Cabana’s prison legacy was humanity

Published 1:03 pm Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Former Mississippi Corrections Commissioner and Parchman Penitentiary warden Donald Cabana, who died last week at age 67, was a man of conflicted conscience and deep integrity.

His legacy should be that of a man who brought decency, humanity and progressive thinking to the operation of Mississippi’s historically notorious Delta prison and whose personal conflicts over the death penalty forced others to reflect honestly about their own opinions.

As a journalist, I covered four executions at Parchman and from a broader sense wrote about issues of crime and punishment in Mississippi ranging from the late former U.S. District Judge William Keady’s decades-long crusade to reform Mississippi’s prison system that began with his 1972 ruling in the case of Gates v. Collier.

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I’ve also written about the impacts of mandatory minimum sentences on the spiraling costs of operating the state corrections system and of the long ascent of current Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps from a corrections officer to leading the agency.

In the process, I saw Parchman’s old Maximum Security Unit and Death Row before all of the Gates case reforms had been implemented. I interviewed death row inmates and lifers. I examined the gas chamber before it was retired in favor of lethal injection.

Like Cabana, I witnessed executions — which brought me into contact with the families of the victims of violent crime and with the families of the condemned inmates.

One of those executions I covered was that of Edward Earl Johnson of Leake County on May 20, 1987. Johnson was sentenced to death for the murder of Walnut Grove town marshal Jake Trest and the sexual assault of an elderly woman. Johnson’s death was the subject of a BBC documentary film called “Fourteen Days in May” in which British lawyer and death penalty opponent Clive Stafford Smith argued that Johnson was innocent and had been framed.

I came to know Cabana during the time leading up to the Johnson execution. He was a remarkably forthcoming prison warden — in many ways like Epps in that he didn’t dodge difficult questions and that he allowed himself to come to know the Death Row inmates as people rather than numbers.

Cabana saw in Johnson an unusual calm. In an interview with British artist Claire Phillips, Cabana would say:

“In the case of Edward Earl Johnson, because he insisted on his innocence and prison officials are used to hearing that all the time. But where a death row prisoner’s concerned, once they, they know they’re gonna be executed… they will say that in their way ‘warden, would you apologize to the victim’s family for me’ or, ‘tell my momma I’m sorry’. But in Edward’s case, you know, he, when I asked him if he had any final words, his statement was, ‘I’m innocent. I haven’t been able to make anybody listen to me or believe me, and warden, you know, in a few minutes you’re about to become a murderer’.”

Cabana went on to tell the artist that at the final moment, he offered Johnson a last chance to “confess” his crime and make peace with God.

Johnson told Cabana: “‘Warden, I’m at peace with my God, how are you gonna be with yours?’ And, I walked out of that chamber convinced that he was innocent, I really did.”

Two months later, Cabana had to preside over the execution of Connie Ray Evans. That encounter brought Cabana to the emotional and moral crossroads and he realized that he no longer could be part of the state’s death penalty administration.

Cabana’s death penalty conversion was controversial, but to those who knew him, it was in keeping with Don’s intellect, his morality and his Christianity. When I covered the last execution of my career, I thought long and hard about Cabana’s musings.