Death Penalty

Executioner was convinced he would be condemned to hell; others also suffer long-term effects

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Corridor in an abandoned penitentiary. Image from Shutterstock.

After Craig Baxley connected a plastic tube to vials of drugs to stop the heart of a condemned South Carolina inmate, he asked God to forgive him.

In the bathroom near the execution room, Baxley sank to his knees and recited the Lord’s Prayer, praying, “Deliver us from evil.”

“Yet something evil seemed to stick,” the State reports. “From that day on, Baxley felt like a different person. Nightmares replaced his previously sound sleep. Painful knots invaded his stomach. Anytime he became nervous, his hands started to drip with sweat like they did in the death chamber.”

Baxley was a former Marine who had trained next to friends who died in the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks bombing. He had seen men stabbed to death in prison after he began work for the South Carolina Department of Corrections. But his friends noticed a change after the execution.

“A Southern Baptist who attended church every Sunday,” the State reported, “Baxley became convinced that killing others for the government had condemned him to hell. He stopped going to services and started thinking about suicide.”

The State spoke with Baxley and nine others involved in executions in the South. The newspaper learned that those who were most affected were people who administered the lethal injections or pressed the button for the electric chair.

Jim Harvey oversaw prisons, including the one in Columbia, South Carolina, where the executions took place. He developed the rules for executions and chose the executioners before his retirement in 1998. He didn’t want volunteers because he didn’t want someone like that working for him.

He told a reporter from the State that nobody enjoyed the job and nobody wanted to do it. He was consumed by stress before executions, and afterward at home, he was quick to become angry. He no longer supports capital punishment “because there’s so much inequity in who gets the death penalty,” he said.

Baxley was officially considered a volunteer, although he and another executioner, Terry Bracey, said the work seemed like a condition for promotions. They carried out the death penalty in the early 2000s after Harvey left the job. When they asked to take a break, they were told that they would lose their leadership roles if they stepped aside, they told the State.

They later quit and sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress and violation of their rights. They also filed workers’ compensation claims for disability caused by the stress. Both were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Both need medication to sleep.

The suits and workers’ compensation claims were tossed, although both men do receive disability retirement benefits.

Another former executioner killed himself, the newspaper learned.

Executions were paused in South Carolina in 2017 after the state ran out of lethal injection drugs. The state is preparing for new executions after lawmakers approved death by firing squad. And the electric chair is an alternative that’s still on the books.

“The tools of death could next be electric volts, bullets or a drug cocktail,” the State reported. “Regardless of the method, executions are likely to return to South Carolina.”

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