'God wanted me to do it ... he wanted a humane killer'

As a prison governor, Don Cabana presided over six executions. Now an anti-death penalty campaigner
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Indy Lifestyle Online
He's Italian born, fought in Vietnam, Catholic, six kids, loving wife, lives in Mississippi. "I didn't want to be an executioner," says Don Cabana, 49, a baby-faced hulk of a guy. "I was just an instrument of the legal system."

Hands rest comfortably on a protruding belly. "Look, if I hadn't done it, somebody else would have had to do it. What is the point of shirking one's responsibilities?" Then he changes tack: "I had six children to support - what else could I have done?" A new breath: "God wanted me to do it ... he wanted a humane killer ... I was humane. I was compassionate."

Mr Cabana is talking about his job as governor of Mississippi's state prison in Parchman, about his job as executioner for the inmates on Death Row. He witnessed one execution, prepared three men for execution and executed two himself. One of these two men he now suspects was innocent, but he tries not to think about that too much. The other man he executed he grew to love: "I mouthed the words 'I love you' to him as he was sitting inside the gas chamber."

"I wouldn't say I was in favour of the death penalty when I was carrying out the executions. I just saw it as a necessary evil," says Mr Cabana. What does he think about capital punishment now? "I use my experiences as an executioner to speak out against it," is the answer he patters off. He is writing a book about his experiences called Midnight Sunrise. He also teaches criminology at Mississippi University.

Execution day, says Mr Cabana, usually began at 5am. He'd put on casual clothes ("I don't like to feel like an undertaker"), then go straight to Death Row from his governor's residence on the compound. A prison chaplain and prison psychiatrists would circulate along Death Row.

Late that morning, Mr Cabana would go to the cell of the condemned prisoner and talk - about what the prisoner wanted to eat for his last meal, what arrangements he wished to make regarding the disposal of his body - and whether or not he wished a member of the family to witness the execution. These ritual questions helped the staff ("It gives them something to do," says Mr Cabana). But they were humiliating for the prisoner: "What difference does it matter what I eat for my last meal?" one condemned man lashed out. "Who in the hell wants to eat anyway?"

Then came the clumsy small talk between guilt-ridden governor and indifferent prisoner: weather, legal issues, football, family and childhood. It would last most of the day. "We would talk about his family, then my family, his background, then my background," says Mr Cabana, with a trace of nostalgia. "He was no longer the prisoner. I was no longer the warden. We became two ordinary human beings locked together by an event which nobody else could share or understand.

" 'What is going to happen to me once I'm strapped to the chair?' the prisoners would ask. 'What should I do when the gas starts?' 'Just breathe deeply,' I would say. 'You'll be unconscious in a matter of seconds.' "

Just before midnight the guards would come. The prisoner would be escorted to the gas chamber and strapped to the chair - arms, torso, legs, ankles - and more recently the "head webbing". This stops the prisoner from "causing negative publicity" by thrashing the head about violently. "It looks bad, even though the inmate is probably unconscious," says Mr Cabana.

When the all-clear telephone call from the State Attorney General came through, it was Mr Cabana's job to give the word. The lever would be pulled, the cyanide dropped and the black curtains covering the window on to the gas chamber would open. The show had begun.

The audience of 20 was kept seated on plastic folding chairs and could only see the back view or the side view - "so that they couldn't see the contortions, the rolling eyes, gritted teeth, saliva, seizures, clenched fists". But the doctors and the prison staff were given the full frontal. "I would find my eyes glued to the inmate's face," says Mr Cabana. " 'I know him,' I would think. 'That man was in my care.' Just minutes before he was a living being. Now he was somebody I was killing."

It took between 10 to 15 minutes for the prisoner to die. When the gas was turned off, the curtains would close. There would be a waiting time of 10 minutes, then the chamber would be unsealed and the cleaning team, dressed in rubber masks and rubber suits, would hose the body down and remove it.

"One of my prisoners confided in me before his death. He said that his greatest worry was that he would lose control of his bodily functions. 'I don't want to embarrass myself,' he told me.

"When the gas had been turned on, I saw that he had urinated all over himself. I remember thinking how sad it was that the human condition could be reduced to that. I felt sad that I couldn't stop it happening." Tears strangle Mr Cabana's voice. "Sad that I couldn't stop him from defecating."

After two executions in a space of three months, Mr Cabana decided he'd had enough. He held out for another year, then in 1988 moved to another prison where there was no Death Row. "I decided it was best to defer to the wisdom of God to decide who should live and who should die - not an imperfect legal system," he says.

His disquiet was made worse by the worry that one of the men he had executed was innocent. Since the turn of the century there have been 24 wrongful executions in the US, according to research by academics at Stanford University in California. "His last words to me before I closed the gas chamber door were, 'I am innocent. I didn't shoot the policeman. You are killing an innocent man.' At the time I didn't believe him, but now it is troubling me. I hope and pray that he was guilty. The idea that I have killed an innocent human being would be too difficult to cope with."

Eventually, after 23 years in the prison service, Mr Cabana gave up his new job as a prison governor and became an academic criminologist and an ardent anti-capital punishment campaigner.

"I don't think prison staff should be made to carry out executions," he says. "The jury foreman or the prosecuting attorney should do it." Next best, he says, would be for the attorney, jury and anyone who supports capital punishment to watch. "They'd have second thoughts if they were to see what really happens.

"Even now I get people stopping me on the street to say: 'I know you. You executed Evans! I bet that was great!' I just shake my head. 'You come and pull the trigger,' I say to them. 'It is not so great.' "

Americans are right to worry about crime, says Mr Cabana. But they have become too frenzied in their fear: "They are looking for a quick fix. They think that capital punishment can have an impact, that the death penalty is a simple, quick solution. Yes, it may give them satisfaction, especially when it comes to child killers - I have to say that child killers really get to me - but it does not solve the problem why people go into crime in the first place"

Mr Cabana teaches criminology four hours' drive away in the leafy university town of Hattiesburg. Gone is the prison campus house stationed next to the 20,000-acre prison in the "ugly" delta region of Mississippi. Gone too are the flat lands covered with fields of vegetables and rice and catfish farms and the worry of 6,000 prisoners.

Ask Mr Cabana if he has any regrets and he'll talk about "wonderful friends" and "wonderful career". No mention of the men he executed. After a bit of pushing, he'll admit that while his new home (a shady, Fifties house minutes from the university) may be a long way away from Death Row, his mind and his conscience are not. "If I live to be 80, I will recall every wrinkle, every crease in the face - the style of the haircut, every reaction in the chamber. I will recall in the minutest detail the heartbroken mothers, inmate mothers and victim's mothers."

Apart from a dread of old faces coming back to haunt his cluttered mind, an even bigger worry looms for Mr Cabana, a devout Catholic: "When the time arrives for me to be judged by my God, how will I answer for my role in the execution process?"

Last November, Mr Cabana had a heart attack. Lying on starched sheets under the harsh gaze of fluorescent tubing, he called for the priest. "Give me an answer to my question!" he pleaded. "Please, give me an answer to my question!"

But the priest just said: "I don't know. I don't think you have to worry about God holding you responsible, but then I don't know. God considers all life sacred."

For now, Mr Cabana has decided to be kind to himself: "As I see it, God will ask me: 'What was in your heart when you did this?' My answer will be, 'Compassion'. Whether that is good enough, I don't know."

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