Saturday, Mar 25, 2017
Former prison warden haunted by executionsNovember 5th, 2008
By Ron McAndrew, special to Catholic San Francisco
During my tenure as warden at Florida State Prison it was my duty to oversee the executions of three men: John Earl Bush, John Mills, Jr. and Pedro Medina.
Remembering every gruesome detail of their deaths is haunting. The flames that consumed Pedro Medina’s head when the execution went seriously awry, the smoke, the putrid odor, and his death by inferno is deeply embedded in my brain. The memory of telling the executioner to continue with the killing, despite the malfunctioning electric chair, and being at a point of no-return, plagues me to this day.
When I became warden I learned that it was tradition for the “death team” to go out for breakfast the morning after an execution. On the early morning after John Bush’s execution, the “traditional breakfast” was held 15 miles south of the death chamber at a Shoney’s in Starke, Fla.. This was my first execution and I felt that tradition was important and, moreover, the well-being of the “team” was my responsibility.
In this small town of 5,000 most everyone works at the prison, is retired from the prison, or has a family member in the business. Everyone in the restaurant knew who we were and what we had just done. There were even a few “high five” signs.
While stirring my scrabbled eggs into hot grits, I began to realize the full import of the spectacle around us. Looking across the room, I could see the female attorney who had represented Bush. I saw my own sickness on her sad face and decided that breakfast after executions just didn’t fit. It was my first and my last traditional death breakfast. It simply appeared celebratory from too many angles.
Minutes before an execution it is the warden’s responsibility to sit with the prisoner and read the death warrant aloud after explaining that it is a state law requirement. I asked the condemned men if there was anything that could be done for them or if there was anyone I could call or if they had something very personal and confidential they’d like me to pass on - following, of course, their imminent death. While I shall never share any of the words passed to me during those quiet moments it can be said that the whispers were sincere and promises were kept.
Searching my soul for answers that would satisfy the question of why were we killing people and why our governor and politicians would do their chest pounding over these ghastly spectacles was difficult. I began to remember myself as the person who went to Florida State Prison with a firm belief in the death penalty. And even though I still professed this belief, the questions of why we were doing this and if it were necessary, would not leave my mind.
While appalled by the physical act of tying a person to a chair and burning him to death, I did not deny the reasons for the act.
Here I want to say that one must be careful in searching his soul. One may just find that God is there and that he does not support the barbaric idea that man should execute man.
During the renewal of my faith and my conversion to the Catholic Church, I was asked to speak out about my feelings on the death penalty.
After 23 years in corrections, I have come to the conclusion that killing people is wrong. We have no business doing it, except in self-defense, in defense of someone else or in defense of the nation.
And it’s wrong for us to ask others do it for us. Looking back, I wish I had never been involved in carrying out the death penalty. We have an alternative that doesn’t lower us to the level of the killer: permanent imprisonment. It is cheaper, keeps society safe and offers swift justice to the victims.
I have found that my experience and notoriety as a warden who carried out executions provides a good platform to reach the public. I have told many groups in the past few years that I will tell my story to anyone who’ll stand in front of me long enough to hear it.
Ron McAndrew is a 22-year veteran with the Florida Department of Corrections. He is a member of St. John the Baptist Parish in Dunnellon, Fla. His website is www.RonMcAndrew.com.
From October 3, 20008 issue of Catholic San Francisco.
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