Anne Holsinger 0:00

Hello and welcome to Discussions with DPIC. I’m Anne Holsinger, Managing Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Our guest today is Ron McAndrew, former Warden for the Florida Department of Corrections. He has witnessed executions using electrocution and lethal injection in Florida and Texas. A self-described law and order conservative his experiences have led him to oppose the death penalty. Thank you for joining us, Mr. McAndrew.

Ron McAndrew 0:28

Good morning, thanks for the opportunity.

Anne Holsinger 0:30

First, can you tell us about your background? How did you come to work as a corrections officer and to perform executions?

Ron McAndrew 0:37

Well, that’s actually a bit strange. I went to Europe in the Air Force in 1958. Two years later, I was discharged there and married there had a son there. I went to work for a French company and between that time, and 1978, I worked for a European firm in France, the Mediterranean area and Middle East, Far East and Southeast Asia. When the war was over in Vietnam, our business began to diminish, and I lost that job. So I returned to the United States in 1978. I found myself in Florida, looking for a job. I was living in Homestead, and traveling to Miami daily for interviews, but it appeared nobody seemed to need a French perfume salesman. So a friend mentioned to me one day, Ron, why don’t you go down to the prison I hear they’re desperate for help. I thought that was, actually as I remember telling them, you’re crazy. The last thing, the last place I want to work is a prison for goodness sakes, but my savings was getting smaller every day. I still had my son in high school back in France. I was becoming desperate, so I thought, well, maybe if I go down there and I get one of those jobs until I find a real job. They were desperate for help. I was there at 10 o’clock in the morning for an interview and by four o’clock that afternoon, I’ve gone to the barber shop and lost my ponytail, my beard, purchased a pair of military shoes and a military belt and I was wearing the uniform and information at four o’clock that afternoon being assigned to a dormitory without any experience whatsoever. In fact, the inmates became my trainers because I simply didn’t know what to do. I thought it was the most disgusting job I’d ever had in my life. I hated it. I was intimidated by it. I didn’t understand it and this went on for days and days and I’m still trying to find another job. Something happened in the process. I found out that that I was pretty good dealing with offenders. I found out that if I treated people just a little bit as I wanted it to be treated, I’ve done a great deal of cooperation and it worked. In fact, I had the honor dorm and, and within a month or two, I’d really found my niche. I wasn’t making very much money, but I was making enough and I had health insurance and I was staying alive and being able to support my son. I would see the warden, who was about my age, but he already had 22 years I believe in the Department of Corrections and I asked for some career guidance, we actually became friends. He was very helpful. I rose through the ranks quickly. Within eight years, I was a deputy warden and within I believe it was 11 years, I was a warden opening a new prison in Gulf County and we were Hitchcock — that was in 1992. In 1996. I was assigned as the warden Florida State Prison — that was the one bad part of my career. A couple of years later I was assigned as the warden of Central Florida reception center in Orlando and in 2001, I was allowed to purchase four years of my military time and they gave me credit for 27 years and I went into retirement for five days. At which time I was called by the county mayor of Orange County and asked if I would take over the Orange County Jail on an emergency basis. I agreed to do so contingent upon the county doing a national search for a new director. And that lasted for about a year. I went back into retirement. In 2004, I was asked by a law firm in Panama City to do some expert work as a witness, and consultant, and since that time, I’ve been retained in almost 600 separate cases around the country. I’m trying to go into retirement again, almost age 85 and I have still active cases that range from Honolulu all the way to Belfast, Ireland. I stay pretty busy.

Anne Holsinger 5:42

Yeah, it sounds like you do. You had really interesting timing there with regards to the death penalty, because you were starting your career in the prison system just a couple of years after Florida had reinstated the death penalty. Did you, were you working with death row prisoners right away? Or did the recent reinstatement of the death penalty, you know, affect your work in those early years?

Ron McAndrew 6:05

No, I started out at the very lowest paygrade of a non-certified correctional officer. In 1970, early 79, I went through all of the vet level positions of Officer, Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, Investigator, Inspector, Major, I skipped over Colonel and I was appointed as a Deputy Warden in 88. And in 1992, I was appointed as the Warden, as I mentioned earlier. So it was not until a good 10 or 12 years into my career, that I began to face the death penalty up close.

Anne Holsinger 6:48

And once you were working on the death penalty, you oversaw three of Florida’s electric chair executions. What were your responsibilities during those executions, and what was your job like in the days leading up to them and on the day of the execution itself?

Ron McAndrew 7:04

I work very closely with the colonel who was over security and the assistant warden for operations. These two men had done numerous executions in times past, I relied upon their guidance and training, we practiced putting people to death using volunteer officers several 100 times before there was a death warrant on my desk, signed by the governor. So the day of the first execution, there had been a great deal of training. I understood how to handle things in terms of handling the press, the witnesses, family of the condemned and reporting directly to the governor, who was Lawton Chiles, at the time.

Anne Holsinger 7:53

So as I’m sure you know, botched executions remain all too common today. In 2022, DPIC’s research found that seven out of the 20 execution attempts were botched and executions in Tennessee, Alabama and Arizona were suspended pending investigations into their execution protocols. Earlier this year, you wrote an op-ed in the Miami Herald that described two botched executions. How did those executions in particular affect you and your team? And do you think that they contributed to Florida’s decision to transition to lethal injection?

Ron McAndrew 8:28

Well, the two botched executions. One of course, at that time, the mask that was used was hard leather and it had a tightening belt on the back of it. So that at the time of the execution itself, tightening that up, automatically broke the nose, you can hear the cartilage in the nose breaking as you tighten the belt and the mask normally retain the blood that would result from the tightening of that mask. On the on the second execution, I believe that was John L. Bush, the blood sort of started running out of the mask and that was before we actually applied the electricity to his body. That was very uncomfortable for everyone because he could not scream because the mask was so tight, and yet I could see his hands trying to crush the arm of the the electric chair before the electricity was applied. I can tell he was in great deal of pain and it did get everybody’s attention. We were all concerned about that. The execution of Pedro Medina — that was that was traumatic for everybody. It was traumatic, certainly for the condemned. It was traumatic for everybody carrying out the execution and for the 26 witnesses. Everybody was a guest. It was it was such a really bad day.

Anne Holsinger 10:23

And that was Florida’s final electric chair execution. Correct?

Ron McAndrew 10:28

No, ma’am, there were a couple of electrocutions after that. I think two other executions by my successor that the arrangement for lethal injection was already in place. I had purchased all of the materials after shadowing five lethal injections down in Huntsville, Texas. I purchased the gurney, the chemicals, and began training the staff on how to do this. I brought all this knowledge back from Texas at the direction of Lawton Chiles.

Anne Holsinger 11:12

When Florida made that transition to lethal injection did your responsibilities change significantly?

Ron McAndrew 11:19

Certainly under the threat of Lawton Chiles our governor because he was furious. In fact, he fired me the day of the Pedro Medina execution, but thanks to Harry K Singletary, Jr, our Secretary of the Department of Corrections at that time, he was able to get a hold of the governor and calm him down and let him know that this certainly was not something that that was planned — that it was an accident that could not be avoided. Lawton Chiles then made arrangements with George W. Bush, who was the governor of Texas at that time, for me to go down to Huntsville, and work with the death team and to learn how to carry out lethal injections, to get an inventory of everything that was going to be needed in turn in terms of chemicals and apparatus. They want me to bring that knowledge back to Florida and get it ready as soon as possible, and it was during that process that I asked Secretary Singletary to get me out of Florida State Prison.

Anne Holsinger 12:32

Why did you make that request?

Ron McAndrew 12:36

I was beginning to question why we were killing people that we already had in captivity. I was feeling uncomfortable about taking the lives of people that were captured and, and were no longer a threat to anyone. And it was it was beginning to bother me psychologically, morally, and Mr. Singletary, appreciated that. And I called him in the morning and asked him to get me the hell out of Florida State Prison, and he said I’ll make it happen, Ron. Three o’clock that same afternoon, he called and said I’m gonna send you back home to Orlando — that’s why I went back to Central Florida reception center for a second time. This time as the warden remained there for the next four or five years.

Anne Holsinger 13:31

You’ve spoken and written about the emotional toll of executions in other interviews, but could you share with us some of how executions affected you and your colleagues in the long term?

Ron McAndrew 13:46

Well, when you get into the killing business, of fellow human beings, you start meeting people. You get phone calls from people in other states, other wardens, you actually become friends, through telephone conversations. The warden down in Mississippi — now we became really, really good friends and a female warden that had experienced executions out in California and got to know her quite well, as well. I found out that they also suffered very much as I was suffering. My colleagues that I worked with, I began to talk to them and before you know it, we had sort of like a telephone club — still do to some degree. We still talk to each other occasionally. Well, I did seek professional therapy, I think. I think half of my therapy came from just talking to people like myself around the country who had been required to kill people. You know, I hate that word execution because it sounds like you’re making it flowery. Sounds like you’re making it sound like you’re not killing someone, you’re just executing someone, but my definition of execution is nothing more than a premeditated ceremonial, political killing. It’s political, for sure. There is a big ceremony. In fact, everybody wears a suit to the execution, you know, want to make everything look real pretty for the governor. Because he needs it, or at least he thinks he needs it. And that’s, that’s something that’s become an aggravation for me in just the last month, in fact.

Anne Holsinger 15:52

Yeah, it’s interesting that you bring up politics, I wanted to ask about that. You’ve described yourself as politically conservative and in recent years, we’ve seen a shift in conservative views on the death penalty across the country. In fact, a 2017 report from Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, found a 10-fold increase in the number of Republican sponsors of repeal bills between 2000 and 2016 How have your political views influenced your opinion on the death penalty? And why do you think more conservatives are beginning to favor abolition?

Ron McAndrew 16:25

it’s a simple matter of knowledge, information. It’s amazing, when you explain to someone what happens on death row, and what happens in open population, the difference between the two, that someone who’s committed a horrible crime can actually make a contribution for the rest of their lives by working every day, instead of sitting in a cell watching television on death row. When you explain those things, and you explain how it affects the people that have to carry out these executions, I believe it’s impossible for anyone, and I’m not talking about a soldier or a police officer who killed someone in defense of our country, or in defense and self defense or defensive another person, I’m talking about someone who has someone in handcuffs, belly chains, leg irons, they’re locked in a cell, you drag this guy into a room and throw up on a gurney and start strap, putting straps all across his body, or set so you when the chemicals entering his body, the witnesses can’t see him heaving his chest biting pain. It’s got to make it look pretty, as Lawton Chiles used to say.

Anne Holsinger 17:54

Do you think those efforts in the execution process to make it pretty, as you said, make a difference for the witnesses, especially the families of the victims?

Ron McAndrew 18:03

I haven’t seen a victim yet that felt any better about the loss of the people they loved after somebody else was killed. I haven’t seen anybody feel any better.

Anne Holsinger 18:15

As Warden, did you have opportunities to speak with the families of the victims in the period surrounding an execution?

Ron McAndrew 18:23

Both the victims and the other set of victims, you see that were condemned. Believe it or not, he has parents, brothers, sisters, friends, uncles, aunts, pastor, people that still love him, in spite of the horrible crime that he may or may not have committed. I got to know the families of John Earl Bush, Leo Jones, always believed there was a chance that Leo Jones was possibly innocent because I read all of the files — I read the investigation. As a past investigator, I know the difference between a good investigation and one that’s not. In the investigation that put Leo Jones on death row and eventually his execution, was a poor investigation. Too many people were not interviewed — that bothered me. But yes, they do and families on both sides. I know how horrible the condemned’s family felt. And I also got to know some of the victims from the, the person that was allegedly murdered was a lady whose sister had been murdered. She called me on the phone the week, 10 days before the execution and she said, I want to be there. I said, Yes, ma’am. I’ll make that arrangement. I want to sit on the front row. I say all right. She says I want to stare him right in the eye when you turn on the electricity. I said well that won’t be possible? Why not? So because you know, there’ll be a mask over his face. Why do you do that? Then after the execution, she was just as angry, just as upset as she was part of the execution. I could feel her pain. I certainly see her anger and I wanted to tell her to find a therapist, work away through this thing. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to do something like that, so I couldn’t do it. But I have never seen anyone say I feel better now, or now we have justice.

Anne Holsinger 20:43

Before we wrap up, is there anything else that you would like to share with our listeners?

Ron McAndrew 20:47

Just one thing, maybe two. One is that anyone who participates in the killing of another person, and they can tell you that they can go home, and they can go to sleep without thinking about watching this person take their last breath. Knowing that you played a part in that last breath, someone that you already had in captivity, someone that wasn’t going any place, wasn’t going to hurt anyone. I think we’re we’re much better than this. We’re much better than this. We don’t have to kill our fellow human beings in order to satisfy anyone other than perhaps a politician.

Anne Holsinger 21:39

Well, thank you so much for joining us today. If our listeners would like to learn more about the death penalty they can visit DPIC’s website at And to make sure you never miss an episode of our podcast, you can subscribe to Discussions with DPIC on your podcast app of choice.