Anyone who has witnessed an execution never forgets it. The memory of August (Boogie Woogie) LaFontaine’s death by lethal gas, pushed far back into the darkest shadows of my mind, came to light again with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement of his moratorium on the state’s death penalty, an action taken in four states in recent years.
By Gregory Favre
Gregory Favre, the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news for the McClatchy Company, is a CALmatters board member, firstname.lastname@example.org. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters. Read Favre’s recent essays here, here, here and here.
He was in his early twenties. I was three years younger.
He was calm. I wasn’t.
He was going to die in two hours. I was going to fly home to write about his death.
His name was August (Boogie Woogie) LaFontaine. He was from my hometown, Bay St. Louis, Miss.
There is so much I can’t recall from that day six decades ago, but I do know we talked about August’s re-embrace of his Catholic religion and his conversations with Father Paul, about what he wanted his family and friends to know, about what he faced just ahead.
And about the fight in which he killed another inmate, a crime that in some other court or at some other time might not have resulted in this outcome.
We both would soon be walking through death row at Parchman Farm, the state prison, where at that moment six other men, five black, one white, awaited the same destiny.
Some, or all, would soon start singing the classic spiritual “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home” when they saw August for the final time.
And Boogie, as he was called in prison, would shake hands with each man telling them to “take it easy. I will see you in a little while. Hold the place down.”
This memory, which I have pushed far back into the darkest shadows of my mind, came to light again with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement of his moratorium on the state’s death penalty, an action taken in four states in recent years.
But it was also an action that runs counter to the 2016 vote by Californians to maintain the death penalty, and by a slimmer margin to speed up the executions.
Twenty states have abolished the death penalty, but that has not dampened the impassioned debate that persists between people who agree and those who disagree.
Is the death penalty a deterrent? Even if we have the legal right to execute someone do we have the moral right to do so? If you deliberately take a life should or shouldn’t you forfeit your own? Is or isn’t life in prison without parole appropriate punishment?
What about the mothers and fathers, spouses and brothers and sisters, other relatives and friends who will not be able to see the victims again? Not be able to tell them they love them, or hug them, or share a laugh with them? What about those crimes that are so inhuman that vengeance seems to be the only way to help ease the pain?
Or what about the racial disparities among those who are convicted and dealt the death penalty, or those with severe mental health problems? What about, as Newsom cited, the percentage of those who will be executed even though they are innocent of the crime? And what if you had the power to correct those errors and didn’t use it?
I could see the gas chamber several steps away, so could August and Father Paul, small windows on the sides where we witnesses would view the final act of this tragic story.
None of us really wanted to be there. The prison superintendent said, “I don’t cherish watching these executions.” The Highway Patrol colonel said, “I am here because the government ordered me here for security’s sake.”
Father Paul administered the late rites and August prayed in private, grasping the rosary beads the priest had given him. The chamber was sealed, the cyanide pellets dropped, August inhaled the deadly gas. His body went limp, and then it started shaking. After the chamber had been cleansed, he was declared dead 21 minutes later.
And with the news came the sound of a song from death row: “When the saints go marching in.”
August LaFontaine died believing God had forgiven him.