(CNN) - TV kliegs lit up live shots in one corner of the parking lot, where protesters prayed, preached and crowded onto the scene. Midnight, January 5, 1994, was coming fast.
I rushed to clear the first gate and head down the empty, well-lit walkway past B Block, a close supervision wing at the Idaho State Penitentiary. Prisoners screamed and banged on the steel security panels over their windows, and one voice howled. "You're going to see him die every night the rest of your life!"
Inside, I lined up with other reporters in the press pool to cover the execution of Keith Wells. The 31-year-old had beaten barmaid Brandi Rains and her friend John Justad to death with a baseball bat in 1990 while robbing the Rose Bar in Boise. Wells pleaded innocent at trial, was convicted and, a month before the execution, called a newspaper to confess. He ordered his attorneys to stop fighting the execution, and the state granted his wish to die.
America continues to grapple with the death penalty, most recently the controversy over Arkansas' trying to rush the executions of eight prisoners because the state's supply of a lethal injection drug was expiring.
As someone who has served as an official witness to an execution, the death penalty is no abstraction, but it's also no horror. My response, or lack thereof, makes me suspect we lack the moral acumen to carry out the death penalty.
The witness lottery
There is no smaller talk than the mumblings of reporters waiting to be picked to witness an execution. We shuffle around on the buffed linoleum floor of the family visitation room where a few plastic chairs are unstacked for us.
Our guide, a Department of Correction staffer, reviews the rules: Four reporters will join the families, lawyers and state officials in the death chamber. When Wells is dead, the lottery winners will come back to the cafeteria to conduct a press conference before filing their own stories.
Idaho hadn't executed anyone in 36 years, so the process and protocol are new to everyone there.
The first name is drawn.
"Yessss!" anchorman Bob Holland pumps his fist. Big ratings for KTVB, the local NBC affiliate, tonight. But as I'm sneering at his unseemly display, I am leaning forward, listening intently to see if the next name is mine.
On choosing to bear witness
|Idaho's death chamber|
I'm here to watch because I can, not because my editor insisted. I told myself I volunteered because I think attorneys and trial courts are fallible, while death is permanent. Also, it seemed, and still does, that if the state is going to kill killers, the public has an obligation to test its commitment to the law by personally observing and absorbing the moral impact: Do we like the reality as much as we like the theory?
It ought to be televised, I've said, playing devil's advocate with true-believer friends. Shut off all other programs and make everyone watch, I argued.
This drama of ethics, orchestrated by Wells and celebrated by hardline crime fighters, had begun to confirm my most comfortable prejudice: that we all lack the seriousness to make defensible life-and-death decisions in noncombat situations. It's one thing to see a threat and save a life by taking the life of an attacker. That's instinctual. But when the predator has already struck, what is gained by methodical state extermination?
In the industrialized world, only the United States, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan still execute criminals. The rest of the First World is retreating from it, according to data compiled by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
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Source: CNN, Dean Miller, June 22, 2017. Dean Miller is a career journalist, former director of the Stony Brook University Center for News Literacy and currently at work on several manuscripts, including a citizen's guide to finding reliable news.
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