Sunday, 14 October 2007

Ex-warden now fights executions

By NATHAN CRABBE Sun staff writer

Now an Episcopal priest in Starke, O'Neill said he was able to separate his duties as a prison warden taking part in executions from other parts of his life.
"I was able to compartmentalize - psychologically, emotionally - the responsibility I had to efficiently kill another human being," he said.

O'Neill spoke Tuesday night at St. Augustine Church's Hurley House. The former prison warden is a priest at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Starke and now speaks publicly about his opposition to the death penalty.

He was an assistant warden for two years at Florida State Prison and warden for seven years at Union Correctional Institution, which both house Death Row inmates. He said he took part in two executions, essentially responsible for everything but pulling the switch.

He recalled coming in his office after the executions, coping by putting away those responsibilities in a "shoebox" on the shelf. He compared the situation to Nazi officers who were able to go to the opera while participating in the Holocaust.

O'Neill said he was always a "peculiar bird" in the prison system. He studied philosophy at the University of Florida and had his start as a clinical social worker at a reform school in Trenton. He recalled one significant moment of questioning his involvement in the prison system. It was when he read a paper by a UF researcher who reported that Florida had never executed a white person for killing a black person.

"This was like someone picked up a telephone pole and hit me square over the head," he said.
He said the finding made him question the fairness of the system.
"The only conclusion is the pure, across-the-board systematic racism of the criminal justice system," he said.

Later in his career, he said he took part in helping victims' families during executions. He said he found that executions didn't provide any closure for family members.
"For the most part there was an emotional deadness - and that did not change when the execution was over," he said.

He left the prison system in 2001. He's been a priest for four years at St. Mark's, which was the same church he attended as a warden.
He said he doesn't make his opposition to the death penalty a major part of his work there. But he feels the stance is consistent with his faith and shares those views when asked to speak about the subject.

"When God says thou shalt not kill, that's the end of the story," he said.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or

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