Friday, 29 June 2007

From prison warden to anti-execution advocate

Originally published June 29, 2007

From prison warden to anti-execution advocate

By Bill Berlow

Eleven years ago, when Ron McAndrew became superintendent of the Florida prison where Death Row inmates are executed, he was an unflinching supporter of capital punishment.

"I thought it was the right thing to do," he said.

Early today, the Dunnellon resident will fly to Washington to participate in a fast and vigil organized by the anti-death-penalty Abolitionist Action Committee in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The demonstration, which includes a press conference in which McAndrew is a featured speaker, is part of four days of activities commemorating 1972 and 1976 Supreme Court rulings suspending then reinstating capital punishment in the United States.

"The death penalty puts us right up there with the barbarians in Iran, where killing other people is a sport more than justice," he said. "It's an absolute political manipulation - a politician's best toy."

It's been an interesting, introspective journey for McAndrew, 68, who witnessed and was victim of his share of prison violence as he worked his way up through the Department of Corrections ranks.

Just a few weeks after becoming top dog at Florida State Prison at Starke, he oversaw his first execution. John Earl Bush was electrocuted on Oct. 21, 1996, for killing Evinrude outboard heiress Francis Slater in 1982.

"I realized," he said in a telephone interview Wednesday, "that I had no business standing there."

McAndrew said the process leading up to the execution, and the final, carefully choreographed act itself, horrified him.

While at Starke, McAndrew oversaw two other executions - including John Mills Jr., who murdered Les Lawhon in Wakulla County, and the infamous botched execution of Pedro Medina in 1997.

After flames leapt from Medina's mask, filling the execution chamber with smoke and the smell of burning flesh, Florida aggressively pursued lethal injection as its preferred execution method, although condemned inmates may still request the electric chair.

McAndrew went to Texas while still a Corrections administrator to see how lethal injections worked and help Florida make the transition. Lethal injections temporarily reduced his ambivalence, but didn't rid him of it. It wasn't until a few years after he left Florida State Prison that he decided capital punishment was wrong under all circumstances.

He retired from the DOC several years ago and now, as a consultant on prisons, occasionally testifies against his former employer despite his generally fond feelings for the agency.

About seven years ago, he said, he found religious faith and became a Catholic. Previously, he said, faith played almost no role in his life, but now he believes "that killing people is a sin" - even killing those who took innocent lives themselves.

But what would he say to diehard supporters of the death penalty, particularly the loved one of a murder victim?

"It's very easy," he said. "You just say that the most severe punishment you could ever give anyone would be to lock them in a little cage made out of concrete and steel ... with a steel cot, a mattress that is 2 inches thick, a stainless steel toilet that does not have a lid, and you leave them there for the rest of their natural life.

"There can't be a more severe punishment than that," he said, "and you feed them institutional food for 365 days a year."

And, when DNA testing reveals the occasional wrongful conviction, it's not too late to correct - to the extent possible - the state's mistake.

Like McAndrew, I used to support the death penalty, and people I respect still do. I just can no longer justify even one execution of someone wrongfully convicted as worth the price for putting so many more actual murderers to death.

Let's face it, the death penalty is about vengeance at least as much as it's about justice. That's understandable. If someone murdered a person I loved, I'm pretty certain I'd feel like killing him.

But vengeance dehumanizes, and the death-penalty ritual is state-sponsored theater designed precisely to achieve that objective.

McAndrew still wrestles with ghosts of his past.

"These folks that you sent on to another world," McAndrew said, "they have a way of coming back and sitting on the edge of your bed at night. I don't like that. It's not the right thing to do."

Amen, brother.

Contact Bill Berlow at (850) 599-2377 or

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