The Executioner’s Secrets

A New Book and Exhibit Reveal the Inner Workings of Sing Sing, New York’s Most Notorious Death Chamber.

Support for the death penalty has always depended on keeping executions out of the public eye. While reporters were permitted to watch Sing Sing's executions, prison officials revealed little about the Death House's inner workings. Condemned marks the end of a 25-year excavation of New York's death penalty records. Perhaps only Christianson—who has worked as an investigative reporter, scholar, and state criminal-justice official—could have put these documents into the public's hands.

As a Ph.D. student researching prisons in the 1970s, Christianson helped set up the New York State Archives, which collect historical records from state agencies. In 1977, official documents detailing life in Sing Sing's Death House left the prison's walls for the first time when a state archivist seized cardboard boxes full of files. Christianson later was able to glimpse some of these records when he held several state criminal-justice jobs.

top: Harley LaMoor, 19, executed for murder, January 11, 1951bottom: Sing Sing Death House exterior
top: Harley LaMoor, 19, executed for murder, January 11, 1951
bottom: Sing Sing Death House exterior

Three years ago, Christianson finally got a chance to examine the dusty files from the Sing Sing Death House when the New York State Defenders Association gained access to them. Christianson discovered not only official paperwork and personal artifacts—like rosary beads and religious medallions—but also cases in which defendants were convicted after being coerced into confessing. Some were interrogated without an attorney, while others appeared to be mentally retarded. In Condemned, Christianson concludes, "By today's standards, the overwhelming number of these people—based on the record that exists now—would not have been considered acceptable candidates for the death penalty."

What keeps the past in the past—and what eases doubts about the nation's mounting number of executions—is the belief that today the death penalty is better enforced, somehow more civilized and more humane. The lethal injection table has replaced the electric chair as the preferred method of execution. Indigent inmates are assigned lawyers. And appeals wend through the state and federal courts for years, supposedly catching all cases of mistaken guilt before an innocent person is tied to a gurney.

What makes Condemned especially disturbing is the timing of its publication. Recent events suggest that the past is not as different from the present as we might like to believe. Doubts about capital punishment have been spreading across the country. George Ryan, the Republican governor of Illinois, recently called for a moratorium on executions after 13 innocent people were nearly executed. Legislators in 12 states have introduced bills to halt executions. And death-penalty opponents have been celebrating the recent release of Calvin Burdine, who spent 16 years on death row in Texas after his attorney slept through much of his trial.

If the initial response to Christianson's book and exhibit are any indication, Condemned may further erode support for capital punishment. Hours before Christianson finished hanging his mug shots and other documents, John Jay students were already discussing the exhibit, glancing over the author's shoulder as he hammered.

Deborah, a part-time student who declined to give her last name, interrupted her study session in the library several times to check on Christianson's progress. She crouched on the floor to point out the item she found most disturbing—an excerpt from an Associated Press story that Christianson had not yet stuck inside a display case. "Prison authorities said it was the first time in more than 600 executions at Sing Sing since 1891 that a doomed man physically fought to the last moment to prevent his execution," the article stated.

The "doomed man" in this story was Pablo Vargas, 35, who claimed that his confession had been coerced. "What if this guy who was kicking and screaming and said he was innocent—what if that was true?" Deborah wondered aloud. Deborah, a 37-year-old paralegal, said she had been trying to figure out whether she supported capital punishment. As she stared at the suit-and-tie mug shots, she decided the exhibit would likely transform her into a death-penalty opponent.

Research assistance: Cherie Song

"Condemned: A Documentary Odyssey Through New York's Sing Sing Death House" is on display at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 899 Tenth Avenue, through April 7.

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