Obituary: Donald A. Cabana / Warden loathed death penalty, used forums to decry practice

Oct. 29, 1945 - Oct. 7, 2013

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The first time Donald A. Cabana saw the gas chamber at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, in 1971, he was invited to sit inside it. He was 25 years old, had only brief experience as a corrections officer and was on a tour of the place -- better known as Parchman Farm -- hoping to work there one day. Certainly he did not envision himself as its future warden.

Nor did he imagine that he would preside over executions there -- experiences that would transform him into an eloquent opponent of capital punishment. Known as a tough warden but not a ruthless one and a man with an active conscience, Mr. Cabana was the antithesis of the cruel, power-hungry, vindictive prison official of cliche. On that afternoon in 1971, in his first glimpse of the gas chamber, the seeds of his ambivalence had already been planted.

"Our guide invited me to occupy the chair, explaining that many of those who toured the prison wanted to experience sitting in it," Mr. Cabana wrote in his 1998 memoir, "Death at Midnight: The Confession of an Executioner." "How odd some people are, I thought, that they should be so attracted to the macabre. I politely declined the offer. The death chamber was filled with ghosts."

He added, "I shuddered at the thought of the terrible struggles and horrific events that had taken place there."

Mr. Cabana was 67 when he died of an intestinal infection Oct. 7 in Hattiesburg, Miss., his daughter, Kristin Fitzgerald, said. He had worked for more than 25 years in prisons in Massachusetts, Florida and Missouri as well as Mississippi. But he left corrections work for academic life in the early 1990s, largely because of his distaste for the death penalty.

Since then he had spent time in classrooms, at public forums and in a statehouse or two decrying capital punishment as an ineffectual deterrent to crime, an expensive burden for taxpayers and an inhumane form of punishment, not only for the men and women who face execution but also for those who carry it out.

In one public event, in 1995, he testified before the Judiciary Committee of the Minnesota Legislature. The state had banned capital punishment in 1911 but was considering reinstating it.

Mr. Cabana said he had overseen the executions of three men at Parchman. The first was Edward Earl Johnson, who had been convicted of killing a police officer.

"He insisted to the very end, somewhat oddly, that he did not commit the crime," Mr. Cabana told the legislators. "It is not unusual for death row inmates to deny that they have committed their crimes, and yet we find that odd, we let it anger us sometimes, but if you're pursuing appeals you're hardly in a position to go out and confess your worst kinds of actions.

"But in the end," he went on, "my experience with condemned prisoners was always that once strapped to the chair, they came around somehow with something, if only something simple as 'Tell the victim's family I'm sorry,' 'Tell my mother I'm sorry,' something that indicated something bad had happened, I was there and I was part of it.

"But not so with this young man. When I performed my ritualistic function of asking if he had a final public statement, this young man looked me in the eye with tears streaming down his cheeks, and he said, 'Warden, you're about to become a murderer. I did not kill that policeman, and, dear God, I can't make anyone believe me.'"

Mr. Cabana continued: "Well, you know, we read about that sort of thing, and of course the average person who reads that, the average legislator probably who reads that, says, 'Well, what do you expect him to say?' I must tell you that four days ago I had a rather gut-wrenching meeting with a former high official who is now convinced the young man was, in fact, telling the truth. And I must say to you that however we do it, in the name of justice, in the name of law and order, in the name of retribution, you -- and when I say you, I mean, generically, Americans -- do not have the right to ask me, or any prison official, to bloody my hands with an innocent person's blood."

A Northerner who suffered the affectionate derision of his family for that fact, Mr. Cabana was born in Lowell, Mass., on Oct. 29, 1945. His birth name was Dominic Arturo Spinelli, but he was in foster care from infancy and eventually adopted by his foster parents, Samuel Cabana, a shipping clerk, and his wife, Dorothy. They named him Donald Anthony Cabana.

He grew up in Easton, Mass., and attended Northeastern University in Boston before serving as an Air Force combat medic in the Vietnam War. After returning to Northeastern to complete his bachelor's degree in criminal justice, he worked as an alcohol and drug counselor and then as a guard at a state prison, Bridgewater Correctional Complex.

In a peripatetic career Cabana rose through the prison administration ranks, witnessing his first execution in Florida in 1979 -- that of John Spenkelink, whose case became a rallying point for death-penalty opponents nationwide -- and serving as assistant warden at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City before becoming warden at Parchman in 1984.

Mr. Cabana, who lived in Hattiesburg, earned a Ph.D. in 1996 at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he taught criminal justice, and founded a criminal justice program at William Carey University in Hattiesburg.

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First Published October 20, 2013 8:00 PM


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