A.C. Snow

Recalling a day in May at Central Prison

The N.C. House of Representatives, following a national trend, has approved a bill that would remove the requirement that a doctor attend executions at Central Prison.

There was a time when I wished newspaper reporters could be similarly spared that experience.

I felt that way on a beautiful day in May many years ago while a reporter on The Raleigh Times. I was assigned to cover the execution of a man convicted of attempted rape and breaking and entering.

Executions were almost commonplace back then, sometimes two a day. In contrast, the death chamber has now been idle since 2006, although there are 158 people on death row awaiting execution.

I remember that I canvassed the newsroom trying to recruit someone to accompany me and provide moral support. Finally, then sports editor Bruce Phillips reluctantly signed on.

We had barely taken our seats in the crowded observation room when Bruce muttered, “Snowball, what in hell are we doing here?” I had no answer.

While Bruce and I were wishing we were somewhere else, some other witnesses seemed quite at ease, chatting and laughing as we awaited the main event.

My competition, a reporter from the N&O, across the hall from the Times, was placing a bet with a highway patrolman as to how long it would take the condemned man to die.

A reporter from a local radio station said he was there because his wife had once been raped.

The condemned, dressed only in white boxer shorts, was led into the room and strapped into the big, wooden chair.

After the guards withdrew, a chaplain entered, read briefly from the Bible, patted the man’s bare shoulder and departed.

We could almost hear the sound of the cyanide pellets dropping into the container of sulfuric acid placed under the wooden chair.

The prisoner looked around in surprise and then waved half-heartedly at the phalanx of witnesses on our side of the glass wall.

As the fumes enveloped the victim, he strained mightily against the straps, yet seemed to eagerly gulp the deadly fumes as if he consciously wanted to hasten the ordeal and find peace in death.

It seemed an eternity before the prisoner slumped against the the back of the chair and seemed asleep.

Haunted

Outside, afterward, I looked up at the sky, which never seemed bluer. I marveled at the mint-green leaves on the trees. Life had never seemed as sweet as it did at that moment.

Nearby, the reporter and the patrolman were settling their bet. They told me it took 18 minutes for the young man to die. I felt repulsed by their wager. It was as if they had just watched a tennis match or a cockfight.

The experience haunted my dreams from time to time for months afterward. The fact that the young man had not taken a life troubled me. That’s not to say that attempted rape isn’t a reprehensible and traumatic experience.

The public debate over capital punishment has been a long and controversial one. Opponents have steadily gained ground until, as of now, only 33 states are in the execution business.

My feelings on capital punishment are ambivalent. When I’ve convinced myself that the state’s maximum punishment should be life in prison, along comes a killer who invades an elementary school or a movie theater and mows down innocent people as if they were targets at the State Fair shooting gallery.

At that point, I feel ready to flip the switch at the execution chamber myself. This is especially true when children are among the killer’s victims.

I sometimes wonder if we fail to identify enough with a victim’s last moments, with their pleas for mercy and the suffering of their loved ones who are condemned to a lifetime of grief.

Mustering any semblance of sympathy for killers like the Boston marathon bombers or the Colorado movie theater shooter isn’t easy.

Anti-capital punishment forces argue that the state’s role as executioner violates the Constitution’s ban against cruel and inhuman punishment. Yet state, city and federal law enforcement personnel mete out capital punishment every time they kill a suspect in the line of duty.

On the other hand, can you imagine a more horrendous scenario than when a totally innocent man or woman is executed? That possibility is terrifying.

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