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Capital Punishment - Lawes


Mr. Lewis E. Lawes, Warden of Sing Sing Prison, writing in "Collier's Weekly," the well-known American newspaper, would, judging by the following, have made an interesting witness at the meetings of the Committee on Capital Punishment, the report of which will be issued in a few weeks' time.


"It's hard to see a young man die. My duty has obliged me to carry out the execution of one hundred and twenty-nine men and one woman. The electrocution of one young man stands out as the bravest and most poignant memory of all," writes Mr. Lawes.
"His crime had been one of passion: he had killed the girl who had scorned him. He came of a good, self-respecting family, a clerk with a record for industry and honesty in his employment. He was handsome and of athletic build and only twenty-three years old.
"I came to like this lad because he had no friends, was reconciled to his fate, quietly professed his continuing love for the girl he had slain, deeply regretted the act, and recognized his sentence was just.
"During his six months' confinement in the death house—the automatic interval between conviction and confirmation of sentence by the State Court of Appeals—he had displayed none of the moody bitterness of the average condemned man. If not cheerful, he had been pleasant. We of the prison who could reach beneath the surface of a man's conduct knew this boy had courage. Three men went before him to the chair, and he gave them words of comfort without reviling the State that sent them there. That's a sign of self-control.
"The day before he was to die he asked the death-house guard if I could see him. When I went to his cell I found him unusually tense.
" 'Warden,' he said in a low whisper so that his cell-neighbours couldn't hear, 'I don't think I'm going to do so well tomorrow night when the time comes.'
" 'You've borne up bravely,' I answered. 'Don't give way now.'
" 'I've had to struggle, Warden.' he said. 'Watching other boys go by this cell toward the outer cell where they wait for the chair—that hasn't been easy. Somehow, I feel I'm slipping.'
" 'You'll have the chaplain at your side. Let me bring you a book or two to read.'
" 'No, thanks, Warden. But you can do something else for me.'
" 'Anything that the rules allow.'
" 'Warden,' he touched his forehead as if tipping an absent hat. 'you can do me a favour if you'll give me a stiff drink of whisky just ten minutes before they take me.'
" 'That's a bit against the rules, son,' I replied.
" 'It's all I ask, Warden,' he pleaded. 'I want to bear up to the end. Just one stiff drink.'
"I hesitated. His eyes were unutterably anxious.
" 'All right, son,' I said. 'You'll have your drink.'
"After dusk the next evening, mindful of my promise, I went to the infirmary and secured from the doctor a two-ounce bottle which I filled with pure rye whisky. I slipped this in my pocket, a trifle uncertain. By strict rule we never give stimulants of any kind to a condemned prisoner on his way to death. But I'd made my promise and I liked the boy.
"When I faced him thirty minutes before he was to die, he whispered:
" 'Did you bring the drink?'
"I nodded. Then, for the first time in my experience, the sight of a man going to his death gave me qualms, nausea. He was young, virile, brave. It seemed sacrilege that so very soon this stalwart, clear-eyed youth would become a corpse.
"My mood must have been reflected in my face. The young man scanned me. Just before the walk to the chair down a narrow concrete path to the green door behind which twelve of his peers, including the district attorney who had prosecuted him and the judge who had pronounced his doom, sat to witness his death, I stepped close to him, so that nobody saw me. I passed him the tiny bottle of whisky.
"He smiled. Took a step aside. As the Guards turned to cover him he passed back the bottle.
" 'You need this worse than I, Warden,' he said. 'Please drink it.'
"I did, and he went to his death—smiling.
"If you ask me what society gained by putting that young man to death, I am frankly puzzled. Very little, I think, because the crime he committed has been repeated scores of times since his execution, which, like all executions, is supposed to act as a deterrent, if there is any logic at all in capital punishment . . . .
"We know by every means of reckoning that the death penalty does not deter any more than the penalty of life imprisonment. Indeed, the latter is probably more effective when rigidly enforced.
"Since penology begins where the police leave off it is not my part to discuss the vital importance of quick visitation of the law on criminals as the most wholesome preventive of crime. But the death penalty induces more often remorse than repentance; and the institution of the death-house in a prison has a sickly, unwholesome effect. Society may not care a rap about that, which is a symptom of what is wrong with our social order."
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