Behind the Black Hood: Death Row Inmates Seek Identity of their Future Executioners

Historically, executioners were hooded or masked to prevent retaliation for their service or to convey the image of non-personal justice. Now, five death row inmates are suing to learn the identities of their executioners. With recent disclosures of executioners with criminal records, the lawsuits could create some interesting precedent.

The lawsuits filed in Kansas City follow reports about the criminal history of a Missouri executioner and questions over his “temperament and suitability” to dispatch others. David L. Pinkley, a licensed practical nurse, was on probation but worked on executions and even was made a member of the team that executed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in Indiana in 2001.

Pinkley, originally charged with felonies for allegedly stalking and damaging the property of a man who had a relationship with his estranged wife, pleaded no contest to misdemeanors and received a suspended imposition of sentence. That cleared his record once he served two years on probation.

Reginald Clemons, Richard Clay, Jeffrey Ferguson, Roderick Nunley and Michael Taylor argue that they have a right to know if their executioners are suitably trained and qualified. As noted in a recent column, mishaps have been common in executions through the years. Click here

Last year, Missouri passed a law protecting the identities of current or former executioners. A position criticized The main reason for hiding the executioner’s face appear to be social stigma and self-protection. Many shunned executioners while others might try to take revenge for their role. Anonymity was not uniform however. Some executioners were famous. In Britain, Albert Pierrepoint was famous in his time executing more people than anyone other English and perhaps Western executioner.

Likewise, Jack Ketch was famous or infamous as the executioner for King Charles II. He was often accused of causing suffering in executions either by negligence or design. Indeed, he had to publish a public apology for the botched job in killing off Lord Russell in 1683, who he explained did not “dispose himself as was most suitable” for execution.

Of course, we have done away with the executioner’s hood. The team is now hidden behind a wall in most states as the levers are pulled. In the west, an executioner was often an independent contractor who traveled from town to town. He was often unhooded in Western executions.

Another tradition was to allow for multiple executioners with only one responsible for the actual death or, alternatively, one who could not have been responsible. Thus, even in military executions, it was often common to give one rifleman a blank. In electric chairs and gas chambers, there was sometimes multiple switches with only one hooked to the current or gas pellets. Thus, no one could be certain that they were the actual executioner.

The Missouri case will be interesting, though the state has the advantage. With the growing controversy over how we execute people, it adds yet another aspect to that national debate.

For the full story out of Missouri, click here

2 thoughts on “Behind the Black Hood: Death Row Inmates Seek Identity of their Future Executioners”

  1. They want to see their executioner? The ones they killed saw their executioners faces and didn’t know why they were being killed. I know one of these men and I am awaiting his execution. I would love to be there the day of his execution. It wouldn’t matter to me if he saw my face, I wouldn’t care. I don’t hate the one man I know, I DO feel bad for the family of the girl he murdered, and he does deserve what his fate has served him through his actions and according to our laws – the proper legal channels. He has wasted enough of the states money with the legal channels of appeals. There needs to be a limit on lawsuits the inmates can waste the innocent taxpayer’s money on. I know what happened and how he (inmate) got to where he is now and he shouldn’t be allowed to see his executioner. The people these death row inmates killed, didn’t understand why they were being killed/murdered, but saw their executioners, These inmates know why they are being executed and don’t need to see their executioners.
    Plain and simple they don’t deserve to see who their executioner is, like, they think they deserve the rights like people who are not in prison. Prisoners only deserve very, very few rights, they broke the law, they murdered, they want to do everything they can to live longer-I am sure the people they murdered would have loved the option to live longer.

  2. Very curious indeed. There are a number of arguments one could posit on both sides of this, in an academic way.

    The identity of the executioner, in this article, is the State. Just as the petitioners for justice by the District Attorney, is the people, or if you will, the State.

    Any discussion though, of Military execution seems rather out of place here for at least two bold-faced reasons. First, the military takes (presumably) regular soldiers and assigns them as a firing squad. This would be the equivalent of the judge selecting 10 citizens in the gallery to act as executioners. Secondly, military execution is less about punishment and more about practical barbarism. Generally the military has been very reluctant to execute under UCMJ, unless the underlying crime resulted in the death of another member of the US military or military dependent. The act of execution in the military ranks is more of extreme preening than it is criminal justice.

    The civilian government execution may have its roots in barbaric purification, as much as quelling retribution by citizens. Also, for centuries we’ve heard the discussion on its alleged value towards deterring crime among the populace.

    In any case, the legal arguments seem so trite, when considering that in the civilian example, we practice extermination; but the argument here is about who’s rights should prevail in performing this extreme means to an end.

    My personal view is that if our society feels compelled to take human life as punishment – it should be in the least clinical manner and we should be confronted with our barbaric and morbidly curious nature each time someone is executed. Bring back the firing squads and televise the event on C-Span. Use the guillotine, very precise and with new technology, essentially fool proof. Connect the people with the fruits of their political contributions and support – and perhaps they would not be so apt to casually discuss the taking of human life as though it were a work of fiction. Let us see the blood stained wall outside the State Capitol Building and perhaps we’d be more concerned who resides inside the walls on our behalf.

    Thus, the argument of the article would be moot. Perhaps regular citizens could be compelled to be part of the firing squad of one’s peers, in the same way as a jury.

    Lastly, it seems as though the arguments about identity are more likely arguments toward death-penalty awareness than they are about actually ascertaining the identity of the ‘executioner.’

Comments are closed.