By: Mukund Gnanadesikan
It’s OK, officer. You seem like a nice young man. I’d like to think that I was once like you. Back away from me. Go back down those stairs, please. For your own sanity.
You ask me how it came to this. How did I wind up here, 190 –pound body balanced on a four-inch width of uneven stone beam? You really want to know? Fine, I’ll tell you a story.
Like I said, I believe I was once like you. I wanted to do good things, protect the innocent, and do right by my community. Protect and serve, that’s what they say on the force, right? It’s a good motto, a noble aspiration I suppose.
So there I was, fresh out of junior college, with an associates’ degree in business. I quickly found that was not going to take me anywhere, so I started looking around for jobs.
I saw this ad in the paper. It talked about “corrections”. It was a good word for me. I like setting things right. So I read on. The folks at the Bureau of Prisons are way better at marketing than you might think. So I decided to apply.
I guess I must have said the right things, so a week later they called to interview me. I got the job.
I know I’ve got brown skin, but I’m a pretty black and white guy, or at least I used to be. I figured everyone I saw in Florence got there for a reason. It’s a strange town, Florence. You’ve heard of college towns? Well this is a town that’s mostly a prison town. Not something most people outside law enforcement would think about, I guess.
So I did what the warden asked me to do. I kept my eyes open, watched my back, made sure nobody was running drugs in the cell blocks, tried to keep the White Power idiots in check. They say if you do your job well, you don’t need to use force, and I rarely did.
I’m telling you, step back. This story is for you as much as me. You won’t hear the end of it if you keep coming.
Now, as I was saying, I was good at my job, such as it was. When I had days off, I did what anyone else does I guess. I worked out, went to church, drank (sometimes too much), and kept my own counsel. I got no family, because the job makes you doubt the character of people too much.
The better I did, the more the warden liked me. One day he called me into his office. Now I’m the type of guy that doesn’t like the spotlight, so this was not a good feeling, as you could maybe imagine. But he told me it was nothing bad, that he had an opportunity for me.
I knew I could use a little more money. Even in Arizona, cash is never a luxury. So when he said that the new position would earn me seven dollars more per hour, I was in.
“Best news,” he said, “is that you won’t have to move prisons. You can stay right here. You’ll be working on death row. You’ve got no problem with that.”
I didn’t, or at least I don’t recall any misgivings at the time. From where I sat, the 97 members of that club were only marginally human. They’d long since forfeited any right to sympathy. So I was happy to start the new job.
I worked 20 years on the unit. As much as they call it death row, the irony is that the executions are few and far between. In my 20 years, I executed 7 people. Now, you might say “I” didn’t execute them, that they effectively did that to themselves years ago with fatally flawed decisions and evil intent. At one level, you might be right. But the fact is, I was the one making sure the injections went according to plan. It seems crazy now. I’m no doctor, and here I was injecting heavy- duty drugs into people.
Because the guys are there for so long before their day arrives, you get to know them a little bit. In some ways, the personalities on death row are no different than those on any street in the world. You have your hustlers, always trying to engage you for something new that day. There are the reclusive ones who only peek through the bars to stay minimally informed of their surroundings, like little old ladies in 3rd floor barrio apartments. There are the perpetually angry types, who curse you out and spit at you, eager for a fight until their dying day. And of course you have your newly saved believers, who say they embrace death because of an afterlife, and they say “God Bless You” even though you don’t want it, not from them.
The first 10 years I was there, I had no hesitation. I felt I was pretty good at seeing the character beneath the skin of these men. I wouldn’t say I’d choose to go have a beer with any of them, but some were definitely more repugnant than others, and some more sympathetic.
But the last decade we had this one guy, Olivier Juarez. Maybe you heard of his case? It got a lot of ink in the local papers, but that was before you were born, probably. They court convicted him of killing his wife and two kids, decapitating them with a machete. The evidence was all pretty circumstantial, and he always protested his innocence. But he was still convicted. There were two eyewitnesses, both of them local church elders, who swore they saw him entering the house, then leaving with bloody hands and a duffel. It was plenty to put him away. Probably would have convicted most defendants, I reckon.
He went to a bunch of places before he got to Florence, to death row, the final destination. By the time I first met him his nose bent like the Rio Grande, and his cheekbones had been re-set on a couple of occasions by the Aryan Brotherhood. He was a small guy, no more than five-four without shoes. He read poetry, and stories by Spanish guys whose names I’d never heard before, like Lorca and Neruda.
Like I said, you get to know the guys. The warden and senor staff always tells you, “Don’t get too close. Don’t be too informal. Keep your boundaries.” And I did. But sometimes, even over boundaries you can see and feel something’s wrong. And with Olivier, I sure did.
I’ve always been a company man. I do what I’m told. I’m not paid to think. When you’re an underling, thinking gets you in trouble. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, officer. So I kept my doubts to myself. I figured I was just the hind end of the justice system, and by the time the food chain gets to me, there’s no going back.
You really need to listen better, officer. I’ve told you, back up. The closer you approach, the sooner I go over this balcony. I don’t care about that, but I sense that you do.
The day came when all the final appeals were exhausted. Olivier told me he was ready. All he wanted for his last meal was a burger and fries. A simple request from a humble guy. We got it for him and he ate in silence.
In our state, they keep the identity of the executioner secret. They think it’s Ok to see the face of a criminal, but not that of the guy who kills as an agent of state justice. Well, just so you know, so everyone knows, I was that guy at Florence. And I was OK with it.
I suppose even at that time, I knew Juarez was innocent, but intuition means nothing to the law or the victims. So I started the process, as we do on those rare and somber occasions. In minutes it was over, and I went back to my usual duties. It’s strange and nauseating to think about now, how one can kill a man and then consume a double cheeseburger.
The doubts remained, but they were fading until two months ago. The Maricopa County sheriffs were pursuing a serial killer. He’d left a grisly trail behind him, killing families in Mesa, Goodyear, Surprise, and Tempe. I’m sure you remember. The whole valley was terrified.
And then you caught him. It was a great arrest, by the way. Congratulations on that. But when he confessed to killing Juarez’s family, I was gutted. Why had I not spoken up? There it was, in black and white: I had killed an innocent man. I was no different than my inmates.
I quit the job. How could I proceed with it, knowing what I’d done?
I stopped attending church. How could I face the priest, knowing my most mortal sin? And furthermore, how could I believe in God who had not stayed my murderous hand, despite his supposed omniscience?
All of this swirled around in my mind. And let me warn you: things swirl a whole lot more under the influence of high daily doses of tequila.
And that brings us full circle. At Florence, I got used to hearing apologies, half-hearted and inadequate, from those headed to face he needle. I know apology is not sufficient. I was raised Catholic, and the priest taught me that when you’ve done something this bad, penance is in order. So I’ll do what I must. What I did to others, now unto myself.
Back away, officer. My story’s done. I’m letting go. I suggest you do the same.