Witness to an Execution

Impressions on the Execution of Andre Graham — 12-09-99

It wasn’t until I started home from work that it really started to hit me that, tonight, instead of watching the news and the Thursday night football game, I was going to go watch a man die. I was starting to get a little scared and thinking that maybe I was nuts for wanting to go through with this.

When I was working with behavior-disordered kids, some of whom were in the criminal justice system, I had thought it would be a valuable learning experience. Being a strong advocate of the death penalty, I had often wondered if my position would change were I to ever actually see an execution.

On this night, I was going to find out. I had an hour and a half drive to get there and plenty of time to think about what I was going to see.

The witnesses met at the State Police station in Jarrett. We introduced ourselves to each other and I learned that the official witnesses had a long history of involvement with the object of the evening’s exercise, Mr. Graham. They were a Commonwealth attorney, the man who prosecuted the case and officers or deputies who had been involved with the investigation, capture and conviction of the condemned man.

We were picked up and taken to the penitentiary by a representative of the Department of Corrections. There was joking and a little “gallows humor” on the way over which I found a little odd. A rather cold-hearted group, I thought. Once at the prison, we were taken to a holding area where the gentleman from DOC briefed us. The time was 7:35. An impressive and thorough professional, he carefully walked us through the events that were about to take place. Prior to this presentation, we had about 20 minutes to mill around and talk, drink coffee etc. I was still feeling awkward and a little nervous.

I talked to one of the law enforcement officers and he told me of his long experience with Mr. Graham; a long history of serious crimes had included involvement in “at least ten killings that we know of for sure.” I was told to make no mistake about it, this guy was, “a cold blooded killer,” and not someone who just happened to be, “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” To hear these guys talk about it, you didn’t get any sense of blood lust or mindless vengeance at work, but a strong sense of people who were here to witness someone getting what they deserved. More than one made the comment that they had seen firsthand the human destruction that was left in the wake of Mr. Graham when he was free to roam the streets.

The briefing began at 7:50, and we were joined by two reporters, one male and one female, who turned out to be somewhat annoying. From the outset, their demeanor and the tone of their comments and questions left little doubt about the contempt that they felt for the whole process of which they were a part. During the briefing we were told what kind of a day the condemned man had. His final visit was with his mother, two sisters, two brothers and a stepfather. It began at about 1 o’clock and ended at 3:02. I thought to myself that when he said his goodbyes he had less than six hours to live.

Two curious things about this briefing were the matter of fact manner in which it was conducted and the irritating manner of the comments and questions of the reporters. I remember thinking to myself that these two were proof of the liberal bias of the media. They wanted to know who the other witnesses were and if any were members of law enforcement. We had all been introduced as just “citizen witnesses.” Several times they would ask the group who they were and why they were there and at no time did I see one of the law enforcement people as much as acknowledge the question. I was asked and had no problem telling them. One seemed amazed, the other appalled that I would have volunteered to witness such an event.

A second question that seemed to obsess the male reporter was whether the prisoner was going to be given some type of drug to sedate him prior to the execution. Despite being told several times that being given a drug for that purpose was not a part of the execution process, he persisted with the question in at least 6 different versions and did everything but accuse the DOC rep of lying about it. The DOC rep never appeared irritated, even allowing the possibility that the prisoners’ physician might prescribe something to him for medical reasons. But if that were the case, DOC would not be permitted to divulge such information. That wasn’t good enough for the reporter and he seemed determined to prove his assumption that the condemned would be heavily sedated upon entering the execution chamber. Finally, our DOC man assured him that he had witnessed close to 60 executions and had never seen a condemned prisoner who wasn’t completely alert and fully aware of what was going on. I thought of the quote that there is nothing like waiting to be executed to focus your concentration. The final question along this tedious line was to the effect of, “If he is not sedated, don’t you think he should be, since this is supposed to be a humane exercise?”

It occurred to me that a good idea, and one that would have pleased the reporter, would be to institute a policy whereby condemned prisoners would be permitted to begin drinking martinis sometime before the execution – sort of a last happy hour. Liberals never seem to tire of reminding you of their superiority of character that is due to their infinite compassion. They also make it apparent the great depth of pity and contempt that they hold for those who are not so enlightened. Not surprisingly, there were no questions regarding the previous actions of Mr. Graham, which had led him to a point where he had less than an hour to live. The time was 8:15.

From this point on, things began to happen in an almost surreal manner. Events were moving rapidly but at the same time in a kind of slow motion. Prior to being frisked and loaded into the van for the short ride to the death house, (that’s what they called it) I noticed that my pulse had quickened and I had become hyper-alert to all that was going on around me.

During the ride to the maximum security area of the prison there was idle chatter among the other witnesses about the physical appearance of the prison that I thought was just weird. I personally thought it was the most eerie and depressing place I had ever seen. The bright lights, sterile buildings and miles of barbed wire made me feel as if I were on the set of some futuristic sci-fi movie.

As we pulled up to the gate, we drove past a van that was sitting just off to the side. The DOC man told us that van contained members of the victim’s family who were here to witness the execution. As he was saying this, I was looking into the van and caught sight of an older woman who appeared to be wrapped in a blanket. I have never seen the look of such sadness and pain in the face of another human being.

I ran again quickly through my mind the details of the crime for which Mr. Graham was about to pay with his life. The facts had been given to me by the prosecuting attorney just a short time ago. They were brutal and chilling. Suffice it to say that because Mr. Graham and a partner needed a car one night, a 20 year old girl and a 22 year old boy ended up laying face down in a parking lot, each with a bullet in the back of their head. The boy had somehow survived, a cripple, but the girl had now been dead for over 6 years. In the back of that van, I got a 5 second glimpse at the anguish that will probably never go away for those poor, miserable souls.

The van pulled up to the back of a small building. We entered and were searched with a metal detector and then led single file down a short hallway. A right turn, down another short hallway that led into a small room. Just before that room, on the left, was a doorway that led into a small room that we were escorted into. This room had windows running across the front of it and several rows of chairs. The first row of five chairs was up close to the glass. Elevated behind the first row was the second row of five chairs. I was the sixth one in the line so I had to take the first seat in the second row.

Before me was the unobstructed view of a small room. I was surprised at how small the area was. Almost directly in front of me, not more than ten or fifteen feet away was the gurney. The foot of the gurney was pointed in the direction of our witness room and slightly to the right. Off to my right, perhaps 15 feet from the gurney was a doorway with a clock above it. Next to the door was a man holding a red phone receiver – the direct line to the governor. Along the back of the room was stretched a blue curtain or tarpaulin, about two feet from the gurney which was perpendicular to it. There were three tiny windows in the curtain right above the head of the gurney. Three plastic tubes protruded from the curtain and extended out to the back of the gurney. My eyes also caught the sight of another large dark mirror to the right of the red phone. This was the one-way glass in front of the room from which the victim’s family would witness the execution. The time was 8: 45.

I noticed that I was sweating a little and my pulse had quickened. I was extremely alert. I remember thinking, “This is some serious shit!”

After taking our places in the witness room, the DOC man explained what was happening outside the door that the condemned man would be coming through in a few minutes. He had been kept in a holding cell just outside of that door for the last four days and was watched around the clock by guards who would be with him right up to the execution. They would explain to him what would be happening. He would be informed that barring a last minute stay of execution, this thing was going to happen and one way or another he would be strapped down to the gurney.

About 15 minutes prior to the scheduled execution, he would be handcuffed and taken out of the cell. There, the death warrant would be read to him. His attorney and a spiritual advisor would accompany him. He then would be led into the execution area. In that area, I was surprised at the number of people who were standing around. It was explained that they were DOC people, the warden, and several witnesses from the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office. There were over a dozen people coming in and out of the room and standing around. Very little talking was going on.

At precisely five minutes to nine, I noticed that everyone in the room had stopped moving around. Suddenly the door opened to my right and two very large and muscular guards walked into the room. Behind them was the prisoner and the first sight of him was the most intense moment of the entire experience. I had tried to be prepared for this moment of looking into the eyes of someone who knew that in a few minutes he would be dead. I had anticipated that I would be looking into the eyes of fear and terror or eyes of intense sorrow and regret.

The prisoner was a well-built young black man with dreadlocks, wearing jeans and a denim shirt. The only restraints on him were handcuffs and if he wore ankle bracelets I did not notice them. I was staring intently at his eyes. What I saw was a look of hatred and contempt as he deliberately looked directly into the room where we were sitting. I remember thinking that the look was one of, “Fuck you people”, as he slowly shuffled toward the gurney.

In front of him were two guards, two were at his side and two were directly behind him. They looked like they had been recruited from the WWF. After his brief glance into the witness room, he was quickly at the gurney and he turned to sit up and lay down. At that point he looked somewhat bewildered. I thought then that the DOC man was right; Mr. Graham was alert and fully aware of everything that was going on around him. As he laid himself onto the gurney, each guard was in position to begin fastening the thick leather straps to his body.

After the straps were secured, one guard walked around the gurney to check the straps while the others stood around the gurney, almost at attention. When this was done the guards exited to my left from the room. I noticed that one of the guards was obviously stressed out by the situation. As he exited the room, he was biting his lip and had the look of someone who was about to break down in tears. Other than that guard, it was striking how smoothly and efficiently this entire process was being played out. There were no awkward movements from any of the participants, no moments when someone appeared to be uncertain about what to do next.

At that point, a curtain was pulled across the front of the windows as the intravenous lines were hooked up to the prisoner. It was at this point that I bowed my head to say a prayer for the condemned. I then thought of the murdered twenty-year-old girl and said a short prayer for her and the anguished members of her family. I thought of what one of the attorney’s had told me. She had been a part-time college student, young, attractive, at the beginning of her life. And it had been ended for no good reason. And over six years had passed since then. Six years of joys and hopes and experiences that she and her loved ones would never have.

I thought of myself, and what I was doing here as witness to this vast human tragedy. I had mercy for the guy lying on the other side of the curtain, but I had no sympathy. I realized then that what I was witnessing was not going to change me into an opponent of the death penalty.

I also had a surge of contempt for the reporters sitting to my right and the media they represented.

How many times had I read articles about death penalty cases in which the victim barely receives a mention, as if they are an irritating and inconsequential sidelight to the whole story in a capital punishment case? Discussion of the victim of course destroys any possible strength and validity that the usual specious and empty-headed arguments against the death penalty might have.

Only a couple of minutes had passed when the curtain was drawn open before us. Again I was aware of the “slow motion” effect, as seconds moved by as if minutes and senses strained to absorb every detail of the macabre scene that was unfolding several feet in front of me. I had noticed that from the time Mr. Graham laid on the gurney, he stared straight up at the ceiling. My position of observation was somewhat above him so that I could see his eyes as they blinked. He never turned his head to look left or right.

As the curtain was drawn back, a man was leaning down and talking rapidly to Mr. Graham, only inches from his face. Graham never looked at him. This was his spiritual advisor. He finished speaking, Mr. Graham nodded twice, and the man turned and walked away. He entered the room where I was sitting and sat in the back row. Several seconds after he left, the warden, who was standing a couple of feet away from Mr. Graham’s head, stepped up to the gurney and said, “Do you have any final words to say?” Mr. Graham said nothing audible and made no motion with his head.

The warden stepped back and immediately nodded to someone standing to the right of the gurney. That person in turn nodded in the direction of the openings in the curtain behind the head of the prisoner. As you watched the tubes leading from the curtain, you could see one start to slightly jiggle.

I fixed my eyes on Mr. Graham. His eyes were blinking more rapidly than they had been. He didn’t appear to be breathing hard but he was taking deep breaths. He took two deep breaths. His eyes fluttered, blinked a couple more times and then softly closed. His chest raised with a breath several more times. At that point, the most obvious thing that I was aware of was an oppressive silence that could be felt. I have never experienced a comparable silence. A pin dropping would have sounded like glass shattering.

I watched the last breath and his chest moved no more. The warden came from behind the curtain (I hadn’t noticed him leave) and said something to a man standing there that I couldn’t make out. Our DOC man turned to us and said, “The time of death was 9:04.” I shot a glance at the clock on the wall. From the time Mr. Graham had walked through that door to pronouncement of death, nine minutes had elapsed. After another couple of minutes the curtain closed. We were then told that we would return to the vans and be taken to our cars. It was over.

After getting back into the van, several of the deputies and attorneys had comments. The first comment was, “I’m sorry. But for what he did, that sonovabitch got off easy.” I asked the deputy sitting next to me what he thought of the prisoner’s expression when he walked through the door. He said that he was a mean, heartless bastard right up to the end. No remorse. I asked another if he had ever had occasion to talk to Mr. Graham since he had arrested him. He said no, but he was in the court the day he was sentenced to death. As the prisoner was lead away their eyes met and the officer looked at him, pulled the trigger of an imaginary gun, and blew the smoke from the barrel. He intended, he said, to convey the message that, “We GOT you this time, baby!”

There was one other question that I wanted an answer to. Why had none of these men acknowledged the several attempts by the reporters to question them? One spoke for them all and said that they had learned a long time ago that if you say anything to a reporter, your words would be twisted to suit the purpose of the reporter, and would have little similarity to their original meaning. The best way to deal with reporters was to not even respond to their questions. It was surprising how quickly the conversations changed to more mundane matters such as their current jobs or what was happening in this or that case. After the short ride back to the police barracks, I shook hands with the people I had met and got into my car to drive home.

The ride home gave me over an hour to sort out my thoughts and feelings. It was an awful thing that I had just witnessed. The intensity, the gravity of it was draining. I had been increasingly apprehensive about being a witness as the time drew near. I thought that I might well see something that would change my support of the death penalty.

Years ago I was an opponent of the death penalty and had subscribed to the many arguments against its use. It is inhumane, not worthy of a civilized society. The wrong person might be executed. No other advanced society continues to execute, only countries like Iran or Communist China. It is given unfairly, only to the poor and minorities. There is no evidence that it is a deterrent. It is legalized murder by the state, little different than the act of the criminal, (the most absurd of all the arguments). A life sentence serves the purpose just as well.

And on and on go the tired arguments from watery intellects that appeal to emotion over reason. I grow more conservative with age and many of the views I hold today I would have considered ridiculous twenty years ago. I read somewhere once that any man who at the age of 18 is not a liberal has no heart; and any man who at the age of 35 is not a conservative has no mind. I think of that quote whenever I hear a liberal argue about anything, especially the death penalty.

The death penalty is just. What good is a society that does not proclaim the right to life as one of the ultimate values? A person who wantonly takes the life of an innocent human being should pay the ultimate price, if the sacredness of life is to have any meaning at all.

The focus should be on the life of the innocent and the death penalty a statement by society that for certain acts, a person forfeits any right to a life of their own. Life is sacred, and despite the liberal mindset that abhors passing judgments or making distinctions between good and evil, the value of an innocent life over one of a cold blooded murderer must be acknowledged.

It is not the death penalty that cheapens life or makes the society that employs it barbaric. There was nothing barbaric about the execution of Mr. Graham. What is barbaric, as well as tragic and pitiful, is the thinking that fails to make the distinction between the lives of Mr. Graham and the life of the young girl he was responsible for ending. It is the society that fails to make that distinction, in a way that is dramatic and without equivocation, which is truly the barbaric one.

Richard W. Byrne

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