Vanguard Interview with Former San Quentin Warden Turned anti-Death Penalty Activist


The afternoon panel in San Francisco’s Justice Summit was on the death penalty.  The panel began with a haunting clip from an Interview with an Executioner, which follows Don Cabana. He is a former warden at Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi  who would become an anti-death penalty activist, following his carrying out the execution of Edward Earl Johnson, whom he came to believe was innocent.

Don Cabana, in the documentary, said that it is not uncommon for death row inmates to maintain their innocence. However, he said by the time they get into the execution chamber and you know the execution is going to take place, “usually something happens and they may not come right out and say I did it.” Instead they would say things like “Warden, would you tell the victim’s family I’m sorry,” he continued, “something that says ‘I did this.’ “

“Edward didn’t do that,” he said, “So I leaned down and whispered in his ear.  I thought maybe I could reach him, because I really wanted to make sure that he was at peace with his god and himself.”

“I said Edward it’s not important for you to confess to this crime, it’s not important that anybody here in this room hears the truth, the only thing that’s important is that you let your maker, your God, know the truth and you be at peace with him,” Mr. Cabana told the BBC in an interview.

“He looked at me and very calmly said, warden, I’m at peace with my god, how are you going to be with yours?” he finished.

The clip then flashes to an African-American prison guard who is asked if he believes that he (referring to Edward Earl Johnson) did it, and the guard says “I don’t believe [that he did].”

He is then asked by a person with a British accent, “So you think an innocent man is going to his death?”

The guard responds very matter-of-factly, “It’s a possibility.”

The British man responds, “That’s terrible.”

The guard responds again matter-of-factly, “Yeah.”

On the panel is Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of San Quentin State Prison who oversaw four executions, but now has taken on a new role as Executive Director of the Death Penalty Focus.

Founded in 1988, Death Penalty Focus is one of the largest nonprofit advocacy organizations in the nation dedicated to the abolition of capital punishment.

“Jeanne Woodford  will lead the death penalty abolition movement at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history.  With public support for capital punishment eroding, and growing numbers of states considering repeal legislation, Ms. Woodford will be a central figure in hastening the day when the death penalty is recognized as a relic of a bygone era,” said Mike Farrell, board president of the non-profit group.    

“As a veteran of law enforcement and a cabinet-level state official, Jeanne Woodford has a unique perspective on the policies needed to keep families safe and use tax dollars most efficiently.  As the warden of San Quentin, Ms. Woodford speaks with unique authority and first-hand experience about the risks of executing the innocent and the failure of the death penalty in California to bring resolution to many victims or deter crime,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project and Professor at Cardozo School of Law in New York City.      

woodfordThe Vanguard recently interviewed Ms. Woodford over the phone.  Even as a Warden at San Quentin, she said was never in favor of the death penalty.

She told the Vanguard, “I always thought it was time to get rid of the death penalty and my experience in San Quentin just really reiterated my own, personal beliefs.”

Unlike Mr. Cabana, she does not believe she has executed an innocent person.  But she can relate to what he is going through.

“I really appreciate that film because I think it really points out for people how tragic this can be and how it can impact us so greatly, and the fact that we have public servants carry out the death sentence,” she said.

She went on to say, “I think being the warden of any person is a tough, tough job, particularly in California where prisoners are so many, that’s very different and I’m just scared.”

Unlike in Texas, California only has 33 prisons to house 10,000 more inmates than Texas does with well over 100 prisons.  She called them mega warehouses.

“The stress of having to carry out an execution; I think that it really does take a toll on you and your staff, particularly as the science of criminal justice, understanding that we have, you know, found innocent people inside our prisons and there is a potential that someone who’s sick could be executed,” Ms. Woodford elaborated.

Moreover, she pointed out that a warden would wake up everyday for 30 to 60 days prior to the execution, “with a notion that you are planning the killing of an individual. Well, many people may think that’s easy to do; I do assure you that it is not and so, it’s very hard to describe what that’s like; it’s very tough on a person, mentally, and it’s very tough on a person who is trying to lead their staff through this process.”

One of the points made by the Warden Cabana is that by the time you execute someone, you are no longer executing the same person who committed the crime.

Ms. Woodford agreed, “People who spend 25 years on death row are now much older have an awful lot of time to think about who they are and their behavior and so, they may come in very young and very angry at the point,” she said.  “When it’s time to execute them, if that even happens, you’re checking on an individual who doesn’t appear to be bad at all; it’s usually someone who appears to be much older, much wiser; and who doesn’t appear to have the kind of anger and violence that they came in with.”

However, that does not mean she believes that these individuals have been rehabilitated.  “Well, you know, it’s difficult to say that because some of these crimes are really horrific crimes,” she said.  “There are people who, even though they are not a threat to people within the penal system, we don’t understand that crime and you know certainly, life without the possibility of parole is the right sentence for them.”

She continued, “Those individuals, as they change and grow, they need to use their maturity within the walls of the prison, to give back to society as best as they can, and they also need to work and pay restitution to their victim.”

She said, “So I do not want to say that everybody on death row, up to 25 years, should be released, that isn’t the case. Many, many people on death row, who deserve to be in prison and for public safety, should be there for life without the possibility parole, and that’s why that is an appropriate sentence.”

“After each execution, I faced the reality that I had not made the world any safer.  The death penalty is a failed public policy and I am committed to spending the rest of my career working to end this costly and ineffective practice,” said Ms. Woodford in another interview.  “The death penalty fails to serve victims’ families, does not keep the public safer than the alternative of life without the possibility of parole, inflicts unnecessary stress and trauma on prison personnel, and drains taxpayer resources that could be better spent providing crucial services to homicide victims’ families.”

When the Vanguard asked her what she meant here, she pointed out that even in states where they execute prisoners quickly, it still takes 10 to 11 years to execute them.  She argued, “It doesn’t make the world safer because we now have deterred criminals from committing crimes that lead to the death penalty.”

Instead she argued, “Public safety could have been addressed by giving the sentence of life without the possibility of parole and so it didn’t make victims of family members feel better or feel safer, I’m sure, because this is many years after the crime.”

She said that while we expect that the executions will make the family members of the victim feel better, in her experience that is not the case.  She said, “My experience is that it just is injuring the family members following an execution, they are just in a hurry to leave the prison.”

“I have heard this expressed as to how painful it is because it takes so long and some family members have had to come to prison more than once because of the appeals and stays, and things like that,” she said. “The lifer’s no possibility of parole brings closure to the legal aspects of the case.  I don’t know if there’s anything that can undo the harm of individuals, and certainly, carrying out an execution just does not, from my experience, bring any relief to the family.”

Life without parole would, in her mind, bring closure, at least to the legal aspect of the case.  Then the family members would not have to worry, or continue to address or deal with the issue any further.  Instead, they are brought forward again to relive these crimes.

“My heart certainly goes out to the victim’s family,” she said.

The question always on people’s minds is whether someone is against the death penalty for practical reasons or philosophical ones.  For Jeanne Woodford it seems a bit of both.

“I am opposed to it for practical reasons because, you can’t really improve, I mean, it’s too costly; it serves no one; it doesn’t bring closure to victims, and you can’t really improve it,” she said.

People often talk about the problem with executions being that they are not carried out quickly enough.  The problem as Ms. Woodford points out is that “we found too many innocent people on our death rows, to even think that it ought to be quicker and then, as with the discovery of DNA, there are things we just don’t know out there that might prove that other people are innocent, as we have found with the DNA. So, you know, we don’t have a perfect criminal justice system and we never will, and just from a practical checkpoint, we can’t afford to even have the possibility that we might execute an innocent person.”

She said that as more and more evidence comes forward about wrongful convictions, we see people using the argument about the speed of the process and cutting appeals to less and less.  “We’re now able to, you know, put up in front of them, the pictures of people who would have been executed, if we had been too quick to justice, or what was called justice,” Jeanne Woodford told the Vanguard.

She also talked about ways to prevent wrongful convictions.  “I think that the laws that they are looking at passing in Texas, and even California, to limit these eye-witness testimonies and couple with physical evidence and, you know, some of the limitations that need to be put in place in terms of interviewing, or interrogating or interviewing individuals about the crime, and there’re some safeguards that can improve it but it still will never be perfect,” she said.

“I do think that as we’re finding more innocent people around the country,” she continued, “that people are really giving this a lot more thought and consideration and I then think that, you know, it’s even changing the way that prosecutions are handled, and they have changed. I think in some ways, it changed the philosophy of prosecutors and I think more of that will occur over time.”

Jeanne Woodford also touched on the issue of cost, which has become one of the huge issues in the death penalty. 

Why does the death penalty cost so much more, up to $90,000 to incarcerate a single individual each year, versus $50,000 for those in the general prison population?

Unlike inmates in the general population, inmates on death row live in a single cell and are isolated from the rest of the population.  Not only does it cost more from a facility standpoint, but you have to bring services to them.

“It takes a lot more staff to run a death row because inmates on death row have an attorney for life, so the the litigation cost, you know, continues throughout their lifetime and so, that’s incredibly expensive and then, even before that, the trial itself is much more costly because there’re two trials, there’s the guilt or innocence and then there’s the penalty phase so, litigation costs are unbelievably expensive for all cases,” she said.

These are interesting times for fighting the death penalty.  Four states (Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey, and New York) have abolished the death penalty in four years, bringing the number of states that do not have the death penalty to 16, along with the District of Columbia.  Bills to abolish the death penalty are under consideration in Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas with support from Republican and Democratic legislators, law enforcement officers, victims’ family members, and growing numbers of the general public.

California, where more than 700 men and women are on death row, has not conducted an execution since January, 2006, due to challenges to the state’s lethal injection protocols.  A 2010 Lake Research Partners poll showed that a clear majority of voters nationwide (61%) and in California (62%) would prefer a punishment other than the death penalty for first-degree murder. 

A recent poll by David Binder Research found that 63% of California voters would support converting the sentences of everyone on death row in California to life without the possibility of parole to save the state more than $1 billion in five years.

Ms. Woodford succeeds Lance Lindsey, who is credited with quadrupling the organization’s membership during his 16-year tenure. He led Death Penalty Focus to become, as Human Rights Watch recently noted, “one of the premier organizations seeking to abolish the death penalty by educating and mobilizing the public, and ensuring that the use of this arbitrary and barbaric practice receives the intense critical scrutiny that it deserves.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]She continued, “Those individuals, as they change and grow, they need to use their maturity within the walls of the prison, to give back to society as best as they can, and they also need to work and pay restitution to their victim.”[/quote]

    And how do they “give back” when there are virtually no opportunities to work within the prison system in CA?

    Secondly, I wonder if the death penalty was done away with, how much effort would be put into making sure the innocent are not convicted? It is so much easier to look the other way in regard to wrongful convictions, when the worst sentence that can be given is life without parole…

  2. David M. Greenwald

    “Secondly, I wonder if the death penalty was done away with, how much effort would be put into making sure the innocent are not convicted?”

    I don’t think the innocence project would shut down if the death penalty were abolished. I wonder how many exonerations are from death sentences versus other sentences?

  3. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]I don’t think the innocence project would shut down if the death penalty were abolished. I wonder how many exonerations are from death sentences versus other sentences?[/quote]

    That would be good information to know… I just worry that doing away with the death penalty (which I favor) will come at the cost of complacency as to innocence or guilt…

  4. David M. Greenwald

    I don’t think it would, I know how devastating it is to families who believe their loved one has been wrongly convicted. I mean, Ajay Dev is a good example, he was not sentenced to death, but his family has still been fighting to get him exonerated.

  5. David M. Greenwald

    Also, there are cases whether those locked away who were later released have never been the same, and others like Tim Cole, who was not sentenced to death, nevertheless died in Prison.

  6. David M. Greenwald

    Good find, so that really answer the question right there. The vast majority of exonerations were done on non-death penalty cases.

  7. jimt

    Like many people, the one thing that nags at me about the death penalty is the slim but finite possibility of executing someone who in fact did not commit the crime (innocent).

    As Armstrong and Getty have lightly suggested; might we construct a new “superguilty” standard?
    Not just guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but guilty beyond ANY doubt (e.g. surveillance cameras recording the crime act and the perp, multiple eyewitnesses, unambiguous forensic evidence, etc.).

    I wonder if any countries around the globe have such a separate category?
    Would needed alterations in the jurisprudence process be too radical to make this practical in the USA; perhaps raising more problems than it solves?

  8. E Roberts Musser

    To jimt: A standard of beyond any doubt would result in no convictions, period. I’m not sure that is a better alternative. Our current standard is probably fine – provided all sides follow the law. The problem is that there are too many ways for both prosecution and defense to skirt the spirit of the law for self-serving reasons… I suspect what we really need is better standards of evidence gathering…

  9. Fight Against Injustice

    I do agree with Elaine that there are too many ways for prosecutors and defense to skirt the spirit of the law for self-serving reasons. I think it would help tremendously if lawyers were held accountable when they knowingly break the law. If a lawyer purposely withholds evidence and/or knowingly lies about the evidence, they should be liable for lawsuit or perjury.

    If the jury is supposed to find the truth of the matter in a court case, then the lawyers should not be allowed to lie about the evidence to the jury. When a person’s life is at stake, honesty should be required.

  10. medwoman

    “when a person’s life is at stake, honesty should be required.”

    I Would take this much further. Honesty should be required in all judicial proceedings. How can one have a “justice system” when all the officials involved are not held to the strictest code of ethics and honesty ? Elaine, I appreciated your previous information to me on the issue of prosecutorial immunity and will stand by my impression that we allow for far too mech leeway in the area of police and prosecutorial discretion in their efforts to obtain convictions as opposed to seeking the truth with a goal of justice.

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