It was the late 70s, and Kathleen Dennehy was working at Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord, the oldest running men's prison in the state. Opened in 1878, it has a vault filled with corrections records dating back to the turn of the century, both from the now-demolished state prison that preceded it and from MCI-Concord's prison cemetery. The weathered papers include death certificates, sentencing documents, and other records, including those of Sacco and Vanzetti, the famous 20s anarchists ostensibly sentenced to death for first-degree murder, but whose larger crime was being Italian.
But one particular document—from the early 1900s, she estimates—caught her eye. "The wording was so unusual," says Dennehy, who now works for the National Council on Crime & Delinquency. "It was for a prisoner who had died in custody at the old state prison, and next to 'cause of death', it read 'judicial homicide.'"
It's a telling turn of phrase. Sometime during the 20th century—historical sources disagree as to the exact year—the term "capital punishment" entered American legal parlance, and with it a sanitized rebranding of state-sanctioned killings. Dennehy had never heard the term “judicial homicide” used before encountering it in the vault, nor—during her 30-year career in corrections that followed—did she hear it used again. Taken separately, the words "capital" and "punishment" are both qualifiers for the condemned, but "judicial homicide" points to someone else entirely. It's the guard standing at the door to the death chamber, the strap-down team member holding the prisoner's ankles, and the physician inserting the needle. It's the people who walk into the death chamber and walk back out, and sure, their task is judicial. But just because we call it "punishment" now, does it affect their psyches any less than when we called it "homicide”?