Watching Death

Missouri’s first execution in 17 months is Wednesday morning. We’ll be sending Jessica Machetta to cover it. She has never covered an execution. Neither has our newest reporter, Ryan Famuliner. Brent Martin and Bob Priddy have made melancholy journeys to prisons in eastern Missouri more than 25 times between them to serve as media witnesses.

Brent remarked a few weeks ago that he gets more questions as a reporter about covering executions than anything else he’s ever covered–and that includes the 1993 floods that he covered while working in St. Joseph, one of the biggest targets of the Missouri River that year.

We cover executions because we represent the people of Missouri in whose name this most severe criminal penalty is administered. We cover executions because the inmates have committed crimes in all parts of the state and the people we serve in those areas have a particular interest in the conclusion of this local tragedy that happened so many years ago.

We don’t cover them because we want to. We cover them because we have to.

Every time the state of Missouri inflicts its most severe penalty on one of its residents, the Missourinet is there. Reporters from the Associated Press and the Missourinet, Missouri’s only two true statewide news organizations, are the only reporters that have covered every execution since lethal injection was legalized, beginning with George (Tiny) Mercer whose execution was covered by Dan McPherson on January 6, 1989 through the most recent execution, that of Dennis Skillicorn, executed May 20, 2009, which I covered. The Missourinet has covered 67 of the 106 executions since the state took over executions from counties in 1938. Our reporters have covered executions at three penitentiaries. I have covered the executions of 16 people who committed at least 25 murders. Brent has covered at least ten.

Executions today are done at the state penitentiary in Bonne Terre, a drive of about two hours from Jefferson City. Missourinet reporters usually arrive at the motel between 7-9 p.m. They are expected at the prison, a short drive through the small town, about 10 p.m. Executions are scheduled for 12:01 a.m. because the Supreme Court’s execution warrant establishes the date of the execution but does not specify a particular time. By scheduling the execution for 12:01, the state has 24 hours to perform the procedure, an amount of time that usually lets the court system deal with any last-minute appeals.

The Missourinet attracted international attention with the Skillicorn execution by becoming (as far as we know) the first news organization to twitter an execution. Our twitter messages gave readers a minute-by-minute account of the procedure.

Reporters who gather in the press area of the prison are usually escorted with other public witnesses about 11 a holding area well inside the prison. The witnesses for the person being executed gather in another area. Witnesses on behalf of witnesses are taken to a third area. We are allowed to take notebooks and pens and a paperback book to read if we wish while we wait to be taken to the execution area. We may not take cell phones, cameras, or recorders (audio or video) with us.

About 11:15, Corrections Department officials brief us on the procedure we are about to witness, outlining how drugs will be administered and what each drug does. We are given a chance to ask any questions but usually don’t have any because we’ve been through this before and because we’ve already checked with the department spokesman on whether the inmate has had a shot of Versed—a sedative—and whether he has met with his spiritual advisor. We check to see if there will be family members of the inmate and the victim present and whether any of those people will be available after the event for comment.

About 11:45 we move to another area of the prison and take our witness seats. We are on one side of the execution chamber, which is not visible because there are curtains closed over the windows. Seconds before or perhaps simultaneously with the start of the first drug injection, the curtains are opened and we can see the inmate on the gurney in the execution chamber. We are on his right. His chosen witnesses are on his left, and the witnesses on behalf of the victim are in a third area to our right so that he can see them if he raises his head and looks past his feet. Walls separate the three areas. Depending on the reflection of the lights in the glass we might or might not be able to see the people in the other two areas. We can hear them although there is little to hear. Sometimes we can hear the sobs of the inmate’s witnesses as he dies.

A corrections department official wearing a headset is told from the injection room when each drug begins to flow. We can usually see the tubes that go from the inmate’s arm through openings in the wall to the syringes that are concealed behind the wall at his head. I usually keep a close eye on my watch to jot down the times each drug begins and to jot down the time of death—although the department also keeps track and tells us later the official times including the time the inmate is pronounced dead.

The inmate might look our way briefly but usually spends his last seconds looking at friends and family to his left. We cannot hear anything he says and his witnesses usually mouth such things as, “I love you,” or use sign language to send him final messages as he loses consciousness. He cannot gesture because he is tightly strapped down and can only move his head and his feet. During the injection of the first drug that renders him unconscious he lowers his head to the pillow and appears to go to sleep. Occasionally he coughs once or twice as his lungs shut down but otherwise there is no movement. Usually he is pronounced dead within six to ten minutes. Forget the drama of “Dead Man Walking” or of “The Green Mile.” The most common word used to describe Missouri’s process is “clinical.”

Upon pronouncement of his death, the curtains are closed and we are directed out. We sign the forms as witnesses and head back to the press area where the press person reads us the times and reads and distributes printed copies of any final statements if there are any. The Director of Corrections answers any questions. We interview victim and inmate witnesses if they want to talk to us and then leave.

The prison does not (or did not in May, 2009) have wi-fi, so we cannot file from there. We return to the motel, process our sound, file our stories, twitter, make special phone calls to affiliates wanting special feeds of the event, and with luck are in bed by 3:30 or 4 a.m. Sometimes we are up at 6 or 7 to do call-in shows for affiliates. We usually get out of bed about 10 or 10:30, check out, and come back to Jefferson City to work an afternoon shift.

Those are the mechanics of the event. I didn’t include the pervasive smell of Lysol inside the prison, the dark and often cool or cold walk from the waiting room across part of the prison yard to the execution chamber, the silence in the execution room before the curtains are pulled, and the low hushed voices we find ourselves using when we come back to the press room. These people who are executed might be the scum of the earth who deserve no sympathy. But witnessing death, even to people like that, is an intensely sobering experience and a reminder of a lot of things we don’t often think about or want to think about in our daily lives.

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