By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Editor’s note: Ralph De La Cruz’s related story about Ana Maria Cardona.

In 1996, I witnessed an execution.

It wasn’t the first death I had seen. Nor the last. But it stayed with me in ways no other death has.

And it changed me, although not how I might have expected.

I watched a man named William Bonin executed in California. Called “The Freeway Killer” (he would dump bodies out of his van as he traveled freeways), he was a monster who sodomized and murdered 14 teen boys. Bonin would finish off victims by strangling them. Their death throes were how he climaxed sexually

Bonin later confided to a TV reporter that he had actually killed 16. He said in prison that if he hadn’t been caught he’d still be torturing and killing boys.

I walked into San Quentin Prison the day of his execution as a lifelong opponent of capital punishment. The person who would argue through the night: I don’t want anyone killed in my name.

But 13 hours later, I left San Quentin Prison as a proponent of capital punishment — at least in cases such as Bonin’s, where there’s no question of guilt.

I give you my capital punishment resume because executions are personal. It’s not a bomb that’s been dropped in Afghanistan. Or a drive-by gang shooting. Something distant and random.

An execution is a deliberate, carefully crafted way to kill those among us who we feel are too dangerous to keep around. It’s a killing carried out in my name and yours.

And you might be OK with that. I was that night in San Quentin.

But being OK with it is has a lot to do with feeling confident in the process, in the reliability of identifying those “who we feel are too dangerous.”

The problem is, it turns out that the process hasn’t been so reliable.

The standard for Illinois Gov. George Ryan in 2000 was, “Until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection.” Using that yardstick, Ryan placed a moratorium on executions. And New Jersey’s legislature did the same in 2006.

As The New York Times pointed out, even Florida suspended executions for a time.