Ask Mr. Ethiquette: Dealing with the condemned

This is the second installment of my new advice series, “Ask Mr. Ethiquette.” I’ll offer guidance on that uncomfortable nexus of ethics and etiquette, the place where we’re conflicted about how to do the right thing or, if we can’t, at least how to do the wrong thing with grace. Polite society is important to maintain even as you go about your daily routine of stepping all over people. Mr. Ethiquette will tell you how to do it.

Dear Mr. Ethiquette,
I am the executioner for the Texas state prison system. (Hey — it’s a job). My state leads the nation in capital punishment so you’d think I’d be a busy man, tying people down, putting hoods on heads, closing curtains, etc. Actually, most of the time it’s pretty boring.

I’ve executed 17 different prisoners this year, which might sound like a lot, until you consider this is the 344th day of 2010, which means there were 327 days where I didn’t kill anyone. Sure, there are some weekends and holidays in there, plus I’m up to three weeks vacation now that I’ve completed my tenth year on the job (had a great time in Branson last July, and would recommend it to anyone, by the way). I usually don’t execute people on my days off — just that liquor store clerk in Missouri and a couple of freelance jobs in Florida — so that leaves many days where I mostly sit around.

Yes, I can practice. But hooking roaches and spiders and other household pests up to a lethal IV can hone your skills only so much. We have an official training manual that I review periodically. There are lots of standard procedures you have to know and, of course, this being state government, we have a ton of checklists to go through. I’ve read the manual cover-to-cover twice now but didn’t learn anything new. (I did find a few typos, though — yay me!) I’ve done all the mandatory safety training and diversity training and sexual harassment training, and now I mostly just sit around playing online Scrabble.

It gives me a lot of time to think about what I’m doing, and there’s something that’s starting to weigh heavy on my conscience: What is the proper etiquette for dealing with an individual that you’re getting ready to put to death?

The guards bring these poor suckers to my office, and it’s my job not only to execute them, but to make them fill out some forms first. We have a customer satisfaction survey that lets the prison system know if we’re meeting and (hopefully) exceeding their requirements. There’s an exit interview. There are questions about organ donation and which family member gets what’s left of the body. They have to sign about a dozen places and initial probably 30 or 40 others, so we’re spending a fair amount of time together.

How friendly should I be to these guys? Is casual conversation and everyday banter a good way to go (I always like to keep things as light as possible around here) or should I be more serious? Sometimes, they’re looking for someone to give them comfort that a better place awaits them in the afterlife, and other times it’s all I can do to keep them chained to the chair. I’ve tried saying as little as possible, to reflect the severity of their situation, but the silences are usually too awkward.

What is my responsibility to make these heinous criminals as socially comfortable as possible during their final moments of life? — K.L., San Antonio.

Dear K.L.,
First of all, let me say this: wow — what a cool job!

That being said, I have to admit you’re in a tough position there. Your only true obligation is to the criminal justice system, to carry out your duties in a professional manner. You want to concentrate on your work, so you don’t want to be distracted by needless chitchat. What if you accidentally administered an intravenous Sierra Mist instead of potassium chloride? What if you made them lie face-down on the gurney instead of face up? You’d be a laughingstock in the eyes of your coworkers, and probably a candidate for official reprimand.

Still, I understand how awkward such a situation could be, and there’s nothing wrong with breaking the ice with a little “gallows humor.” Make some comment about how you’re not going to bother sterilizing the needle. Get in a dig at the warden. Tell the press you’re available for part-time work, and that you’d be glad to handle the next round of layoffs at their newspapers.

Casual conversation directly with the condemned is probably not prudent. Even a simple “how’s it goin’?” is likely to be a sensitive topic, packed with unintended overtones. I’d keep your words brief and to the point, though you can certainly soften the harsh message you’re delivering in small ways. Adding a simple “if you please” to the command “extend your forearm” can be enough to change the whole experience into a more positive one for the prisoner.

As the lethal injection solution is making its way into their veins, I would refrain from asking too many questions, like “feel anything yet?” or “how about now?” If there are relatives of the convict present, a solemn nod in their direction is probably more appropriate than the vigorous wave and wide grin you’ll be offering the family of the convict’s victim. When you’ve detected that breathing has ceased and the condemned is likely dead, ask the doctor to make the official determination rather than trying to do so yourself by poking them with a stick.

When the execution is complete, I’d refrain from any elaborate goodbyes. “I’m outta here” or “see ya later” can come off as insensitive, as can observations like “sucks to be you.” Bow your head respectfully as the man is wheeled out of the room, then hit the timeclock and head outside for a well-deserved smoke break.

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One Response to “Ask Mr. Ethiquette: Dealing with the condemned”

  1. Paul Dixon Says:

    Your old college roomie here again…if I had suspected that even one small iota of this fantasy had been rolling around in your mind back then, I definitely would have slept with one eye open at all times.

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