Paul Steele, a professor of corrections sociology at UNM, says he has visited prisons, walked the corridors of psychiatric wards, sat in electric chairs and stood in gas chambers in an attempt to gain an understanding of his field.
Tonight in Santa Fe, Steele will be a witness in the execution of Terry Clark, who was found guilty of abducting, raping and murdering 9-year-old Dena Lynn Gore of Artesia in 1986. Clark's execution, scheduled for 7 p.m., will be the first in New Mexico in 41 years.
"This isn't thrill seeking on my part," Steele said. "It's one thing to talk about these things in the abstract and it's another to come a little closer to the event."
Steele was part of a committee that investigated the Santa Fe prison riots in 1980 that left 33 people dead.
"This is another historical event in the history of criminal justice in New Mexico, and I thought it would have some educational value for my students," he said. "As a sociologist it is something worth chronicling."
He said he plans to study the execution process as well as its impact on the family members, judge, arresting officer and protesters.
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Steele said Secretary of Corrections Robert Perry probably asked him to be a witness because he represents the academic criminology community and is the director of the New Mexico Criminal Justice Statistical Analysis Center.
He said he isn't nervous about watching the lethal injection but understands the seriousness of the event.
"Mr. Clark is going to have a lot of oral tranquilizers and medicine," he said. "There is going to be very little indication of his death as it occurs. People will be experiencing his death in their own minds."
Steele said one of the most popular arguments for the death penalty is that of retribution.
"It seems to fit a lot of people's notion of justice," he said.
He said another argument for the death penalty is that it is a crime deterrent.
"The research on this is very inconsistent," he said.
Some believe that killing the offender gives the victim's family closure, he said.
"Hopefully we could find a better way to help those people than waiting 15 years," Steele said, adding that counseling and support services should be provided to help victims' families.
He said executing people can cost more than keeping them in prison for the rest of their lives, due to court appeals and legal fees.
"My guess is that the whole thing is more expensive to put them to death than to keep them alive," Steele said, adding that the quality of legal representation, life span and where a person is held for life are factors in the cost.
Steele said he did not wish to give his opinion on the death penalty because he doesn't want his biases to influence his students.
"It's important in my classes for students to feel they can maintain their own position," he said. "What I would like them to be able to do is make a more reasoned argument."
Ian Stoner, a philosophy graduate student at UNM, said he is opposed to the death penalty in all cases.
"It just doesn't seem rational to condemn killing by killing," he said. "Even in a case where there is no uncertainty about the crime, it still seems like a flawed thing to do."
He said that the death penalty argument always boils down to revenge.
"Revenge just doesn't seem like what you should be basing your prison or judicial system on," he said.
Stoner said that although he doesn't believe in the death penalty, he would be a witness to the execution if presented with the opportunity.
"I think I would, just to have more information on the topic, to have at least some element of personal experience with it," he said.
Steele said people tend to focus too much on the death penalty and not enough on addressing how to prevent less severe, but more frequent crimes.
"In that way, the debate about it becomes somewhat of a distraction," he said.
Steele said less than one tenth of a percent of the nation's prison population is executed.
"We don't control prison populations with the death penalty - surely not," he said.