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