Warden on death penalty: "This is wrong"
By DARA KAM
Palm Beach Post Capital Bureau
Saturday, June 28, 2008
TALLAHASSEE — Murderer Pedro Medina was strapped into "Old Sparky"
shortly after midnight on March 25, 1997, at Florida State Prison.
Warden Ron McAndrew stood nearby as a guard placed a wet sponge to
conduct more than 2,000 volts of electricity onto Medina's shaved head.
The executioner pulled the switch. Within seconds, an arm's length
from McAndrew, 6-inch flames leaped out the side of the mask on
The cramped chamber immediately filled with smoke and a putrid, acrid
The executioner, wearing oversize insulated gloves that protect
linemen working on electrical wires, sought advice from the warden.
"He looked at me with this big question on his face, and he said,
'Continue?' " McAndrew recalled recently. "I said, 'Continue.
Continue.' There's no way we could stop at that point."
Medina's searing death and two executions before it led McAndrew down
an unlikely path since he quit prison work: He is a working opponent
of the death penalty.
"All three executions ignited a fire of thought," McAndrew said.
"Each time I carried out one of those executions, I certainly was
asking myself why I was there and is this necessary."
Witness entire process, ex-warden says
On Tuesday, Florida plans to execute by lethal injection Mark Dean
Schwab, who raped and strangled 11-year-old Junny Rios-Martinez of
Cocoa. McAndrew opposes the execution.
During his time at Florida State Prison, McAndrew earned the moniker
"The Walking Warden" because he spent more time outside his office
walking the grounds than behind his desk.
He said he visited Death Row every day.
McAndrew said he supported the death penalty during his 20-plus years
with the Department of Corrections.
"One day I just sat down and said, 'This is wrong. This is wrong. We
have no business killing people,' " he said, except in self-defense,
in defense of someone else or in defense of the nation.
Not everyone agrees.
Proponents of the death penalty, including some families of murdered
children such as Rios-Martinez, argue that the execution helps them
deal with their loss.
"That will not serve as a substitute for getting our son back, but it
is as close as we can get to justice in this rather imperfect world
we live in," said Don Ryce, whose 9-year-old son Jimmy was raped,
murdered and dismembered in Miami-Dade County in 1995. Juan Carlos
Chavez was convicted of the crime.
Ryce said Chavez's execution would bring his wife, Claudine, and him
"as close to a feeling of peace to that chapter of our life that
we're ever going to get." He said he supports the death penalty,
although he may not live to witness Chavez die because of the lengthy
"He'll probably outlive us because of our screwed-up system," Ryce
said. "But if we're still alive, we'll be there for the execution.
And we have had some people promise us if we don't make it, they'll
be there for us."
"From the standpoint of not only myself but Claudine, we feel the
death penalty is appropriate in this case, knowing that won't bring
our child back. Knowing there's no such thing as closure. Knowing
that justice has been done. We don't feel that way yet," said Ryce,
of Vero Beach.
Although McAndrew understands the feeling of the victims' families,
the executions he witnessed still haunt him.
Schwab's will be the first execution since former Gov. Jeb Bush put a
moratorium on executions in 2006 pending a U.S. Supreme Court ruling
on lethal injection. The court ruled recently that lethal injection
is not cruel and unusual punishment.
McAndrew, a slow-spoken activist, grows agitated when talking about
lethal injection and the likelihood that executions will resume in
The most recent inmate executed by lethal injection, Angel Diaz, took
more than 30 minutes to die because the needles had been pushed
through his veins into his flesh.
But none of the 26 witnesses on the other side of the glass window
looking into the execution chamber knew that because, when the
curtains behind the window were opened, Diaz was already on a gurney
with IVs in his arms.
"If they're going to be honest and forthcoming about what's going on
in the death chamber, then from the second the condemned walks into
the chamber until the body is placed in a body bag, all 26 witnesses
should be there," McAndrew said.
Opponents welcome an insider's voice
Other death penalty opponents tell him that he's an invaluable resource.
"They say only someone who's been that close to it can speak about it
in the way that you do," McAndrew said, his voice growing soft.
The former Air Force sergeant began his career in corrections after
returning to the United States following a 15-year stint living and
traveling throughout France and Asia as a manager for an
He never imagined then that, less than two decades later, he would be
the warden of one of the state's toughest institutions, landing in
1996 at Florida State Prison.
There, he oversaw three executions in the electric chair: John Earl
Bush, John Mills Jr. and Medina.
His first experience, Bush's execution, was uncomfortable, he said.
Bush had killed 18-year-old Frances Slater after abducting her from a
Stuart convenience store.
The members of the execution team told the warden that it was a
tradition to have breakfast at Shoney's after the early morning
"I got to Shoney's and the food started looking very disgusting,"
McAndrew said. "At the table directly in front of me, I could see the
back of the female attorney (for Bush). She turned and looked over
her shoulder at me. She had a look of pain on her face."
He left without eating.
'I'd had all the breakfast I could stand'
Starke is a small town with a population of about 5,500 people, most
of whom work at the nearby prison, have retired from there or have
family members who do.
Everyone at the restaurant knew the group had performed the execution.
What troubled McAndrew was that the public might misconstrue the
breakfast as celebratory.
Before the next execution, McAndrew spoke with the colonel on the
team: "I told him I'd had all the breakfast I could stand."
Paul Schauble Jr. spent more than a decade as a Death Row officer,
taking condemned inmates to showers and recreation and delivering
He doesn't have any qualms about the job he performed for 12 years.
"Most of us believe we have a job to do. And whether I believe they
are innocent or deserve their punishment, my job is to make sure they
stay inside the fence and I take care of all their needs and then I
go home," Schauble said.
Although he didn't enjoy it, he believes that the prisoners he tended
to deserved to die because their crimes were so egregious and their
court appeals, over and over again, had been exhausted. He has been
the target of Death Row inmates' wrath. He has been hit with feces
and bricks, been gouged and stitched up.
The union representative of the Police Benevolent Association doesn't
have a lot of sympathy for the prisoners.
"By the time they get on Death Row, the investigation is so
extensive ... I truly believe they are guilty of that crime,"
Before dawn on the day of the execution, McAndrew would sit on the
side of the inmate's bunk and read the death warrant aloud after
explaining that he was required to do so by state law.
"You ask them if there's anything you can do for them. If there's any
phone call you'd like me to make, I'll be glad to do that," McAndrew
Those last moments alone with the person whose death he was about to
facilitate haunt him.
"They share things with you in those last moments too, things that
you'll never talk about again," he said.
The positions are reversed now.
"These men come and sit on the edge of my bed, so to speak," McAndrew
said. "In my mind, I see them a lot. I wish I had never been involved
in carrying out the death penalty."