Ex-Prisons Director Explains Why He Turned Against the Death Penalty

In 1993, when Dick Morgan was a captain in the Department of Corrections, working at the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla, he was asked to play what he calls “a key role” in the execution of serial killer Westley Alan Dodd. Morgan, who rose to become the DOC’s director of prisons and retired in 2010, won’t say exactly what that role was. But it put him in the death chamber, where he watched Dodd die by hanging.

One thing he learned, he says, is that “there are over 100 people involved in an execution.” Among them are escorts for the families of victims and the families of the condemned; escorts for the condemned himself; staffers who stay with the media and those assigned to crowd control in front of the prison; and not one but two teams of executioners, one ready to carry out the deed by hanging, one by lethal injection. A last minute legal order, Morgan explains, could change the way an execution has to be carried out.

“It’s a huge operation,” Morgan says. And it’s one he ultimately turned against, repelled both by what he terms “a colossal waste of money” and by the “government overreach” he considers killing inmates to be.

Morgan spoke with Seattle Weekly by phone from Walla Walla this afternoon, one day after Governor Jay Inslee’s declared a moratorium on death penalty. As the governor did so, he cited unnamed former DOC administrators whom he said opposed the death penalty. Morgan, who sits on the board of the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and has testified in the legislature about his views, says he helped arrange a meeting in early February between Inslee and former DOC secretaries Eldon Vail and Joe Lehman, both of whom Morgan knew to have reservations about capital punishment. Morgan was supposed to attend the meeting himself but was snowed in on the day.

After the Dodd execution, Morgan went on to participate two more, that of Charles Campbell in 1994 and James Elledge in 2001. He says he considers them all “monsters.” At the same time, his more than 30 years in the prison system leads him to believe that those on death row are indistinguishable from thousands of other inmates who commit horrible crimes. “They’re just ordinary inmates,” Morgan says of the condemned. “They blend right in.”

In fact, he says that those on death row tend to be more manageable than those who have committed lesser offenses and who are serving short sentences. Given the inevitably lengthy appeals process, death row inmates know they’re going to be in prison for a long time and it become their “home,” Morgan says. “They want to make it as comfortable as possible and that means not causing trouble,” he says.

Yet, he says death row inmates are treated as if they are unusually dangerous, kept apart in separate facilities and unable to even go to a communal food area. All their meals are brought to them, according to Morgan. That, of course, only adds to the expense of capital punishment, costs quite apart from the millions of dollars spent on death penalty trials and appeals.

Morgan acknowledges that some who work capital punishment feel differently. He says former Penitentiary superintendent Tana Wood, Morgan’s onetime boss, supported the death penalty, for instance. He adds it was in part his loyalty to her that made him accept when she asked him to work at the Dodd execution. But he says that the closer you get to an execution, the more you really have to wrestle with what you believe.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow