Executioners Tell Their Story

This week, three prisoners in the United States will be put to death, and the men and women who exact that ultimate sentence carry an unthinkable burden.

The Last Face You'll Ever See, a book by Ivan Solotaroff, explores the lives of two executioners who worked at Mississippi's Parchman Prison, where during the 1980s, condemned murderers were put to death in the gas chamber.

Donald Hocutt, one of the book's subjects, mixed the gas chamber's lethal chemicals for four executions until the method was replaced by lethal injection in the early 1990s. He says the chamber "looks like a diving bell with windows in it, and it's got a big submarine looking wheel on the door. It's an awesome looking thing."

For Hocutt, and Parchman's former warden Donald Cabana — the other key subject of Solotaroff's book — carrying out executions was a job that had devastating personal repercussions. When the true meaning of killing another human being hit home, they would never be the same.

Unforgettable Day

Cabana's and Hocutt's first experience together as executioners was in the death of Edward Earl Johnson in May of 1987.

Johnson was sentenced to death for murdering a town marshal and though he steadfastly maintained his innocence, at the time, both his executioners say they weren't initially fazed by his protests. However, as the day of Johnson's execution approached, Cabana says he began to panic.

'I'm at Peace with My God'

When Johnson was strapped into the chair, nicknamed the "black death," Cabana tried, one last time, to get the condemned man to confess to his crime. He whispered to the prisoner, "For your sake, please, before I have to close this door, and proceed, make peace between you and your God." Johnson calmly responded, "Warden, I am at peace with my God. How are you going to be with yours?"

Cabana was stunned by Johnson's cool response. What if he had the killing of an innocent man on his soul? While the decision to execute Johnson had been made by others, it was now Cabana — in spite of his incipient doubts — who would make it happen.

At the stroke of midnight, he gave the dreaded order and it was now Hocutt's turn to finish mixing the chemicals.

For a minute and a half the prisoner waited while the chemicals were being prepared. "It seemed like an hour and a half, and [he was] sitting there saying, 'come on with it, come on with it,'" Hocutt remembers.

With the pull of a lever, cyanide crystals are mixed with a solution of distilled water and sulfuric acid in a tray beneath the chair. Hydrogen cyanide is the lethal product of the mixture.

Several minutes after the gas was released, Johnson's body gave out a groan and his eyes rolled back in his head. "I remember my head snapping to the right as I turned to the doctor, speechless, absolutely gripped with the fear, that something was wrong, and we were going to have to do this again," says Cabana.

Finally, 12 minutes after it began, Johnson was officially declared dead and the warden — shaken by the experience — faced the press.

"I could tell he was doing his best to be professional and articulate, but at the same time he was absolutely crying inside," the warden's wife remembers.

Emotional Fallout

At the time of the execution, Cabana says it "was the worst thing I had ever had to participate in."

The emotional fallout for both men was severe. Within weeks of Johnson's execution, he resigned. Since then, he's suffered three major heart attacks, and no longer supports capital punishment.

Cabana says, "I wish, frankly, many times, that God's plan for my life had me doing something else."

Hocutt also quit Parchman, taking medical leave for emotional and physical problems that stay with him today. But given the chance, he says he'd be more than happy to come out of retirement to execute Tim McVeigh.

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