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Night Of The Stay

Michael Hibblen

I've always wanted to be picked. Who doesn't? Little League, passing out papers, taste tester of Meemaw's pasta sauce. So when it came to filling the last of three media witness slots at the Arkansas Department of Correction's first execution in 12 years, I threw my name in the hat. 'Maybe I get picked,' I thought, with some small amount of delight not unlike making your Mega Millions pick.

I got selected and still I didn't witness the lethal injection of Don Davis, admitted murderer of Jane Daniel, and someone who West Memphis 3 frontman Damien Echols credits with saving his life on death row. 

In October 1990 Davis walked 62-year-old Jane Daniel down to the basement of her home, had her kneel down, and executed her with a .44-caliber Magnum stolen from her neighbor's home earlier that day.

Credit Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Department of Corrections spokesman Solomon Graves and J.R. Davis, spokesman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson, inform the press gaggle

In an interview he gave to a television station many years after, he said, "What I did was an act of cowardice. It was cold-blooded. It was evil."

He also said he has a problem with the death penalty, "and not just because it's me."

"I think you should care [if I die] because every human being has something to offer."

What had I planned to offer Davis as a media witness? A set of eyes. A curiosity that runs deep but not straight? Hmm. I was joined by a competitor and personal friend, John Moritz of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and Associated Press reporter Sean Murphy, for whom this was to be exactly his dozenth lethal injection.

A dozen executions.

Credit Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Public Media
Roses are a leitmotif at Cummins.

"What should we look for?" Moritz asked Murphy, and I noticed the senior reporter hesitate just a moment.

I thought to myself, "Maybe the answer is, 'nothing.' There isn't anything to look for."

Maybe the only real thing a gathering of people at a lethal injection will witness is just the rest of us, the rest of the gathered. What will we be like? What if no one betrays any emotion at all, like automatons, like we three planned to be.

A guard chauffeured us along a route halfway around the prison, a perimeter marked by two parallel chainlink fences, tall and topped in concertina wire, themselves a perimeter for a trellis of high voltage wire. We passed through the "sally port," the only supply route in and out of the prison, a 60- or 80-foot bay — a static drawbridge — contained at each end by drop gates. 

Credit Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Public Media
Veteran Arkansas print reporters Wesley Brown and John Lyon

 We pulled up behind a van we believed full of witnesses, familial or, more likely, civilians, people with even less connection to the matter than we reporters — and therefore, closet sadists? A wholly unfounded suspicion that you might suspect, too.

I have suspicions about myself.  

Sitting outside in the parked car Moritz and Murphy discussed consciousness tests. Little flicky pestering things a trained health care professional there not to administer any health or care at all but justice, will do between the dose of midazolam, the sedative, and vecuronium bromide, the paralytic (which is followed by potassium chloride, the killer).

"I heard you pinch them," Moritz said, pinching at the tender crook of his arm.

"Their eyelids, their ribs," Murphy said.


Credit Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Public Media
A television broadcaster and cameraman from Al Jazeera English

  "You were at Clayton Lockett," I interrupted, and worded as if it were a summertime music festival and not the 2014 execution of a man in Oklahoma by the same three-drug cocktail Arkansas plans to use. It lasted 43 minutes and, by all accounts, left him writhing and moaning and convulsing on the gurney.

Murphy described it.

I always wanted to be a reporter. I used to play the game of Life with my cousins, and while they and everyone who won angled for the occupational square "doctor" or even "teacher," I always wanted to be "journalist." (This is super low-paying, in Life as in life.) But I never thought I'd report extensively on the death penalty. Politicians, sports, even taxes, but never the death penalty. Too arcane and confusing, and besides, I didn't care very much.

The guard-chauffeur got back in the car, "It's off," he said. He knew nothing more. It was roughly 11:30.

Credit Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Public Media
Solomon Graves and J.R. Davis

  Back inside the visitation center that served as base camp for the press pool, Murphy entered first, followed by me. I answered a reporter's question and then someone yelled, "Can you use the mic? Get behind the podium."

I did. I told them in absurd detail about every step, every turn. I may have used the word "circumnavigate" to describe the arc we took in the car from parking lot through sally port to the death house or whatever its called.

Was that my contribution?

Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR
Bobby Ampezzan and John Moritz

  Moritz joined me at the podium. Then a man, a reporter I didn't know, from Switzerland or Sweden or England, perhaps — reporters from all of those countries were there — asked, "What was your mental state going in?"

I was about to say I was surprised to discover I hadn't won a coveted spot as a media witness but in fact had stupidly put in to watch a man die when Corrections Department spokesman Solomon Graves and J.R. Davis from Gov. Asa Hutchinson's office appeared and ushered the newspapermen and radio reporter off camera and offered a thorough and sensitive and wholly appropriate explanation of the night's events.

Turns out, it wasn't a journalist's odyssey from small-hat lottery winner to execution witness, but a stay for a condemned man. A faint crescendo, a clipped climax, in the long — long, so long, for the victims and the convict alike — route one killing takes through law enforcement and the courts and the prison system and the courts again to finally arrive at another, a like killing, our long-established resolution.  

It begins again soon.

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