execution, eight months later, when Harry C. Moore was put to death, Thompson said “it was different in terms of my resolve. I realized I was training decent men and women to take the life of an individual in the safety and security of a prison. Someone who was no threat to them.”

He points to studies that show that 31 percent of prison executioners suffer from PTSD, compared to 20 percent of Iraq war veterans, and just over three percent of the general population. “Alcoholism, suicide, depression are all side effects” for many of these people, he says.

“My staff had the beginning signs of psychological effects after those two executions,” he said. “If they had been in one of the states where they do 10, 20 a year, over and over again, I’m convinced there would have been some real psychological damage.”

After Thompson retired in 1998, he became an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. He is on the board of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and has written op-eds for newspapers around the country urging repeal. He appeared in front of the legislatures in Maryland in 2013, and in Nebraska in 2014, shortly before each of those two states voted for repeal.

He is optimistic that the death penalty is dying. “The wind’s at our back,” he says. “When [Supreme Court Justice Stephen] Breyer issued his dissent in the Glossip case in Oklahoma he practically invited death penalty attorneys to bring a good case to the court. Boy, when I read that, I thought, ok, now’s the time. We advocates for repeal have got something going on.”

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