Overnight on the 20th/21st May 1987, a 26-year old Mississippian named Edward Earl Johnson was executed in the gas chamber, convicted of murdering a police officer when caught in the act of sexually assaulting a pensioner. There was no medical evidence against him, and he claimed that his ‘confession’ was extracted by police at gunpoint.
His final days in jail were captured in a BBC documentary called Fourteen Days in May, which you can watch in full here. It was shown in November that year, and at a time when there still annual debates and regular free votes in Parliament on the restoration of the death penalty, it had a profound impact on that debate, showing how easily a man could be executed despite serious doubts about his conviction.
On a human level, it is an intensely painful film to watch: an intelligent young man experiencing his own fate right to the end in a state of bewilderment; and his family, trusting to God and the justice system to see the right thing done, while all the while preparing for Edward’s death. You will never listen to the love song ‘Always’, by Atlantic Starr, the same way again, having heard it sung to a young man by his family, knowing it is the last time they will see him alive.
Recalling the anniversary of the execution last night, I stumbled across the transcripts of two interviews conducted with Don Cabana, Edward’s prison warden, and Clive Stafford Smith, the British lawyer who fought to have him cleared, both of whom played prominent roles in the BBC film.
I’d recommend reading all the transcripts on this site, but below are extracts from the Cabana and Stafford Smith interviews, which I think should be read by anyone who casually calls for Capital Punishment to be brought back in Britain.
In Evans’ case his mother and father, he came from a really good family and, you know, the hardest thing was to have to tell a mother that it was time to say a final goodbye to her son. And when I told her that Sunday before the execution that it was time she came over and she rested her hand on my arm and she said, ‘I’ve known you now for six years and I know you’re a good person and I know you have children of your own, please don’t…don’t kill my child’.
And, that’s…that’s…that’s difficult.
Wardens also, I think, deep down inside they secretly hope for absolution from the inmate. And that’s important because I think, at least my experience, was that every time I executed somebody it was like a little bit of me was dying along with them. And had any of the inmates that I knew well and had gotten close to and executed, failed to give me absolution it would have left me with a very empty, empty feeling.
In the case of Edward Earl Johnson, because he insisted on his innocence and prison officials are used to hearing that all the time. But where a Death Row prisoner’s concerned, once they know they’re gonna be executed, you know, invariably what happens is, I mean, they’re not gonna jump up and say, ‘Well, Halleluiah I might as well ‘fess up, tell the truth, I did it’.
They will say that in their way, you know, if they say, ‘Warden, would you apologise to the victim’s family for me’, well hell, if you didn’t do it then there’s nothing to apologise for. Or ‘Tell my momma I’m sorry’. You know, um, but in Edward’s case, when I asked him if he had any final words, you know, his statement was, ‘I’m innocent. I haven’t been able to make anybody listen to me or believe me, and Warden, you know, in a few minutes you’re about to become a murderer’.
Well, you know, there’s a certain amount of role play that goes on too and inmates and prison staff alike sometimes think they’re supposed to play these macho roles to the very end, you know.
And, because I knew this kid and his grandmother who raised him, and I knew that he came from a religious family and in the prison he was very observant, he was, he didn’t wear it on his sleeve for everybody to see. And so, I thought, you know, what if what we have here is the bravado thing to the very end.
And so I leaned down and whispered to him, I said:
‘Son, I’m gonna step on out of the chamber here in a few minutes and as soon as that red phone rings, we’re gonna have to proceed’. And I said ‘You know what, there’s twenty something people standing around here witnesses and staff and stuff, it’s not important for any of them to hear you say – ‘I did it’, OK. That doesn’t matter.
‘But what is important is that whatever the truth is, that, before I have to give the order, you have made peace between you and your God about the truth. He needs to hear you say what the truth is. Nobody else here needs to and they’re not entitled to. You don’t owe anybody here anything. But you owe yourself and you owe the God that you profess to believe in that clear understanding’.
And I thought, you know, this is pretty good stuff I’m saying here if he’s just playing a role and he really did the crime and stuff, maybe this’ll bring him around because I think you really think about…. I said to the governor one time, ‘Look, part of what Christianity preaches is redemption’. And I said ‘What if some prisoner that I execute might have achieved redemption next week, next month or next year? Once we’ve executed them that possibility’s gone forever’.
And so that was important to me for this kid and he looked at me very calmly and he said, ‘Warden, I’m at peace with my God, how are you gonna be with yours?’ And, I walked out of that chamber convinced that he was innocent, I really did.
Clive Stafford Smith:
It was May 21st 1987 they killed Edward Johnson. I mean, you look back on it and you know, certainly, if I knew then what I know now I don’t think he would have died. Um…it’s very sad. You know, I’d just sat in the execution chamber and watched them gas the poor guy to death!
And whatever theoretical views one might have about the death penalty become very much humanised when you meet the people involved, when you watch some guy dying in front of you, who you actually rather like – it’s obscene.
So yeah, I was angry and there are other things too, I had just come from talking with the family and I had to tell these poor people who had been trodden on all their lives, that the government had just done it to them again.
And one of the fascinating things about having the BBC there, was it actually injected such a level of unreality – you kept thinking that someone was going to call ‘Cut’ and it was all going to be over. And thankfully, for Edward’s sake, he believed that too.
When I went into the…I actually walked with him into the gas chamber and he said to me, ‘Is there something you know that I don’t know?’ and I didn’t quite understand what he meant to begin with, but I figured it out – that he really thought they weren’t going to do it. And in that sense it was good to have the journalists.
It was horrendous for him, you know. It’s frustrating later to discover this woman who had been with him at the time of the murder, who could have said that he couldn’t have done it. But, you know, when I talk to her about why she didn’t do anything, it actually illustrates the total powerlessness of someone in Edward’s position and many of these other guys’ position.
She said, ‘Who am I gonna call? I can’t call the FBI, it’s not like in the movies where the FBI come swooping in to do the right thing.’ And she said, ‘Look, I went to the police, I told them he hadn’t done it, and they told me to buzz off and mind my own business.’
And that’s the ultimate powerlessness and, of course, it’s true of so many poor people in Mississippi and elsewhere.
Well, it took forever. I mean, one thing is people always act like this is over instantaneously, it’s absolute nonsense! They had him sitting in that chair for fifteen minutes. And if you think how long a minute can be if we just sit here in silence for a minute right now. You imagine if those was the last fifteen minutes of your life, it just when on and on and on.
And it was about half way through that poor old Edward finally worked out that no one was going to call him. And, you know, he said, ‘Well, let’s get it over with’. And then what he goes through, you know, you always have these perverse discussions where the doctors say, ‘Oh, don’t try and hold your breath that just makes it more painful’. Well, that’s just not a human reaction, of course. And so, it took forever!
We’d raised a legal issue in Edward’s case which the courts rejected, and then about ten years later the Supreme Court said we were right. And the Supreme Court said, ‘Well, the best we can say is we were simply wrong in Edward Johnson’s case’. But, you know, that’s not much consolation because the guy’s cold in his grave.
Well, I very rarely discuss why the death penalty’s wrong, because it seems to me that is the wrong question. The real issue is - why is the death penalty right? What does it achieve?
And, you know, when I’ve watched people die, it’s always at night and you come out of the execution chamber, and you look up at the stars and you say, ‘Well, you know, how did that make the world a better place?’ and it didn’t, and it achieved absolutely nothing positive.
So we can argue about all these different things, about, you know, whether it’s a deterrent or not – the guys I represented didn’t know what deterrent means. Is it a way to save money – no it’s more expensive. Are we going to make mistakes – of course we make mistakes.
I mean there are hundreds of intellectual arguments about why it’s wrong, but I just think we don’t need to go that far because no one can justify why it’s right.