Former Oregon Prison Superintendent: "Capital Punishment is a Failed Policy"

Semon Frank Thompson (pictured), a former superintendent at the Oregon State Penitentiary, oversaw both of the executions carried out under Oregon’s death penalty statute. He now believes that “capital punishment is a failed policy.” In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Thompson—who used to support the death penalty—explains how conducting executions changed his mind. Prior to serving as prison superintendent, Thompson had felt that “justice had been served” when a defendant who had been convicted of killing one of Thompson’s law enforcement colleagues was executed. Shortly afterwards, when he was responsible for carrying out the executions of Douglas Franklin Wright and Harry Charles Moore, “the fact that I was now to be personally involved in their executions forced me into a deeper reckoning with my feelings about capital punishment.” By the time the executions took place, Thompson says he had come to “believe[] that capital punishment was a dismal failure as a policy,” but he participated because he was expected to do his job. He saw the toll the executions took on staff members who participated: “After each execution, I had staff members who decided they did not want to be asked to serve in that capacity again. Others quietly sought employment elsewhere. A few told me they were having trouble sleeping, and I worried they would develop post-traumatic stress disorder if they had to go through it another time…. The effects can lead to all the places you’d expect: drug use, alcohol abuse, depression and suicide.” Thompson now supports Oregon’s moratorium on executions and urges the nation to reconsider capital punishment altogether. He has concluded that “America should no longer accept the myth that capital punishment plays any constructive role in our criminal justice system. It will be hard to bring an end to the death penalty, but we will be a healthier society as a result.”

(S. F. Thompson, “What I Learned From Executing Two Men,” The New York Times, September 15, 2016.) See New Voices and Oregon.