SALEM, Ore. -- Fade in to the Oregon State Penitentiary, past the concertina wire fence and the sliding doors and locks. The state’s most dangerous felons are incarcerated here, including all but two of the 34 inmates on death row.
In an office, away from the segregated cells, sits the superintendent, Frank Thompson. In front of him is a bucket of water, and he has a syringe in hand. With him is a man advising him how to properly administer a lethal injection.
Thompson draws water into the syringe, then depresses the plunger as the syringe empties into the bucket. He does this over and over, while the adviser warns about the importance of the depression rate. The fluid, he is told, should not flow out faster than gravity.
Dissolve to a downtown coffee shop, a mile and a half from the prison and bustling with conversation about life in Salem. Thompson describes to me the scene from 20 years ago.
“I’m practicing delivering a lethal injection,” he says, almost as if he doesn’t believe it really happened. “Surreal doesn’t begin to explain it.”
My gaze is diverted to his right hand, resting on the table between us. Without realizing it, he’s going through the motion as if he is depressing that syringe.
Thompson plays a lead role in the history of capital punishment in Oregon, as the man who oversaw the state’s last execution. He conducted two, in fact, while he was superintendent at Oregon State Penitentiary. Those are the state’s only executions in the past 54 years.
His story is compelling. He supported capital punishment during most of his 30-year career in law enforcement and corrections, but today he is one of its most outspoken critics.
Our conversation and his appearance at a meeting of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty are sandwiched between an opinion piece published in the New York Times and a trip to Oklahoma, one of three states with capital punishment initiatives on the ballot this week.
“The death penalty doesn’t deter,” he tells me. “It only satisfies vengeance.”
Thompson, whose mother and father were educators, grew up in the segregated south, in Arkansas. He worked in law enforcement, and both his best friend and his cousin were killed on the job. The man who murdered his cousin ultimately was executed for another crime.
“Deep down, I remember feeling justice had been served,” Thompson says. “But emotion does not make good policy.”
When he applied for the top prison job in Oregon in 1994, he told an interviewer that he would be capable of executing an inmate, something which hadn’t happened in more than three decades at the time.
“It was part of the criminal justice system,” Thompson says, “but I thought I wouldn’t have to.”
Within 18 months of landing the job, two death row inmates waived their appeals and were scheduled to be executed by lethal injection, one for killing his half-sister and her former husband, and another for killing three homeless men and a 10-year-old boy.
There was no protocol in Oregon for execution by lethal injection. Oregon previously used a gas chamber, the last time in 1962.
This would be the first execution in 34 years, the first by lethal injection, and the first for Thompson and everyone on his staff.
“No one can imagine the amount of pressure with all these firsts,” Thompson said. “I felt like the world was watching.”
The glare of the spotlight was one of the reasons he focused on training his staff, which came naturally for him.
Thompson is an Army veteran. He served in the military police during the Vietnam War era, and was stationed in Korea. Preparing to administer the death penalty, to him, was a lot like preparing for combat.
“You’re hoping you never have to kill anybody, but you do what you’re called upon to do,” he says.
Like a good soldier and commander, Thompson was as concerned for those serving with him as he was for himself. Each of the employees who participated in the first execution, in 1996, volunteered for duty. He met one-on-one with each person and selected those who would carry out the execution orders.
Thompson was aware of the heavy toll it could take on them. While a police officer and corrections officer in Arkansas, he had friends who were involved in executions in that state. Some of them suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
To help insulate his staff from the fears of doing the job, and from making a mistake, training was a top priority for Thompson. They trained for every step of the process, and for every possible scenario, and they did it over and over again.
In hindsight, it might have been excessive. But not to Thompson, who says he spent $80,000 on overtime to prepare staff for the first one.
“My biggest fear was to have a botched execution,” he says. “We don’t need any other victims.”
Fade back to Oregon State Penitentiary, where Thompson is sitting across from one of the condemned men, describing in detail how the death sentence will be carried out.
Thompson explains how the condemned man will be placed in restraints on a gurney and connected to a heart monitor machine. He explains how he will be hooked up to intravenous catheters for lethal injection of solutions that will first induce unconsciousness, then stop breathing and finally stop the heart.
The irony of premeditation is not lost on Thompson.
Back at the coffee shop, Thompson reflects on what was another surreal moment in the evolution of his stance on capital punishment.
“I’m sitting as close as I am to you,” Thompson says to me, “and I’m explaining to this man how I’m going to kill him.”
It was around this time, in the middle of intense training, that Thompson’s stance on capital punishment began to sway.
“Everybody knew it,” he says. “You register your concerns, but you don’t bail out.”
He was lucky to have a caring and understanding support system to go home to, and still is and does. He and his wife, Deborah, have been married since 1970. They have a daughter and a granddaughter.
Deborah accompanied him to the recent meeting of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, during which he talked about the impact executions can have on corrections officers. Someone later asked if he had experienced PTSD.
“I’ve had no professional counseling or treatment. You might ask my wife.”
She says he has.
“I believe having an opportunity to do what I’m doing tonight is my therapy,” Thompson goes on to say. “I see it somewhat as a ministry.”
Public support for the death penalty fell by 7 percentage points in the last year, with fewer than half of Americans (49 percent) now saying they support it, according to a national Pew Research Center poll released Sept. 29. It marked the first time in 45 years that support for capital punishment polled below 50 percent.
Thompson shares his story any chance he gets with legislators, criminal justice advocates and community leaders across Oregon — where the death penalty is legal but currently under moratorium — and across the country. He has met with elected officials in Colorado and Maryland, and his recent appearances in Oklahoma were arranged by a senator.
He reels off a list of reasons why he and others believe the death penalty should be abolished, including how it is not an effective deterrent to murder, how it is applied disproportionately against the poor and minorities, and how it diverts resources from effective criminal justice policy.
Thompson stood next to the gurney during one of the executions — he won’t say which one — watching the man take his last breath. For the other, he stood outside the room and watched for the flat line on the heart monitor.
Although he used the names of the executed in his New York Times piece, he prefers not to in this column.
“There are victims out there,” he says.
Thompson said the team stayed intact for both executions, after which a couple of staffers quietly went on to other professions because of how much they were bothered by the experience. He often gets asked why he didn’t quit after the first one, if he had changed his stance.
“Executing people was one one-thousandth of what we did,” he said, noting his role in helping develop the Performance Recognition and Award System (PRAS) that reinforces pro-social program development and positive behavior in Oregon prisons.
“I’m proud of that,” Thompson says, “but that’s not going to be on my headstone.”
Fade in to the execution room at Oregon State Penitentiary, with a condemned man strapped to the gurney, awaiting the injection of a cocktail of lethal chemicals. The person who will perform the injection has been trained by Thompson, based on a lesson with a syringe and a water bucket.
The staff inside the room has been trained to conduct the execution professionally and with as much dignity as humanly possible. Before the injection is administered, the man lets them know the straps binding his hands are hurting him.
Thompson gives instructions to loosen them, and after the adjustments are made, the man looks his executioner in the eye and says, “Thank you, boss.”
Contact Capi Lynn at clynn@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6710, or follow her the rest of the week on Twitter @CapiLynn and Facebook @CapiLynnSJ.