The Death Penalty and Regret


For decades, individuals involved in executions—from prison wardens, to guards, to governors—have expressed regret over their participation and described deep sorrow about their role in executing people.

In 2018, six former governors—all of whom halted executions in their own states—called on then-California Gov. Jerry Brown to grant clemency to the 740 people incarcerated on California’s death row.

“We were compelled to act because we have come to believe the death penalty is an expensive, error-prone and racist system,” they wrote. “[A]nd also because our morality and our sense of decency demanded it.”

Don Siegelman and Robert Bentley, who served as Governor of Alabama from 1999 to 2003 and 2011 to 2017, respectively, are the latest public figures to express regret over their roles in capital punishment.

“As former Alabama governors, we have come over time to see the flaws in our nation’s justice system and to view the state’s death penalty laws in particular as legally and morally troubling,” Mr. Siegelman and Mr. Bentley shared in an op-ed co-written for The Washington Post.

“We missed our chance to confront the death penalty and have lived to regret it, but it is not too late for today’s elected officials to do the morally right thing,” they added.

Grief, Remorse, and Calls for Abolition

In recent years, jurors and prosecutors involved in capital punishment cases have come forward to express regret over their actions and call on leaders to abolish capital punishment altogether.

Lindy Lou Isonhood was on the Mississippi jury that delivered a death penalty verdict to Bobby Wilcher in 1994. She sought counseling afterward and was diagnosed with PTSD, she said in an interview. “I feel like I have blood on my hands.”

Ms. Isonhood arranged to speak with Mr. Wilcher on the phone three months before he was executed. Twelve years had passed since the trial, but she hoped to ask him for forgiveness for her role in his death. Ms. Isonhood later contacted several other people who served on the jury. Most expressed remorse over their decision, she said.

In 2022, 56 elected prosecutors from across the U.S. issued a joint statement calling for the abolition of the nation’s “failed death penalty system.” Despite countless attempted reforms, they wrote, “the death penalty still targets not the worst of the worst, but rather the unluckiest of the unluckiest.”

Supreme Court justices, too, have expressed regret about capital punishment. In 1994, retiring Justice Harry A. Blackmun described capital punishment as a failed experiment and called for its abolition. “I may not live to see that day,” he wrote, “but I have faith that eventually it will arrive.”

Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., who played a critical role in the development of the modern death penalty system, also denounced capital punishment after his retirement.

“Life-Altering Trauma”

For those who have actively participated in executions, severe emotional trauma is common and well-documented.

After serving as the warden of Parchman Farm, where he oversaw six executions, Don Cabana became an outspoken critic of the death penalty. “There is a part of the warden that dies with his prisoner,” he said. Mr. Cabana spent the rest of his life campaigning for abolition.

A 2022 NPR investigation revealed that corrections personnel who participated in executions experienced “life-altering trauma.” The investigation included interviews with nearly three dozen current or former corrections workers and others who had been involved in executions carried out by 17 states and the federal government. Most said the experience fundamentally changed their views on capital punishment.

“Every single one of the death certificates says state-assisted homicide. And the state was me,” said Craig Baxley, who put 10 people to death in South Carolina. ”You don’t know until you’ve done it what it’s going to do to you,” he added.

Several people interviewed described violent nightmares, depression, insomnia, and substance abuse as a result of their involvement in executions. At least one former executioner for South Carolina died by suicide.

As the broader harm of executing people has been documented, more states and policymakers have sought to abolish the death penalty.