Semon Frank Thompson filled a syringe with water, knowing — if this weren't just a job training — he'd be moments away from killing someone.

"I can remember this feeling," he explains of his time working in an Oregon prison. "Like, this just doesn’t make sense.”

At the time, Thompson believed in the death penalty. As a young black man growing up in the segregated South, he remembered the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a black teenager who was murdered at the hands of white supremacists for daring to flirt with a white woman.


Thompson, like many in his community, wanted justice for Till's killers. And capital punishment seemed like the only way to achieve it.

A photo of Emmett Till on the plaque that marks his grave in Illinois. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Years later — as the superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, filling up that syringe during a training session on lethal injection — Thompson found himself in charge of death.

Administering death sentences was part of his job description.

As superintendent, Thompson was trained to carry out capital punishment at the facility. In his time there, he only carried out two death sentences, but it was enough to change his mind about the procedure forever.

For Thompson, abolishing the death penalty isn't just the moral thing to do — it will prevent further injustice from unfolding.

Most people on death row have done horrific things and committed unspeakable crimes. But to Thompson, who now travels across the country speaking out against the death penalty from his unique perspective, capital punishment fails to make our communities any safer. And evidence backs him up.

Research has yet to find any substantial data suggesting the death penalty deters crime, a 2014 report from The Washington Post noted. In fact, violent crime has generally fallen since 1990, even as more states have implemented bans and placed moratoriums on the death penalty.

On the other hand, the death penalty has certainly taken innocent lives. In the U.S., more than 150 people have been exonerated while on death row since 1976. In that time, a staggering 1,400 people have been executed. It makes you wonder: How many people of those 1,400 were innocent?

“There’s a surreal feeling about sitting down and looking at a human being and talking to them about what I plan to do to them," he said. "I realized that I — at my very, very core — felt that the death penalty was wrong.”

Watch Thompson's story about how his time working at the Oregon State Penitentiary inspired him to devote his life to saving others':

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