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The Executioner's Song 

Job's not all it's cracked up to be

click to enlarge Wayne Patterson pulled the lever on Luis Jose Monge the last time Colorado used the gas chamber, in 1967.
  • Wayne Patterson pulled the lever on Luis Jose Monge the last time Colorado used the gas chamber, in 1967.

For 10 years, Wayne Patterson was the last man to have legally killed someone in the United States.

As the warden of the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City, Patterson on June 2, 1967, pulled the lever that released gas into the prison's death chamber, killing Luis Jose Monge. A native of Puerto Rico, Monge had been convicted of killing his wife and three of their children after his wife discovered he'd had an incestuous relationship with one of their daughters.

"It was a terrible experience," Patterson recalled of the execution.

Patterson opposed the death penalty at the time. He still does.

"I was against it for no particular reason, I guess, other than moral feelings," said Patterson, 87, who still lives in Cañon City. "I guess it had to do with my mother's religion. My mother taught that only the Divine was the entity that decided life or death."

After Monge's death, no one else would be executed in the United States until Gary Gilmore was shot by a Utah firing squad in 1977. The only subsequent execution in Colorado was that of Gary Davis, who was killed by lethal injection in 1997.

The warden's duty

A longtime law-enforcement professional, Patterson took the job as warden at Cañon City in 1965, knowing he'd be responsible for executing prisoners. "If you want to be the warden, you do the warden's duty.,"he said.

In 1966, the year before Patterson pulled the lever on Monge, the people of Colorado had voted in a referendum to continue using the death penalty.

"The referendum was the will of the people," Patterson said. "If you voted for it, you had your hand on that lever just as much as I did."

Patterson never had to execute anyone besides Monge. His other death-row inmates had their sentences commuted to life when the U.S. Supreme Court found the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972. By the time the court agreed to let states resume executions in 1976, Patterson had taken a job with the Denver Sheriff's Department.

Patterson wasn't the first Cañon City warden to oppose capital punishment. His predecessor, Harry Tinsley, advocated for abolition and would get sick every time he had to kill someone.

"Harry Tinsley died a thousand deaths each time," Patterson said. "He went to bed ill."

Half a century before Patterson's tenure, warden Thomas Tynan had also believed in abolition and would flat out refuse to participate in executions.

Stomp you like an ant

It's no surprise that wardens have opposed the death penalty, Patterson says. They would get to know the death-row prisoners and see them as human beings.

"You become acquainted with them," Patterson said. "Now, you're gonna kill them? It isn't very pleasant."

It was also evident to Patterson that the justice system didn't single out the worst criminals for execution.

"I know, personally, of so many people that are so depraved, they would stomp you out like an ant on the floor if they got the chance," Patterson said. But those weren't the ones who got executed, he says. They were either too smart to get caught, or rich enough to hire good lawyers.

"Monge was a guilt-ridden man who was nearly suicidal before he was executed," Patterson recalled. "Those were the [kind of] guys who were executed -- not the people I thought belonged in the chamber."

And Patterson doesn't believe the death penalty is a deterrent against crime. If that were the case, he asks, why would his prisoners sometimes kill each other?

"I've had murders in the shadow of the gas chamber," Patterson recalled. "They don't think about it."

One in 35

Patterson agrees with CU-Boulder Professor Mike Radelet, who argues that the history of the death penalty in Colorado indicates a long-term trend toward abolition. He notes that the state has executed only one person in the past 35 years.

"Colorado likes to have the law on the books, but they don't want to use it," Patterson said. "There was 30 years between executions -- what does that tell you?"

Another piece of evidence, he says, is that the state keeps trying to make executions more "humane" by using less painful methods.

While that might cure some people's unease about the death penalty, it's a sham, Patterson says.

"No execution is any more humane than any other," he said. "You're dead when it's over."

  • Job's not all it's cracked up to be

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