The New Yorker, a magazine well-known for publishing fiction, recently ran a story about a subject that is all too real. State-sponsored killing. The article is about Vernell Crittendon, the recently retired spokesperson for San Quentin State Prison in California. According to his job description, Crittendon was responsible for dealing with the condemned person before his execution and informing the press about the killing. As a matter of fact, he was responsible for just about everything related to California capital punishment process.
In some ways, Crittendon’s story parallels that of a person convicted of a capital crime. The article reports that as a prison guard, he had done some terrible things. As a young corrections officer, he was responsible for beating black inmates under orders from white supervisors.
The most important trait shared by people on death row and Crittendon is the recognition that this final punishment does not need to continue. Even though he attempted to be detached from the execution process, Crittendon, who witnessed 13 executions, saw the senseless, pointless suffering. When Manny Babbitt, a Vietnam veteran who saved a life of a fellow soldier, was put to death, Crittendon thought, “Poor Manny.” (Manny Babbitt’s story can be seen on Freedom Files: Freedom to Live on ACLU.tv). He also recognized some of the factors that explain why many death-row inmates committed their crimes, stating: “I would never have chosen for my legacy ‘He put to death people who grew up in terrible, deprived circumstances and didn’t have much chance.'”
Crittendon also witnessed the problems of carrying out the punishment. He watched as the gas chamber was ruled as cruel and unusual in California. He retired as the debate over the cruelty of lethal injection continues in California and elsewhere in the country. In fact, he saw how some inmates, including Manny Babbitt, suffer because of that flawed method.
Most of all, Vernell Crittendon, like many death row inmates, seeks redemption. He has participated in programs that try to keep youngsters out of prison. To reach this goal, he used inmates to talk to at-risk youth. He has learned that a person cannot be judged by a single bad deed.
As he struggles to “make sense of this thing,” Crittendon comes to the conclusion many of us do – it is not possible to make sense of it. The story closes with Crittendon speaking in the third person as if to be further separated from the issue. He says, “if someone were to tell me tomorrow, ‘Vernell there will be no more executions in the state of California,’ Vernell would not be sad.'”
He speaks for many of us with that statement.