Dateline death row: on watching a man die.
Executions in Delaware still make the national news, I'm happy to say. America still finds them unusual enough to mention. But this state--as small as it is--is getting a large reputation as one that not only sentences its prisoners to death but follows through. Eight men have been executed here since 1992; eleven more await identical fates.
On this night, a man named dames B. Clark, Jr., age thirty-nine, was to die by lethal injection for murdering his adoptive parents in 1994. As a radio journalist in Wilmington, I get to cover all kinds of events, many of which inspire thoughts that can never be fully expressed in the few minutes or even seconds I have to report a story.
But this time, I had not been assigned to actually watch Clark die; I was only asked to cover his death from the makeshift media center set up in a staff training room where witnesses describe the event afterward. And any way, this execution was small potatoes compared to the hanging that had taken place two months before. It was my choice to put in for the raffle. A morbid curiosity, perhaps; or a chance to explore the connections between criminals, their victims, and what we perceive as justice.
James Clark, Jr., was an infant when he was put up for adoption--allegedly the product of a one-night stand. He would turn out to be the only child of Betty and James, Sr. By the time young Clark could walk, he had become violent. He was expelled from preschool for beating up other children, and as he grew, he was in constant trouble. Despite several years of counseling, he still could not control himself.
Finally, at age sixteen, Clark was given a thirty-year sentence for strangling a three year old nearly to death He served twenty one years and, just a month after his release, shot and killed his elderly parents.
I had never seen anyone die, and I was growing apprehensive about it. I wondered what the condemned man looked like, whether he would be defiant or trembling with fear during his last moments. Most of all, I wondered what he would see and where he would go.
As a humanist (or "theologically unencumbered," as I prefer), I don't believe in heaven or hell or a god that sits in judgment. But I know the Christian family members of most murder victims do, and they want killers to suffer the same pain as their prey.
This argument presents a variety of paradoxes. First, it flies in the face of Jesus' instruction reported in Matt. 5:39 to turn the other cheek; in Matt. 5:38, Jesus explicitly denounces the Mosaic tradition of "an eye for an eye"; and in Matt. 5:44, he commands his followers to "love your enemies."
Second, most death row inmates go to their graves claiming a rebirth in Christ that will cleanse them of their sins and grant them entrance into heaven. As Jesus said in Matt. 19:30, "Many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first," meaning that everyone who repents--no matter when in their lives--will be saved. Thus, the killer meets the same fate as the victim (who presumably also repented in time).
Furthermore, there's the claim that survivors need an execution in order to achieve "closure" This defers even more power to the killer and hinges the recovery process on yet another death. It also makes victims' family members appear as if they're taking the same sick delight as the murderer in watching someone die--keeping the cycle of violence chugging right along.
As it turns out, there were to be no family members present at Clark's execution, just prosecutors, investigators, Clark's public defender, and us--the seven reporters. As zero hour neared, we traded in our raffle tickets for ID badges and solemnly boarded the bus bound for the prison. On the ten minute ride, we passed the flickering candles of about sixty protesters assembled at one of the gates. It was just before midnight; the state was obligated to carry out its sentence between that time and 3:00 AM.
The trailer in which lethal injections are performed in Delaware is separate from the rest of the prison, and I was told that, since breakfast time, Clark had been awaiting his fate from a cell there. As we got off the bus, guards in flak jackets patrolled the immediate perimeter with dogs. In the distance, police cars with their hazard lights on blocked all gates.
Clark never appealed his sentence, I learned. It seems prison life had deter) orated so greatly over the years that he couldn't stand the constant struggle with other inmates to keep even the slightest of amenities--books, writing paper, a toothbrush. He refused all attempts by his lawyer to fight the jury's decision. In fact, it was later revealed that Clark lied about his motivation for killing his parents--for the insurance money--so he would be put to death.
When it was time to enter the execution trailer, the reporters were told not to bother or speak to any of the other witnesses and "no horsing around" Following orders, we quietly marched through two barbed-wire topped fences toward the open door of the trailer, which had unusually bright, white light spilling out. How ironic. I thought, we're walking toward the light.
As soon as we clomped up the steps, the first witnesses lunged in and fanned out against the glass separating us from James Clark. He was already tightly strapped to a gurney, arms straight out, IV tubes in his veins. At that point, I didn't know whether or not he could see us, but no matter; even with his eyes closed, I know he felt us rush in.
Some of the witnesses were so close to the glass I thought they were going to fog it, and I had to struggle to see Clark's face, thinly mustached and framed by his long, wavy brown hair. As we settled, the warden asked the condemned man if he had any last words, and without opening his eyes, Clark began to speak.
"Hey, Jerry?" he called out over a cheap intercom between the two rooms.
His lawyer, directly in front of me, replied, "Yeah?"
"Hey listen, man, my soul is free, all right?"
"Yeah," Jerry squeaked.
"No more pain, you know?"
"Thanks for everything, all right?"
"Yeah," Jerry managed one more time. And with that, Clark began to die.
Standing closest to him was the warden, who never moved. Next to the warden was a woman with a clipboard, eyes frozen. And next to her, a motion less man with a telephone to his ear, keeping an open line to the governor.
Reflected in a two-way mirror behind which an anonymous executioner stood, I could see the stern faces of the men and women in front of me. Nothing; no tears, no reaction. And between them I could see me, gawking at a dying man.
With the exception of a couple of deep breaths, I'd say Clark exited gracefully, changing neither position nor expression. In fact, the only suspicion I had he was gone was when his face and neck turned pale. His lips were already parted, and his muscles were relaxed. Clark wanted to die; the state obliged him.
When it appeared he was still for good, a curtain on the other side of the glass closed. The time of death was announced: 12:20 AM, April 19, 1996.
By the time I went back to work, it was clear I had become a member of some sort of exclusive club--People Who Have Witnessed an Execution. There aren't very many of us, I suppose. I gathered this when I interviewed Republican Representative Mike Castle the next day for an unrelated story.
"What was it like?" he asked; but before I could answer, he said, "You know, I support the death penalty. I was governor when it was restored in Delaware. I think it's a good deterrent, especially for criminals who might not otherwise give a second thought to the victim of, say, an armed robbery. See, if they thought they might get the death sentence, they might not kill anyone."
Gently, I thought, gently--don't let the air out all at once.
"Well, you could say," I began, "that people who don't think twice about killing someone else probably don't place a lot of value on their own lives either."
"Yes ... I see your point, but ..." he went on and on a little longer until his assistant shifted in his seat to indicate time was at a premium this particular morning.
And it was. I hadn't slept after watching Clark die and wouldn't for most of another day until my lover brought me home to his bed. Lying in his arms, I thought about how Betty and James, Sr., must have felt when they brought their baby son home for the first time. At last, they could be a family.
Now that family was dead.
"Everything's all right," my lover whispered into the haunted darkness.
"Is it?" I asked. I had already wept a number of times, and I wanted it over, done, dealt with.
"Yes," he assured me. "James doesn't hurt anymore."
Donna Renae is a radio news anchor and reporter at WDEL Newstalk 1150 AM in Wilmington, Delaware. This article also appears in the winter 1997 issue of On the Issues.
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|Title Annotation:||First Person|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1997|
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