Exclusive interview with the former executioner at San Quentin prison

I spoke to Dan Vasquez, the former warden at the notorious California prison, read the story here.

Without any experience or medical training, Dan Vasquez was employed by the government to kill other human beings.

As warden of San Quentin, one of the most notorious prisons in the world, put inmates to death in the gas chamber – known by his staff and those on death row as the ‘coughing box’.

The day before an execution he would bring in a psychologist to help his team prepare to watch a condemned criminal die, in a bid to avoid post-traumatic stress.

Then, just hours later, he would ask the prisoner for his last words as he was strapped into a chair inside a tiny metal green room.

Then he would start the chemical reaction that has been deemed the most dangerous and expensive way to kill an inmate.

Vasquez insists he was never fazed by putting an inmate to death, as it was his job.

In his first interview since stepping down as California’s state executioner, Vasquez has told Daily Mail Online his role as California’s state executioner has never haunted him.

For more than 30 years he has been involved in the death penalty, either carrying it out or testifying as a consultant at capital murder trials.

The grandfather-of-two also believes in an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ when it comes to the death penalty – that condemned inmates should be killed in the same manner they killed their victims

A controversial policy like that, he believes, would send a strong message to would-be criminals and act as a deterrent,

‘In my opinion, if you want to stop human beings killing other human beings when you execute the first person in the manner that they killed their victim.

‘I think it would get rid of the need for the death penalty.

‘For example, if I rape a woman and strangle her, then they would rape and strangle me.’

‘If that happened, maybe other people would get the message of murder under special circumstances.

‘I shoot you to death, then maybe I should be executed by being shot.

‘It should be an eye-for-an-eye. If it’s done that way, I guarantee you that you are going to go a long way to stopping the criminal offense of killing another person.

‘If I stab you to death and cut you into pieces, maybe I should be stabbed and cut into pieces.’

Vasquez is a father-of-two who has been married for 51 years to wife Juanita.

As warden at San Quentin, Vasquez was the state executioner between 1983 and 1993.

For the first nine years, he didn’t put any inmates to death, as the 1976 US Supreme Court decision of Gregg v. Georgia had put a moratorium on the death penalty.

But when it was lifted, he carried out the first execution in San Quentin for almost 25 years.

‘I knew it was part of the job.

A chemical engineer would have tested the lethal gas to make sure it was toxic enough to kill the inmate

The inmate would face his fate inside the tiny metal green room known as the 'coughing box'

A chemical engineer would have tested the lethal gas to make sure it was toxic enough to kill the inmate, who would face his fate inside the tiny metal green room known as the ‘coughing box’

‘I prepared for it by preparing the procedure and putting it all together.

‘I made sure the gas chamber was working, made sure maintenance was done on it. I prepared in that manner.

‘I also practiced in running the lethal gas. We had a chemical engineer from Indiana who would come in and measure the toxicity of the lethal gas inside the chamber.’

The first person he put to death was Robert Alton Harris, who killed two teenage boys in San Diego in 1978. He was originally scheduled at 12.01am on April 21, 1992, but stays meant his death was delayed for six hours

‘I didn’t receive any training, but I prepared myself. I didn’t need the department to help me with anything.’

He killed two inmates by lethal gas – Robert Alton Harris and David Edwin Mason.

The gas chamber was never as popular as the electric chair in the United States but was used widely in Arizona, Wyoming, Missouri, Mississippi, and California.

Still, it was considered the most expensive and most dangerous way to kill an inmate.

The prisoner, strapped into a metal chair inside a tiny chamber, waits as potassium cyanide pellets are dropped into a bath of sulfuric acid below. The chemical reaction would generate fumes of lethal hydrogen cyanide.

As a result, the inmate would then suffer terribly before dying of hypoxia, a form of oxygen starvation

Harris, who killed two teenage boys in San Diego in 1978, was originally scheduled at 12.01am on April 21, 1992.

He finished his last meal – a 21-piece bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, two large Domino’s pizzas, a bag of jelly beans, a six-pack of Pepsi, and a pack of Camel cigarettes – before he was led into the death chamber.

But a series of four stays of execution issued by 9th circuit appeal court delayed the execution until just after 6am.

At one point he was strapped into his seat in the gas chamber when the phone rang. According to witnesses, he urged the prison guards to get over and done with, but they couldn’t.

Moments later, the guards opened the doors and Alton Harris became the first prisoner to leave the gas chamber at San Quentin alive – even if it was for just a short time.

Aside from the delays execution was however remembered for his bizarre choice of last words:

He said: ‘You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everybody dances with the grim reaper,’ a misquotation of a line from the 1991 film Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.

Vasquez said he was frustrated by the constant delays, but when it came to it, the prisoner was killed without an issue.

David Edwin Mason, who murdered four elderly people in 1980 and his cellmate in 1982, would be the last person in California to be put to death by lethal gas.

His execution was far smoother, as he kept his vow not to go through any final appeals.

Instead of having a traditional last meal, he instead opted to dine with his family on sandwiches provided by the prison.

He finished his last meal – a 21-piece bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, two large Domino’s pizzas, a bag of jelly beans, a six-pack of Pepsi, and a pack of Camel cigarettes – before he was led into the death chamber. Vasquez said he was frustrated by the constant delays, but when it came to it, the prisoner was killed without an issue

When Mason was in the chamber, Vasquez asked if he wanted to proceed, knowing that his attorney could stop the execution at any time.

But Mason refused.

He died on August 24, 1993, 12 months before a federal judge said the execution method constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

It would be the last execution Vasquez carried out, but a year later he was invited to watch the lethal injection procedure in Texas.

Despite his involvement in the controversial system, Vasquez insists capital punishment hasn’t had a damaging impact on his life.

‘They don’t haunt me. I didn’t put the inmates on the row, they put themselves on their with their actions.

‘I have never received any complaints from my execution team nor from the department of corrections in California.

‘I have never received any kind of disability initiation for participating in the executions.

‘It hasn’t affected my life at all.’

Capital punishment in the United States is still frequently part of political debates. Recently, Virginia’s legislature said they were bringing back the electric chair as a backup way to kill inmates.

Vasquez says it will never happen because of the courts, but insists he is still for capital punishment.

‘I’m for the executions. I would be a hypocrite if I wasn’t’.

But he does believe that a sentence of life without parole is more punishment than an execution.

‘In California, there hasn’t been an execution in ten years. It is held up in the courts right now.

‘The policy of the state of California is the death penalty.

‘The citizens of the state of California have been asked on three different occasions on a ballot if they wanted to do away with capital punishment in California.

‘Three times they have voted for the death penalty. I don’t have any problems with the death penalty. But I don’t have any problems with life without the possibility of parole either.’

San Quentin State Prison, pictured above in 2015, opened in 1852 and is the oldest prison in California. The facility is located across the bay from San Francisco

A quarter of condemned inmates in the United States currently sit on death row in California.

Now, it has been lifted, and some of the 764 rapists, murderers, and kidnappers on death row are facing their sentence.

Seven have been there since the 1970s.

It could be at least a year until California puts another inmate to death, but Vasquez thinks the questions surrounding the death penalty will prevail, and will never be answered.

‘Attorneys are always raising issues. It’s like the question a philosopher once posed: ‘How many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

‘It is a question that can never be answered but is a question that will always exist.

‘Does it hurt when they execute you? How many angels dance on the head of a pin?’

Now, Vasquez is a consultant and still has a role in the whole execution process.

He said: ‘When your watch is over at San Quentin then you don’t do anymore executions.

‘Now the closest I get to any issue of executions is when I testify in the penalty phase of a capital trial in California.

‘What that requires is for me to educate the jury that is going to make the decision on an inmate who has been charged with a capital crime.

‘Whether to sentence them to death or sentence them to life without the possibility of parole.’

He explains to the jury what prisons in the California state system are like, and how life without parole will impact a prisoner.

‘The defense usually hired me,’ he added. ‘It does not involve pros or cons. It only involves educating the jury on all the policies involved in incarcerating a prisoner’

Vasquez also does a variety of consulting on prisons. He has testified on death in custody, either by suicide or at the hands of the prison guards.

He has also been involved in informing prisons on how to avoid escapes.

In January, four inmates managed to flee the Orange County Central Jail through the roof.

They went on the run for almost a week before they were spotted and captured.

Vasquez slammed the prison, claiming their regime, the decision to lock the criminals together and the fact they left so long between headcounts, was the cause of their escape.

San Quentin state prison has California's only death row for male inmates, though there hasn't been an execution in the state in ten years

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