That's the title of Ralph Blumenthal's post at the New York Times City Room blog about Lewis E. Lawes, the legendary warden of New York's Sing Sing Prison, Lewis E. Lawes. Here's an extended excerpt of this must-read:
Nobody killed more people, with more regret, than Lewis E. Lawes.
The warden of the Sing Sing Correctional Facility for 21 years, Lawes supervised the executions of 303 prisoners, all the while condemning the practice of capital punishment as barbaric, inequitable and futile.
As Hollywood’s favorite “fearless, fighting warden,” with a soft heart for his “boys,” Lawes was in charge of the prison through two turbulent decades, from the Jazz Age and the Great Depression to World War II.
“I shall ask for the abolition of the Penalty of Death,” he wrote in 1923, quoting Lafayette, “until I have the infallibility of human judgment demonstrated to me.”
Executions at the prison, in Ossining, N.Y., left Lawes physically ill, his trove of papers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice shows. Once, when a condemned man named Patrick Murphy pleaded for a strictly prohibited last drink of spirits, Lawes broke the rules to deliver a medicinal dose of bourbon. Murphy accepted it gratefully and then offered it back to the stricken Lawes, saying, “You need the shot more than I do, warden.”
But he was no pushover. “Hell,” he wrote in one of his many books, “Invisible Stripes,” “the only law in Sing Sing is Lawes.”
So with the United States Supreme Court now reviewing the Alabama case of the death row inmate Cory Maples, whose appeal got waylaid in the mail, and weeks after a lethal injection ended the life of Troy Davis still protesting his innocence in the killing of a Georgia police officer, it would hardly be amiss to summon Lawes (who died in 1947 at 63) as an expert witness on the subject of state-ordered death.
Barely one out of 80 killers actually paid with his life, Lawes liked to note. Where was the equity in that? And, he asked, “Did you ever see a rich man go the whole route through to the Death House? I don’t know of any.”
Recently, a number of prominent former corrections officials have spoken out against capital punishment; coverage begins at the link.
In 2004, Blumenthal wrote Miracle at Sing Sing : How One Man Transformed the Lives of America's Most Dangerous Prisoners. The long time Times writer served as the paper's Houston bureau chief several years ago.