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  • Stacey Delikat

On witnessing an execution

Watch the story HERE.

On June 27 the state of Arizona executed Samuel Villegas Lopez, a convicted murderer and rapist, and I was a witness. This had been in the works for a couple of months (my selection as witness--not the execution--that was 25 years in the making). Lopez was supposed to be executed in mid-May but was granted an 11th-hour stay because of issues with the State Clemency Board, which his attorney argued could not give him the fair hearing to which he was entitled. So I had a lot of time in the months leading up to research and prepare myself.

Many people--really most--I told that I was witnessing an execution thought I was crazy, and in many cases creepy for wanting to see a man be put to death. Colleagues warned me, "people are haunted for a long time after they witness one of these," "it could change your life." But I was pretty set on witnessing. The Department of Corrections allows five media witnesses at every execution to act as pool reporters. I don't know what it is that drew me, but I've long been interested in Capital punishment and the prison system. A part of me felt, this is my job, to attend as a representative of the public to be able to report on what many may approve or disapprove of, but which very few get to see. Mostly, there was the curiosity--what is it like in the "death house?" (known as Housing Unit 9 in the Florence State Prison, feels like being in a sterile hospital ward), what does it feel like in the witness room as strangers sit watching someone's last moments (tense and very very quiet and LONG), and would the experience shape my opinion of the death penalty? (Did not really)

It's been a few days since the execution now <em>(*Update: I'm actually publishing this two months later)</em>, which, to put it bluntly, was uneventful. The entire morning I was there --from 8am when witnesses are required to be on prison grounds, to about 11am when we trickled out to our cars--was meticulously orchestrated by DOC staff. It started with fruit salad out of a plastic container and coffee, the breakfast provided by the Department to media witnesses. One reporter, who had witnessed eight executions before this one, dug right in, but the rest of us felt a little weird at first, snacking on watermelon and pineapple chunks while a few buildings away a man was preparing to die. Yea, it was a bit odd for sure.

Coincidentally that's when the DOC flak recited Lopez' last meal to us to jot down on our Department-issued notepads. "One red chile con carne burrito, one green chile con carne burrito, Spanish rice, an avocado, a jalapeno, french fries..." and the list went on. Apparently there are very few restrictions on what an inmate can get for his or her last meal. While he or she cannot request food from a specific restaurant (No porterhouse from Ruth Chris or even a Big Mac), the kitchen will prepare for them any dish they want for which ingredients are reasonably available.

Anyway, it was a long wait until we actually entered the "death house," which included shuffling between holding rooms and a security screening at the main entrance to the prison campus. Walking across the green grass of the main quad of the campus all of the buildings were gray and well...prison-looking. It sort of felt like a movie, except for the glaring Arizona sun. In the movies the skies about prisons always look gray and dreary. Not in June in Arizona.

A few minutes before 9:50, some scratchy voices came over the prison radios, instructing our handlers to bring us in. The "theater" was apparently recently updated in Florence to include benches for the witnesses. There were three sections of benches, with three to four rows each. Before this execution witnesses had to stand throughout the process. But that's not all that was new. This was the first execution in Arizona's history where the witnesses would be allowed to actually see medical technicians inserting the needles that would deliver the fatal drug. Special flat screen closed-circuit TV's were installed in the two top corners of the room where we would watch it happen.

Also in the room with us: attorneys and nearly a dozen members of the victim's family. Estefana "Tefa" Holmes had been dead for nearly 26 years, but clearly many people still held her very close to their hearts. The family members held hands and draped arms around each other as they prepared for the execution. Moments before "it" started I felt a pit in my stomach. Only then did I start to doubt my decision to watch this happen.

At 10:04 the TV monitors suddenly switched on. Our view was from an overhead camera, looking straight down at Lopez, emotionless, bald, in his bright orange jumpsuit, bound to the table with suspender-looking straps across his chest and restraints on his feet and wrists.. We could only see the blue-gloved hands of the technicians as they moved around him and eventually inserted a catheter in each arm.

"Let us know if you feel any discomfort."

"You'll feel a cool sensation now."

While the inmates are currently given just a single injection in Arizona, two catheters are inserted in case one of the veins does not take.

The needles went in with just a minor wince from Lopez, the TVs switched off and the curtains snapped back. A warden came out. He read the warrant for execution. Lopez had no last words. And so it began. Absolute silence in the room as we all looked on, sitting at the edge of our seats scanning for any sign of movement, emotion or pain. I would estimate I was about 15-20 feet away from Lopez (maybe 12 feet from the glass? But I am pretty bad at estimating distances, so...who knows?)

Not much happened. Lopez blinked a lot, he breathed heavily, he seemed to take a big swallow of air. His eyes closed. He seemed to shake his head. He never once turned his head to look through the glass at the witnesses. Finally one more big breath and then his mouth dropped open. Was he still breathing? It was hard to tell. Once you stare at something or someone for so long, you can't tell if it's moving or not. This went on for more than 30 minutes. There were more than a few glances between witnesses as to say: "What is taking so long?? Is this normal? Did they forget about us?" Then, finally, DOC Director Charles Ryan stepped into view behind the glass. "I'm Director Ryan, the execution is concluded at 10:37am." Curtains abruptly snap shut.

Witnesses file out row by row. Media witnesses return to our first holding room where a few TV cameras and newspaper reporters are staged, awaiting every gory--or in this case--sterile and calculated--detail.

In the end the words that came to mind were clinical, sterile, mechanical. Lopez did not appear to be in any pain during the procedure, and by their own accounts the victim's family felt a great sense of relief. I left no more for nor against the death penalty. Simply even more curious about this very real punishment that is part of our society.

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