The Executioner's Toll


On Jan. 7, 2010, just after saying a prayer in Arabic, Ohio inmate Abdullah Sharif Kaazim Mahdi was executed for the 1993 murder of 28-year-old Sohail Darwish, a Toledo, OH grocer.

Mahdi was the first of 46 people executed in 2010. Those 46 cases, from arrest to execution are chronicled in Matthew Mangino's recently released book The Executioner's Toll, 2010. Mangino, a former prosecutor who is also a regular Viewpoint contributor to The Crime Report, set out to provide a “true picture” of the American death penalty system by examining each case in a year, without filtering for the controversial or shocking.

He chatted with Graham Kates, The Crime Report's deputy managing editor, about what he learned from this exhaustive examination of executions, about how politics influences the application of the death penalty, and why the media needs to do a better job in reporting on death penalty cases.

The Crime Report: In your words, the book takes the reader through “the crimes, arrests, trials, appeals, last meals, final words, and executions” of everyone who was executed in 2010. Why is it important to look at each case in such detail?

Matthew Mangino: I think it's important because it's an honest look at the death penalty. You can cherry-pick good cases and bad cases, the most depraved killers, the questionable cases, but I thought a look at the death penalty in a single calendar year, every one, would give the reader a real snapshot of the death penalty and its application nationwide.

TCR: What were the lessons you gleaned from preparing this book?

MM: One of the things that I gleaned from this examination is the tragedy of the victims' families, the torment the victims' families had gone through. The process is so long and protracted (and) the victim's families endure prolonged anguish as these cases work their way through the appellate system.

What I kept asking myself as I went through each of these cases was why these 46 cases. Why these 45 men and one woman? I mean there are 3,400 people approximately on death row and it just kept returning to me. Why this person? Why is this person being executed at this time?

TCR: It doesn't seem like there's a set standard for what kind of murder deserves execution.

MM: Well, no. Obviously, we have a process that we apply in these cases to determine whether or not a death sentence is an appropriate sentence. It becomes a little more gray when you get to the issue of why is one person in a specific state being executed and not another necessarily. How do these cases come up?

It's interesting to look back at the Furman case when Potter Stewart looked at these cases in 1972 and said “Death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual.” Here we are, 40-some years later ,and we have to ask ourselves the same question about who the death penalty is being carried out against. Why is one person in the state of Washington on death row longer than another who committed an equally heinous crime? Why is that one person being executed and the other still sitting on death row?

TCR: Do you have any thoughts about that, why there are these discrepancies or what to do about them?

MM: I think that's the fundamental question. Back in 1972, the manner in which the death penalty was carried out was determined to be arbitrary. Now you wonder, are we getting to that same question in terms of the people whom the death penalty is being carried out.?

What I try to do in this book is paint a vivid picture of each and every one of these cases and let people read about them in more detail and form their own conclusions.

Another interesting phenomenon about the death penalty is that we have Gallup polls that say 62 percent of people support the death penalty. But if you look at specific points in time when a significant amount of the public knew about a specific defendant or a specific crime, those numbers change.

So when you looked at (Oklahoma City bomber) Timothy McVeigh, at that time 67 percent of people said they supported the death penalty, but 80 percent supported the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh.

When people know about a specific defendant or they know about a specific case, it tends to increase their willingness to apply the death penalty.

TCR: This book comes at a timely moment because of the bungled execution in Oklahoma earlier this month, after which there were some who said the media didn't focus on victims' families enough. Does the media do a good job covering executions?

MM: The media often talks about a specific issue, maybe it's a mental disability or maybe it's mental illness, or maybe it's the form of lethal injection that's being applied or the shortage of drugs. Rarely do we get into the whole idea of how did this person get there? How did they end up on death row? Who are the victims, and what was the relationship between the defendant and the victim? How are the victims' families affected by this? Was this person repentant? Were they remorseful? Those are all issues that I think give the public a more robust understanding of this process. Often, the media just focuses in on a specific issue and that's the whole story.

TCR: Should it matter whether victims' families believe there's been a fair service of justice?

MM: Yes, certainly – we want to know how they feel. We want them to have the opportunity to express how they feel, but I don't know if that necessarily is the engine that should run the process.

The interesting thing is there are states looking at alternative means of execution now. In 2010, there was an execution by firing squad in Utah. So, we're kind of coming around full circle. The first execution after the death penalty was reinstated was by firing squad. There are some scholars out there who say the firing squad may be the most humane way of carrying out an execution and we talk about those issues in the book when we examine other forms of execution. But, it's interesting how history kind of comes full circle on some of these situations.

TCR: What about the firing squad would make it kind of go away and come back again?

MM: There have been I think three executions in Utah by firing squad since the re-imposition of the death penalty. In 1996, it was kind of a spectacle. The media descended on Utah. They were going to carry out an execution by firing squad and this idea was that this was kind of a Wild West scenario.

I think the legislature in Utah didn't like the idea of being considered a Wild West state and quickly took the firing squad as a method of execution off the list, except for those people who were already on death row who could choose to be executed by firing squad.

I think the issue today is lethal injection. We don't have the drugs. We're using different combinations. Some states are using a single drug protocol, some are still using a multiple drug protocol, some are changing the drugs that are being used in the protocol, and the firing squad is a very simple and straightforward process. You don't have to go to the UK to get five bullets in five guns.

TCR: How does being a former district attorney affect your take on these issues?

MM: Well, as an elected prosecutor, I've made decisions about whether or not to pursue death penalty cases. I've tried death penalty cases. So, I've had an opportunity to see and be involved in the practice, not just sort of the theory of the death penalty.

But I've also have observed how the death penalty has evolved as almost a catch phrase, as almost a political prop, to show someone's criminal justice bona fides. “I support the death penalty. I'm tough on crime.” It's almost become kind of a buzzword in politics, right there with guns, abortion, and the death penalty.

“I'm a law and order guy because I support the death penalty.” Or “that candidate is not a law and order guy or girl because they don't support the death penalty.”

TCR: In your book, you note that it's treated as such a black and white issue, but in reality it has a thousand shades of gray within it.

MM: There's no question about it. For those who are practitioners, those who actually have to apply the death penalty or try cases in which the death penalty is an issue, it is a multidimensional issue of substance and importance. In the political realm, it's thrown around like a badge of honor.

One of the things I mention in the book that was so interesting was that Illinois' Governor (Pat) Quinn was about to sign a bill banning the death penalty and the legislature had already prepared legislation to reinstate it. So as quickly as it was being banned, there were people in the legislature who were willing to bring it back. Is that reality or is that gamesmanship on this issue of being tough on crime?

TCR: Are you going to continue focusing on this issue?

MM: I have a blog and I write every day and I include every execution and some background on every execution. I've done that since I began this process in 2010. So, I have the framework for it if there's an interest in people knowing about it.

TCR: Is there one issue surrounding capital punishment that you think isn't getting enough attention or should get more media scrutiny?

MM: I think there has to be a larger kind of picture painted of these types of cases. I don't think it's enough to just focus on a specific issue whether it's mental illness in death row or intellectual disability. I think the public deserves a broader, richer review of these types of cases so that people can make a decision about whether they support this process or not based on a picture of the whole process.

In a lot of ways people make decisions about the death penalty based on very little anecdotal information and I don't think that's good for the system. I don't think it's good for the process. I would just like to see people exposed to a broader idea of how this process works.

Graham Kates is Deputy Managing Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers comments. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates.

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