Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 2(2) (1994) 17-21
The Execution Protocol provides a behind the scenes look into the professional and sterile manner by which the State of Missouri uses lethal injection to put to death those condemned to die for capital crimes. In a chilling and at times surrealistic presentation, the film illuminates the "end game" in the death penalty enterprise. This contest, pitting the State against men and women condemned to die, has been concealed from public view--until now.
The Execution Protocol takes its name from a specific set of execution guidelines formulated by the State of Missouri. As related by one of its co- authors, Mark Schreiber, the Missouri Protocol is a set of procedures, set up in writing, for carrying out an execution. Such documentation is designed both to relieve the stress of those involved and to increase efficiency in carrying out the responsibilities of the State statute. Through the Protocol, the State strives for a clean, sanitary kill where individual culpability succumbs to State authority and the rule of law. Interestingly, the Missouri Protocol, in its 13th revision, suggests that even though ex-Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun "no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death," [Dissenting in Callins v. Collins (1994)] the State of Missouri has no such difficulty troubleshooting and perfecting its death- dealing apparatus.
Most of The Execution Protocol was filmed at the Potosi Correctional Center in Missouri. This "showcase" facility was opened in 1989, and houses only convicts convicted of capital murder. The sentences of prisoners housed at Potosi are either death, life without parole, or 50 years to life without parole. The Potosi Correctional Center, where men are put to death for their crimes, is the lifeblood of the local economy, which suffered when the mining industry failed. Like the Protocol which governs executions in Missouri, the facility at Potosi appears clean and orderly. [End page 17]
Stories from death row and the execution process are told by the condemned as well as by those who prepare to carry out the executions. The film introduces viewers to three of the condemned at Potosi: A.J. Bannister, Joe Amrine, and Doyle Williams, who himself was at one point within three hours of being executed. Among the members of the Execution Team who discuss policy, procedure, and the mechanics of conducting executions are Bill Armontrout [Deputy Director, Department of Corrections], Paul Delo [Superintendent, Potosi Correctional Center (PCC)], Don Roper [Assistant Superintendent, PCC], Gary Sutterfield [Plant Maintenance Engineer, PCC], and Mark Schreiber [Co-author of the Missouri Protocol]. Fred Leuchter, the inventor of the lethal injection machine and an expert on execution technology, also joins the cast as he discusses the design of his invention. The film purposely does not include the statements or viewpoints of defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, or victims' families, and in that regard is not balanced.
Trombley masterfully blends the personal accounts of condemned and executioners as they discuss the work that links them together. While the condemned men poignantly discuss life, family, aspirations, and their probable deaths at the hands of their executioners, the Team members impassively provide technical details of the lethal injection machine and how they can most efficiently and humanely take a life. And while A.J. Bannister tells us about the use of "rectal plugs" and "catheters" to prevent soiling of the State's death gurney, Warden Paul Delo informs viewers that dying by lethal injection is "very similar to getting an anesthetic prior to an operation, and its about the same amount of drama."
Trombley also is careful to include Fred Leuchter in the film. Leuchter, arms splayed across the control panel of his lethal injection machine, appears ghoulish as he explains the operation of the apparatus, and how the execution of "Tiny" Mercer in Missouri was "an interesting first." The prison physician, Dr. Pedro Cayabyab, tells us that his role is to "pronounce the patient dead when he's dead and then to sign the death certificate." As we learn from others, the doctor in charge of providing medical care for the condemned at Potosi also assists in the actual execution. [End page 18]
Perhaps the most disquieting segment of the film, though, occurs at the end when the 24-hour period leading up to an execution is re-created for viewers. In a macabre re-enactment, accounts from Execution Team members and those condemned are juxtaposed over shots of the gurney and preparations in the death chamber. While condemned prisoners reflect on their lives and thoughts of being put to death, Team players perform their tasks smoothly and efficiently, with an air suggesting "it's all in a day's work."
One of the objectives of having a Protocol for executions is to diffuse responsibility among those charged with carrying out executions. This philosophy is reflected by the actual players involved, as noted by Don Roper who says: "I am an instrument of the State; I have a job to do." Warden Delo also believes that Execution Team members are "an instrument of the people and the justice system as opposed to an individual who is just killing another individual." And with a logic sanctimoniously reminiscent of the Nuremburg trials, even prison Chaplin Gary Tune supports the death penalty because it is what the government says we should do.
Trombley captures the Execution Team as it works to revise the Missouri Protocol for the 13th time. Interspersed with scenes of prison life and execution technology are shots of Team members congregating in a meeting room discussing refinements in the execution procedure. At times the discussion encompasses such routine details as the expiration dates on chemicals, the supply of tubes and clamps, and the utilization of a silicone lubricant on the pistons that pump the chemicals from the syringes into the condemned's veins in order to improve the machine's efficiency. At another point, Warden Paul Delo voices his concern that witnesses outside the death chamber cannot hear him as he reads the death warrant. A suggestion is made for an intercom or amplifier to be used in future presentations from Potosi in order to make this segment of the execution production more effective.
Underpinning the entire film, as well as these discussions, is the knowledge that the Execution Team is choreographing the death of another person. What makes scenes from these death-designing conferences so ordinary, yet at the same time so chilling, is that the cast appear more like corporate executives discussing [End page 19] market strategy than State administrators sanitizing the method by which they kill other human beings. The effect produced by including snippets of these discussions is that of a panel of corrections officials coldly and rationally sketching out how best to extinguish another life in the name of the State.
Among the many ironies in The Execution Protocol is that the condemned appear reflective, sensitive, and in touch with their destiny, while correctional personnel appear cold, calculating, and unwavering in their knowledge that taking a life is acceptable if authorized by the State. Taking fingerprints of the "executee" after death, partly to insure that the right person was executed, or conducting a pre-execution physical of the condemned also seem fraught with irony. Or, consider that A.J. Bannister wants time to contact family members and to make funeral arrangements before he meets his maker, when his victim also might have ached for such an opportunity. Perhaps the supreme irony, though, resonates from the words of Joe Amrine: "They trying to kill us because we killed somebody or allegedly killed somebody. And, you know, it don't add up."
The Execution Protocol raises many issues for those willing to confront the dilemma of capital punishment. The ironies associated with executions provide a bountiful source of issues for class discussion. For instance, is it rational to kill a member of society to show other members of society that killing is wrong? How is it that the death chamber at Potosi and the hospital are "neighbors," and that medical personnel at the Correctional Center employ their skills in the taking of life? Is there a way to convey empathy and respect for the sanctity of life to other "potential capital defendants" before they end up on death row?
Other issues demanding illumination radiate from The Execution Protocol: Do executions desensitize the correctional personnel who participate in the State-sanctioned taking of life? If so, how? What do Execution Team members do after carrying out their deadly task? Do they ponder their lethal performance, or reflect on their own mortality? How do they relate to others--family and friends--in the aftermath of an execution? Or, should condemned persons be allowed to [End page 20] move about freely within the prison, to participate in sports, or to congregate with their friends? And, how large a role do economically-depressed regions and rates of unemployment play in formulating criminal justice policies? Students and instructors also might debate the value of human life in our society.
The Execution Protocol is an excellent treatment of the capital punishment industry. In a compelling and haunting presentation, this film successfully transcends the abstraction of "lethal injection" by exposing viewers to the gruesome reality of the death penalty. The bureaucratic operation by which executions are managed emerges, not unexpectedly, as cold, mechanical, and sterile. This film forces viewers to challenge their preconceptions--or lack of them--of the execution process. The film can be used separately, as a point of departure for discussions on capital punishment, or it can be used, for example, to animate Robert Johnson's narratives of death teams at work or Stephen Trombley's book by the same name as the video. Instructors may even want to obtain a copy of the Protocol for class discussion. I strongly recommend this film for those interested in confronting the death penalty, which remains one of the most disturbing of criminal justice issues.
Charles S. Lanier
School of Criminal Justice &
Hindelang Criminal Justice Research Center
University at Albany
Postscript: As of April 15, 1994, A.J. Bannister, Joe Amrine, and Doyle WIlliams remain incarcerated at Potosi Correctional Center in Missouri.
---------. (1994). "'This Man has Expired': Witness to an Execution." In John J. Sullivan and Joseph L. Victor (eds.) Criminal Justice, 94/95, (pp. 223- 28). Guilford, CT: The Dushkin Publishing Group.
Trombley, Stephen. (1992). The Execution Protocol: Inside America's Capital Punishment Industry. New York: Crown Publisherers. [End page 21]