Death at Midnight
The confession of an executioner
Available at Amazon Books: $37.50
From Kirkus Reviews , 03/15/96
In this folksy narrative, Cabana, a prison official for 25 years, recounts his experiences and his change of heart about the death penalty. Cabana elaborates on his early fascination with corrections
systems, which brought him from his native Massachusetts to the Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi. When Cabana arrived at the untraditional Parchman in 1972, inmates planted acres of cotton and vegetables, and slaughtered their own cows and pigs; they were housed in small ``camps'' scattered acros the 20,000-acre facility. Cabana left Parchman a year later, returning as warden in 1984 to find Parchman considerably altered--it was ``just another prison,'' lacking crops but containing a new gas chamber. Cabana avoided entering the chamber for years, but he did visit the men on death row and notes that all of these inmates share the same deeply disadvantaged background. He is closest to Connie Ray Evans, a relatively mild soul who had killed a convenience-store clerk. Cabana describes with real affection--and a twinge of guilt--how their relationship developed, despite their differences. Evans, remorseful and philosophical, actually provides comfort to Cabana about the nature of their friendship. In 1987, faced with a rising tide of anti-crime fervor, the state of Mississippi randomly chose inmates to execute, and Evans was the second. In one horrifying scene, Cabana met with Evans's mother, who pled in vain for her son's life. A few days later, Cabana oversaw Evans's execution, and within the year he left prison corrections forever. Cabana argues ardently and rationally against the death penalty, not because of his sympathy for Evans, but because it's clear to Cabana that executing criminals does nothing to eliminate the roots of criminal behavior. A gentle and affecting addition to the Dead Man Walking canon.
Paul Bennett, Philadelphia Inquirer
"What makes [Cabana's] book powerful is that he doesn't cloud his experiences with a philosophical diatribe. He carries no agenda except that of a confessor. Though the memoir gains greatly from Cabana's expertise in corrections and will no doubt provide ammunition for anti-death penalty factions, it is best read as the outpouring of one man who simply wants to tell us of the awfulness of putting someone to death, someone who is unmistakably human, someone like you and me."
Don Cabana's Preface in the book
This book was a long time in the making, growing out of an exciting and challenging twenty-five years of service in corrections.
Capital punishment grips the imagination of contemporary America like no other issue. In the abstract, the death penalty is quickly endorsed and facilely supported by an increasingly vocal populace. For those few, however, who are actually authorized by the state to kill another human being, the death penalty becomes a chilling exposť of the darkest emotions of the citizenry.
Executions do not take place within a vacuum; rather, they result from a vast combination of interrelated social and historical factors, along with legal maneuverings. We freely presume it possible to point a finger and say, "That's why he's on death row." In doing so, however, we forget the numerous unseen forces at work that contribute to a man's final walk.
I spent most of my career as a prison administrator convinced of the need for capital punishment. I had always been something of a bureaucratic utopian, fully committed to the notion that if the government deemed capital punishment necessary then it must be so.
I had forgotten to search beyond the law and political rhetoric and examine the morality of it all. Not until I was confronted with supervising and carrying out the ultimate retribution did I begin to question the process in earnest. The execution of Edward Earl Johnson served as a milestone, an event at which to pause and wonder. But it was the execution of Connie Ray Evans that became, for me, a personal moment of truth.
I am not John Grisham. I cannot promise that this book will be a thrilling or suspenseful potboiler. I did not write it with those attributes in mind. I wrote to provide an insider's look at the secretive, mysterious world of the execution chamber. Capital punishment exacts a toll on those who must carry it out. The executioner's tale, a vantage point that is seldom recognized, requires telling.
More importantly, however, this is a book about life. It is a story of two ordinary men, separated by culture, education, and life's experiences. Ultimately, Connie Ray Evans and I would bridge that gulf forging a closeness that not even the gas chamber could interrupt. In the end, this is, more than anything else, a book that celebrates achievement. That a young black man, who had no choice but to die in a gas chamber, and a middle-aged white man, the warden who had no choice but to carry the execution to its conclusion, could have come to regard each other as friends is an achievement that is surely cause for joy and celebration.