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America’s Changing Death Penalty Debate
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America’s Changing Death Penalty Debate

Americans are souring on the death penalty for lots of different reasons.

A lethal injection gurney is shown before being dismantled in March 2019 at California's San Quentin State Prison. (Photo by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via Getty Images)

Ron McAndrew’s third execution was the last he would ever oversee.

On March 25, 1997, McAndrew, then the warden of the Florida State Prison in Raiford, watched as guards escorted Pedro Medina into the death chamber at the prison and strapped him into “Old Sparky,” the electric chair that had been in use since 1923. Medina had been convicted of the gruesome 1982 murder of Dorothy James, a 51-year-old elementary school teacher. “I am still innocent,” Medina said when asked for his last words. Guards strapped his limbs into the chair, placed a saline-soaked sponge atop Medina’s head, then latched an electrode on top of the sponge, followed by a copper helmet, and finally a mask over his face.

At a secret signal from McAndrew, the executioner flipped on the electrical current and Medina’s body jerked back as the fatal charge entered his body. Then it all went wrong.

The sponge—which had been wrung too dry of the saline solution that should have conducted the electrical current into Medina’s head—caught fire. Blue and orange flames shot out from Medina’s masked head. Smoke filled the execution chamber. So did the smell of burning flesh.

“They’re burning him alive,” said attorney Michael Minerva, one of the execution’s observers.

More than 25 years later, McAndrew agreed: “We burned a man to death.”

As the execution went wrong, McAndrew had to decide whether to stop and retry or continue. “You have to put on a good show because there are a lot of people watching,” he said. “You can’t show any fear, hesitation, weakness of any kind.” He decided to continue with a second electrical charge of a lower voltage. Four minutes later, Medina was pronounced dead.

After the Medina execution and public outcry, Gov. Lawton Chiles sent McAndrew to Huntsville, Texas, to learn more about lethal injections, but that’s when he began rethinking his position on the death penalty. The trauma of the Medina execution and personal connections with death row inmates began weighing on the Air Force veteran. “You get to know them and then, one day, you go up and read them a death warrant,” he said. “The mother shows you a picture of them as a high school boy on the basketball team. They’re human beings. They’re not just objects or numbers.”

McAndrew began having nightmares in which he saw the men he’d executed sitting on his bed, staring at him. He turned to pills and alcohol. He would eventually  begin therapy, give up his addictions, and transfer to a different prison in Orlando. But first came one day in 1998. “I woke up and said, ‘The death penalty is wrong.’” He called his superiors with one request: “Get me the hell out of here.”

A decades-long decline.

Though it ebbs and flows, debate over the death penalty in the U.S. never really cools off. Even as major GOP figures like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis call for less stringent requirements for invoking the death penalty, over the last few decades more and more Americans’ views on the death penalty resemble McAndrew’s. Support for it dipped as low as 42 percent in May 1966 and climbed as high as 80 percent in September 1994, according to Gallup polling. Gallup puts current support for the death penalty at 54 percent, while Pew puts it at 60 percent. A 2019 Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans believe that life without the possibility of parole is a preferable sentence to capital punishment—the highest level ever recorded. 

State governments are using the death penalty less and less too: While it’s legal in 27 states, seven (New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, New Hampshire, Colorado and Virginia) have imposed moratoriums that replace death sentences with life in prison. In 2022, fewer than 50 defendants were sentenced to death and only 20 executions were carried out in only six states. Part of this could be the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic—2020 saw 17 executions and 2021 saw 11. Both years saw only 18 death sentences handed out by courts. Yet it’s not merely COVID drops—states like Oregon and California are commuting death sentences and dismantling their execution chambers for good.

“The last 10 years have seen a significant decrease, but the 20-year trend is even starker,” Robert Dunham, former executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), told The Dispatch.* He thinks the telling statistic is the number of death sentences issued by U.S. courts. The DPIC’s Death Penalty Census, a database released in 2022 tracking all death sentences from 1972 until the end of 2020, shows 244 sentences of death issued in 2000. By 2010 the number dropped to 127, and by 2022 it had dropped to 20. Executions themselves are down historically, too. “We’re on our eighth straight year of under 30 executions,” he said.

Dunham points to several variables for the long-term decline. Despite recent increases, the murder rate in the United States has declined from historic highs in the 1980s and 1990s. The death penalty is significantly more expensive than any comparable penal alternative: The cost of a single execution can stretch into the millions. In Texas, for example, the average death penalty case costs $2.3 million, three times more than imprisoning an inmate in maximum security for 40 years. DPIC estimated that in 2000 Florida spent $51 million more in administering the death penalty than it would have punishing all first-degree murderers with life without parole. Plus there are the extended appeals processes, increased costs for legal counsel and expert witnesses, which more and more defendants seem to understand. Dunham, a former defender who worked capital cases and Villanova law professor, pointed out the importance of proper representations in capital cases: “If you’re well-represented, you don’t get the death penalty.” In some cases, it’s a logistical issue—Pfizer halted the supply of anesthetics to U.S. prisons in 2016, citing ethical concerns and cutting off prisons’ ability to execute prisoners.

Apart from the fluctuation in data, however, the national conversation over the death penalty is changing in other ways. More and more stories of faulty convictions come to light, possibly swaying public opinion. But so do stories of how the death penalty affects attorneys, judges, and the people tasked with carrying out executions. Sometimes, uncovering these stories reveals horrifying tales of how close America’s come to executing the innocent.

Innocent on death row.

In 2002 Ray Krone became the 100th death row inmate exonerated since the Supreme Court ruled executions were constitutional in 1976 after the four-year halt imposed by the Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia.

On December 29, 1991, a friend of the then-34-year-old Krone, Kim Ancona was found naked and stabbed to death in the men’s bathroom of the Phoenix bar where she worked. A single beer, a glass, and Ancona’s pocketbook were sitting on the bar next to the bar’s open cash drawer. The knife used to kill the 21-year-old woman was found nearby, bent from the impact of multiple stab wounds. 

Someone alerted the police that Krone had helped Ancona close the bar the previous night, so they asked Krone for a Styrofoam impression of his teeth to compare with bite marks on Ancona’s body.

Two days later police charged Krone with murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault despite a witness giving a physical description of a suspect that didn’t resemble Krone.

“I didn’t even get detention in high school,” Krone told The Dispatch with a chuckle. Prosecutors used testimony from an allegedly expert witness, who was later discredited, to claim that Krone’s teeth matched the bite marks on Ancona but concealed from Krone’s “highly unqualified” attorney an odontologist’s report that cast doubt on his guilt. The jury found Krone guilty, and in 1992 he was sentenced to death. 

In 1996 an appeals court ordered a new trial because of the prosecution’s withholding of the odontologist report, but a new jury convicted him yet again on the basis of the expert witness’ bite mark testimony—a highly dubious form of evidence. But this time the judge sentenced Krone to life in prison, citing concerns over Krone’s innocence.

Trapped in a prison cell and charged with a murder he never committed, Krone received constant support from family and friends, he told The Dispatch: “They knew who I was. I established myself as a person of honor and integrity.” Krone, a Christian, says he slept with the Bible under his pillow during his prison stay, drawing inspiration from the Old Testament stories of Job and Jonah. Above all, he says, he understood the importance of staying focused on proving his innocence: “You don’t want to be the one that drops the ball and loses the game. You’re never a quitter.” Krone made use of the prison’s law library, trying his best to help other inmates on death row: “You can beat yourself down saying ‘why did this happen to me,’ but I felt that there were others that were innocent too.”

Still, each day in prison brought new danger. Krone has been stabbed and watched as guards put down prison riots. “You flatline your emotions—you don’t get too excited about good news or too crushed by bad news,” he said. On death row, Krone was allowed outside very little, during which he said he’d listen for “a motorcycle, a dog bark, something to remind me of the outside world.” Other than that, he was in confinement.

From 1992 to 2002, Krone’s family reportedly spent more than $300,000 fighting to get him out of prison. In 2002, the break came—Krone’s lawyer convinced an appeals court that DNA testing of saliva found at the site of Ancona’s murder implicated another man, Kenneth Phillips Jr. 

Phillips would later be sentenced to 53 years to life for Ancona’s murder. 

On April 29, 2002, Ray Krone walked out of an Arizona prison a free man. The return to normal life came with struggles Krone described as amusing. He had to learn how to use a microwave and cell phone, respond to voicemail, and sleep on mattresses much softer than his prison bunk.

The power to kill.

The exoneration of an imprisoned man like Krone isn’t unique—though it doesn’t happen much with death row inmates. When Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a 2021 moratorium on federal executions, he cited a “troubling amount of exonerations” in connection with death penalty cases. And at least 190 individuals sentenced to death in America in the last 50 years have been found to be wrongfully convicted and exonerated, including 22 in Illinois, 16 in Texas, and 30 in Florida.

Elsa Alcala, who spent nine years as an assistant district attorney before spending seven years on the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals, left the bench in 2018 a staunch opponent of the death penalty. She was concerned more DNA evidence testing would lead to more exonerations, as would considering inmates’ mental faculties. “That was not justice, to execute someone without testing DNA evidence, without considering intellectual disability issues,” she said.

One such example was that of Bobby Moore, an inmate convicted of the 1980 murder of a supermarket clerk. In 2014 a Texas court determined Moore was intellectually disabled, which prevented the state from executing him. But the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals (TCCA) overruled the decision on the grounds that the lower court used current medical standards instead of the state’s test for mental disability. The state test used medical definitions from the early 1990s that were later discredited by the Supreme Court as an “invention … untied to any medical source,” lacking “any authority, medical or judicial.” In 2019, TCCA resentenced Moore to life in prison. He was granted parole in June 2020.

“You have almost 200 people sitting on death row who were sentenced when these problems were rampant,” Alcala said.

Krone, now 66, now advocates for the justice system doing everything it can to prevent more cases like his. He founded the advocacy group Witness to Innocence in 2003, speaking and urging states to abolish the death penalty. “We want to be accurate on crime, we want guilty people locked up,” he said. “But can we please, positively identify that you’re getting the right person?”

Even death penalty advocates like Joshua Marquis—a longtime former Oregon district attorney who has both prosecuted and defended capital cases—are realistic about the risks associated with the death penalty. “I don’t believe that the system is infallible: If we keep executing people, it is statistically probable that we will execute an innocent person,” he said. “Krone is one of the super rare exceptions. It shouldn’t happen. I completely understand why he and his supporters believe what they do.”

Still, he  pointed out that a capital case will undergo 15 to 25 years of review on average, including appeals that are mandatory in some states and optional in others. “The death penalty is, and should be, exceedingly rare. I have been a lawyer for 42 years specializing in murder cases. This is just not a very common thing; it’s not just prosecutors deciding who gets executed,” he said. “I’m not claiming prosecutors are infallible, because there have been horrible cases. But is there a systemic problem here? I think the answer is quite clearly no.”

The issue doesn’t necessarily fall neatly along partisan lines. Some conservatives are turning away from capital punishment out of skepticism of the government itself and concerns over Americans’ civil liberties. “I think those on the political right take it for granted that you’re supposed to support capital punishment,” Marc Hyden, a former manager at the advocacy group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said. “For myself, I can’t get the government to fill a pothole next to my house—that’s the government we’re trusting with the death penalty?” 

Still, Republican lawmakers such as Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas have vocally opposed criminal justice reform measures like the First Step Act and claimed that Garland’s moratorium would delay the executions in some of the most obvious and disturbing cases—such as with Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof. “Some murders are so heinous, their perpetrators so wicked, that society has no choice but to seek the death penalty—and a majority of Americans agree,” Cotton told The Dispatch in a written statement. “Arguments against capital punishment happen in a vacuum, far removed from the heartbreaking details of any one particular case. But those arguments collapse under the acute weight of reality. To win the death penalty debate, we must point to the grisly, awful reality that necessitates its existence.”

A different kind of toll.

More than a third of all American executions were botched in 2022, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. These botches reportedly occurred “as a result of executioner incompetence, failures to follow protocols, or defects in the protocols themselves,” including death teams being unable to set IV lines in the veins of the condemned. While botches don’t necessarily always cause pain to the condemned inmate, they’re often evidence of some sort of failure in the death penalty system. In extraordinary cases like that of Medina—the inmate who died in the fiery 1997 execution— the botches leave both witnesses and executioners scarred by the memories.

But even in legitimate executions, though, correctional staff can carry scars for years. “When I started trying to pull the execution program together, the well-being of the staff I was recruiting was key,” former prison warden Frank Thompson told The Dispatch. “I wanted to make sure that there were no more victims than there have to be, beyond the inmate.”

Thompson grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and remembers the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till as a formative time for his opinion on the death penalty. Outraged by the senseless murder of a fellow black boy at the hands of Mississippi racists, Thompson and many others in his community supported the death penalty for Till’s murderers.

After military service, Thompson eventually served as superintendent of Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem from 1994 to 1998. A year and a half into work, he received the death warrant for Douglas Wright, a serial killer responsible for the 1991 murders of several homeless men and the kidnapping, molestation, and murder of a 10-year-old  boy. Wright opted not to appeal his death sentence and said he hoped his death would bring “peace and closure” to his victims’ families in a written statement released after his execution. Wright was the state’s first execution in 34 years, and Thompson was tasked with creating a new protocol for lethal injections in Oregon. Finding a team of men willing to oversee executions was far from easy—especially the person to deliver the fatal injection.

“There was a young man who’d walk to my office and we would occasionally talk, and one day he said, ‘Mr. Thompson, I can sense what you’re going through. If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know.’” When Thompson asked him to be the one to administer the injection, the young man was completely blindsided: “His jaw dropped to the floor, and he said, ‘Boss, look, when I offered to help you, I had no idea that you might call on me to administer the lethal injection.’” But a week later, he accepted. Thompson recalled training the young man with the practice syringe: “There was a surreal sense of, I’m training this man to kill someone.”

Thompson’s team carried out Oregon’s only two executions in 54 years, one in 1996 and the next in 1997. Between the first and second executions, several members of the execution team quit, some later struggling with PTSD, according to Thompson. “For every condemned person executed, the number of people put at a lifetime of risk are multiplied by the number of people involved in conducting the execution,” he said. “Why do we allow this to happen to the decent men and women who are our civil servants?”

For Ron McAndrew, the former warden of Florida State Prison, life has gotten better. He’s celebrating 40 years of marriage, and is now a practicing Christian. He’s also an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, serves as an expert witness on the subject, and has spoken to the United Nations. “You’re either for it or against,” he said. “There’s no middle of the road on killing someone who’s captured.”

*Correction, February 25, 2023: Robert Dunham is the former director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Isaac Willour's Headshot

Isaac Willour

Isaac Willour is a former Dispatch intern.