Descending into Greater Darkness— Witness of Chuck Carlson

The following witness is written by Chuck Carlson. Chuck was a friend of Tom Thompson. He witnessed the execution of his friend by the state of California in 1998. Chuck is a Professor and teaches at Cañada College in San Mateo and is a member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael. He has spoken at California People of Faith interfaith services and events.

This piece may be read at services and vigils on the eve of the scheduled execution of Ray Allen. For further information please contact us at

It greatly saddens me that the state is intent on executing another prisoner tonight – on Martin Luther King’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Dr. King. January 17 is also Ray Allen’s birthday. Happy Birthday Mr. Allen.

Apparently, the state and the trial judge for Ray Allen thought nothing of desecrating the Martin Luther King holiday. Dr. King said:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing fear, it multiplies it. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

King’s quote captures the futility of such a policy of vengeance. The execution of any human being keeps us deep in the darkness that has wrapped our journeys through this life and prevents us from seeing clearly the enduring damage such an act does to our hearts and souls. Every execution night deepens the darkness and brings us closer to that night “devoid of stars.”

An execution is never about punishing one person for a single or even multiple acts of violence. An execution is not an act carried out in a single instant at a carefully appointed hour. An execution does nothing but spread the pain of a murder victim’s family to the family and friends of the perpetrator.

Few, if any of us, walk through this life alone. Even the most violent criminals accrue a web of family and friends on their journey, and the act of killing someone who has committed murder does little to assuage the grief of the victim’s family and much to spread that grief to a new set of victims. Dr. King knew this and would be appalled that we still engage in such damaging behavior nearly 40 years after his passing.

The damage doesn’t stop with the loved ones of the condemned. Every person employed by the California Department of Corrections to carry out an execution shares in the damage done. I have witnessed an execution and there is nothing “humane” or non-violent about the process. Psychological studies have revealed significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder even among press witnesses to the so-called “humane” procedure of lethal injection.

I know that guards are damaged by the procedure. The guards who came to know my friend, Tom Thompson, were deeply disturbed by his execution, and none of them actually chose to be any part of the execution itself. I not only witnessed an execution on July 14, 1998, I witnessed guards weeping on the day that Tom would be put to death. One guard told me he became nauseous every time he crossed the Richmond Bridge in the weeks before the execution. The state recognizes that an execution is a violent act with all the repercussions on any witness to an act of violence. That’s why they provide counseling for employees around an execution, as well as for the witnesses present from the press and the surviving family of the victim. That is why they check the box indicating death by homicide on the death certificate, although they hypocritically rationalize the act by typing in “justifiable” next to the homicide box.

As Tom used to say, only half in jest, the death penalty is the “gift that keeps on giving.” Dr. King understood this, as well, when he talked of a “descending spiral of violence” that leaves us only in a greater darkness — “a night devoid of stars.” The men and women charged with carrying out an execution may seem to cope, but it’s at a cost. At the very least, it’s at the cost of developing emotional scar tissue to suppress the emotions that accompany any act of violence — “justified” or not. Just as an execution is an act that is years in the making, it does not end when the time of death is announced. It continues to live on in the hearts and minds of those charged with its doing. Like soldiers sent to war in our name, the guards who carry out an execution carry the memories of that violence with them throughout the balance of their lives. Like soldiers who return without visible injuries, we assume that they are not wounded – that time will heal the emotional trauma and life will go on. We do not understand what Dr. King knew: any act of violence “begets the thing it seeks to destroy.”

Tomorrow I begin a new semester with the prospect of attaining a full time position – one I have spent two decades working toward. It should be a joyful day, but every time the state gears up for an execution, the memories and emotions come tumbling back, unbidden and undeniable – the gift that keeps on giving. I can guarantee you that it is the same for all who carry out or witness the killing of human being. Ask Bill Babbitt, who is here because Manny Babbitt, executed in 1999, and Ray Allen were close friends. The moment of killing is fleeting. It passes. But it gives birth to memories of that fleeting moment that are relived over and over and over again for all involved.

By ending one life marked by violence, it gives birth and life to violence in the hearts of many. It assures that violence remains a cycle and reproduces itself over and over and over again as it plucks the stars from the heavens, robs them of their light and adorns us with us a crown we will always feel, but cannot see, because it casts no light. It drives out no darkness, but leaves us in a “night devoid of stars.” If we truly honor Dr. King’s life, we must honor his legacy – his message – and illuminate the darkness. We must drive out the hate with love and the darkness with light. We must break the cycle of violence by eschewing vengeance and find another path to justice – one that does not give birth to a stigmata of the heart and seeks to heal rather than destroy broken lives.