VARNER, Ark. — They often enter in silence. They almost always leave that way, too.
The death penalty holds a crucial, conflicted place in a nation deeply divided over crime and punishment, and whether the state should ever take a life. But for such a long, very public legal process, only a small number of people see what unfolds inside the country’s death houses.
Witnesses hear a condemned prisoner’s last words and watch a person’s last breaths. Then they scatter, usually into the night. There is no uniformity when they look back on the emotions that surround the minutes when they watched someone die.
The most recent person to be executed, Ledell Lee, died at the Cummins Unit here in southeast Arkansas late Thursday. By next Friday morning, the state hopes to have executed three more men.
In separate phone interviews, five people who have witnessed executions — some years ago, one as recently as Mr. Lee’s — reflected on what they had seen and what it meant to them.
The interviews have been condensed and edited.
Mother of Guy P. Gaddis, a murdered Houston police officer
I wanted to be sure it was finished, and that’s why I went.
Before the execution, we were in a room without a clock. It’s a terrible experience. We were there, it seemed, like hours, while they were making sure he didn’t get a stay. We were all just miserable.
Then the warden came in and said, “Good news: There are no stays, and he’s going to be gone,” or something like that.
I went in the room, and I saw him strapped on that gurney. Then I couldn’t watch it. They gave me a chair, and I just turned it the other way. One son was kind of hitting his elbow against the glass. My other son asked why he was doing that. He said, “I want him to look at me.”
Edgar Tamayo was his name, and he wouldn’t look or speak or anything. I was hoping he’d say, “I’m sorry,” but he wouldn’t even look at us.
It didn’t hurt him: I would have liked to have stoned him to death or something horrible. He just got a shot like you were going to have some surgery. It was too easy, for all of the pain he caused my family all of these years.
Right at the end, all of a sudden, there was the sound of motorcycles revving up that went through the walls. I realized it was the motorcycle policemen — support from the policemen — and it made my heart feel good.
As we walked outside, his daughter was across the big driveway. She was holding up a great big sign: “Don’t kill my dad.” I did feel sorry for her. He just ruined all of these lives for so long.
I always thought the death penalty was right when there was no doubt that somebody was guilty. When this happened to me and my family, I was very supportive of the death penalty, and I still am.
They caught him right there where he shot my son. I just don’t understand: 20 years before they killed him.
Assistant federal defender in Phoenix who witnessed one execution
He was my client. His name was Richard Stokley, and he was executed in December 2012.
Often for our clients, they didn’t have people they could depend on, or who fought for them. Once we get on a case, we will stay on it, usually, until the end.
The reason why we witnessed was, he asked us to. If he needed reassurance, he’d be able to see one of us smile at him.
By the time we got in there and walked into the witness room, I was just so tired, and I was so emotional, and I knew I had to hold it together for him, and I had to make sure he was O.K. through the process.
The execution itself was surreal. I cannot even tell you how unbelievable it was to see people deliberately get ready to kill your client. With Mr. Stokley, they couldn’t find a vein. We just sat there for a long time while they started with his hands and worked their way around the body, trying to get a vein. I was trying to maintain my composure because I didn’t want him to look at me and seeing me upset or crying. But it was so hard to watch somebody do that to your client and be powerless.
When they pronounced him dead, I think I felt happy that he was no longer being hurt as part of the process. The fact that I knew it was over and there was nothing else worse that was going to happen as part of the execution, that part was a relief. But over all, you feel shellshocked.
I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily haunted by it, but I’m very aware of it. If I have a client who asks me to be there, I will be there. Until you are trapped there in that room under such tight control by the prison, and there is no way you can react to that somebody is killing somebody right in front of you, it’s hard to know how you’ll feel. But there is nothing you have already done in your life that will make you go, “Oh, this is fine.”
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Source: The New York Times, Alan Blinder, Manny Fernandez, April 23, 2017
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