Death Room Etiquette ~ Josh Green

On Friday your editor asks if you want to witness an execution. For a second, you’re speechless. The condemned man, you’re vaguely aware, abducted a preschool teacher in the 1980s, after her Mustang had run out of gas in a ritzy Atlanta neighborhood. Took her to the cash machine, helped his cousin rape her, then blew half her pretty, Jewish face off with a shotgun. Despite the billboards and the frenetic hoopla that clings to abductions, they didn’t find the body for a year, not until the killer’s girlfriend started bargaining with cops. What they found in a rank summer trash heap turns fathers into vigilantes.

You say sure, man, I’ll watch an animal like that die.

“It’s on Tuesday,” your boss says, handing you a phone number. “Call her and make arrangements. Sounds like they’re desperate for somebody.”

Say you work the cop beat for a suburban newspaper and have seen tough shit before, like a man with two butcher knives shot dead by SWAT deputies in his front yard. Like a farmhand broken in half when his truck flipped in a culvert, or the charred remains of a trucker shot from his wrecked fuel tanker. You think you can handle this. You know death is something you can usually scrub off.

Working death into your schedule, however, is uncharted territory. Your family tries to talk you out of it. Scars, they warn, mental scars.

Over the phone, the Georgia Press Association woman applauds you. They were scrambling for qualified volunteers despite the case’s high profile. They like to keep objective eyes on state-sanctioned death.

With twenty-four hours to go, a strange trepidation takes hold. Eating dinner, you try to identify with the condemned, to be mindful of his last-things parade. Will he sleep tonight? Will he count each second of these collapsing hours? You sleep like a milk-fed infant. Then you rise mid-morning and nothing matters but the reckoning hour.

Late afternoon, you are flummoxed in the doorway of your closet, posed with the question of attire: What does one wear to an execution? Funeral garb? Business suit? You don a blue jacket and khakis, an outfit you consider objective.

Another quandary: food.

Choking down a banana, you review the press release that lists his last meal: fried chicken, French fries, corn on the cob, jalapeno peppers, mint chocolate chip ice cream, and cherry limeade. You might gag. Eat later.

You drive an hour to Georgia’s death-row prison on a chilly January day, the sky gauzy with light rain. The quintessential Hollywood images of medieval guard towers and lightning flashes and those fateful last steps waft into your thinking. But the prison is just a squat, unimpressive compound with razor wire for miles.

A series of PR-conscious handlers guides you in. You have nothing, because nothing is allowed. Prison staffers provide legal pads and No. 2 pencils. The corridors are quiet as empty churches. Custom holds that on the day of an execution, inmates in this locked-down facility, the beginning and end of Georgia’s death row, do this as a show of reverence. The deeper you go, the more claustrophobic the prison feels. You will wait in the staff cafeteria until it’s time. You are at the mercy of the process.

It’s one thing to be the brave, tough-skinned reporter concerned with painting an unbiased picture of the lethal-injection process; it’s another to be human when the steel doors clink, when the clock ticks for four hours, and when the Department of Corrections’ general counsel finally bursts into the cafeteria – where you’ve befriended an Atlanta Jewish Times writer over Diet Cokes – and says:

“We’re on.”

Around 11 p.m., after the last hail-Mary appeal is discarded, they load you into a van and drive to the execution chamber, a building not unlike a self-storage facility in the middle of a prison yard. They shuffle the families in before you, tell you not to ask them questions. Your instincts scream to not go in that door, to back out, that nobody can hold you to this because you’re a volunteer witness, and neither this case nor this man in any way affect your readership.

Then again, you’ve come this far. Your knees lack confidence but your mind is curious. You have no clue how to act. For some reason, you think of the word “endure” and cling to it.

Nobody warned you that upon entering the building, you would indeed be in the death room. No checkpoints, no corridors, just the condemned man drawing a bead on you with curious, sedated eyes. You think he is wondering who the hell you are. He’s heavily strapped in, facing the audience, splayed on the gurney with arms out like a mustachioed antichrist, the IVs already inserted. Through the glass he looks different than the mug shots – more athletic, more subservient, his facial structure slightly more villainous. You sit next to vomit bags and an attorney who times everything. The warden, a hulking bull of a man, reads the formalities and introduces the Jehovah’s Witness chaplain, who calls the guy “a faithful servant.”

No last words, no audible remorse.

They turn the microphone off. From another room someone feeds the toxic, three-drug cocktail into the tubes. The guy nods, yawns, mouths something to a woman in the second of three pews. He dozes as if anesthetized, his skin fading to ashy gray, a 13-minute, wimpy denouement. Two doctors descend. The state declares death at 11:39 p.m. The stuffy room pulses with raw, bizarre tension.

They whisk you to the van. The driver makes an outburst that is either crying or laughter – you can’t tell. They release you at your car and wish you well. A glance at your watch confirms your deadline has long passed. You are standing in mud.

You merge onto Interstate 75 northbound, feeling almost too dizzy to drive. Some things you know already:

Never make eye contact. Understand that appointments with death are goddamn unsettling. Either hate the condemned or deeply love them, because indifference is dangerous. Know exactly where the death room begins.

Someone told you once to write about the chances you take. Someone else told you to stop taking so many chances. Driving home, you think they both were right.