For 17 years, Alan Johnson has reported on Ohio's executions. It's a role he's had to fight for. And one he'd rather not have.
For 17 years, Alan Johnson has reported on Ohio's executions. It's a role he's had to fight for. And one he'd rather not have.
The members of the media are the first witnesses to arrive in the Death House, a small, squat, nondescript brick building in a courtyard of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville. It is shortly before 10 a.m., the time the state of Ohio conducts executions. No one speaks as we enter.
When we are ushered in, the condemned man, execution team, prison warden, medical technicians and the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction are already there, behind the scenes in the Death House. The media representatives, usually three to four of us from newspapers, television and radio, are instructed to take places standing at the back of two witness rooms, each about 8 feet by 9 feet, divided by a wall with a doorway to move between them. There are three chairs in each room, and they are reserved-on the right side for witnesses for the victim's family, and on the left for the inmate's witnesses, including the condemned man's family. The witness rooms are cramped, crowded with family members and prison staff. A prison staffer identifies the witnesses for the media, one of the few whispered conversations in the room.
We are gathered to watch someone die.
It's an old ritual dating back to the days of public beheadings and hangings. This is the final step of society's ultimate punishment. While it's called an execution in state law, the certificate signed by the coroner in Ohio lists the cause of death as homicide. Legal homicide.
Of the 53 men who have been put to death by the state by lethal injection over the past 17 years, I have personally witnessed 20 of those as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, and reported from Lucasville, hearing from the witnesses, for most of the others.
Wilford Berry, known as "The Volunteer" because he waived years of legal appeals to hasten his execution, was the first. He was executed on Feb. 19, 1999, almost 10 years after he murdered his boss, Cleveland baker Charles Mitroff.
I was not a witness, but I was there. Ohio's first execution in 36 years was big news locally and nationally. A reporter who did witness Berry's death said he died with his eyes open. That was how I started my story, which dominated the Dispatch's front page the next day. No execution since then has been accorded such extensive coverage. My responsibility in covering them, however, hasn't lessened.
Sometimes it hits me hard that I have watched so many people die.
I have heard their last words, seen them take their final breath, watched their lips turn purple, and in one case, give the world the finger (with both hands).
I have seen tears from condemned men and their children who watched, and heard curses from the victim's loved ones.
People are fascinated when I tell them I witness executions. A few are repulsed. A common reaction is, "I don't know how you do it." More often, however, people want to hear details, stories and anecdotes about executions. When I do public speaking, especially to students, most don't care about my 30 years of political coverage experience, but they are quick to ask questions about executions.
I rationalize that what I do is part of my job as journalist, because it is. At one time, the Columbus Dispatch was written into state code as a required witness when executions were carried out via the electric chair at the old Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus. When executions shifted to Lucasville, a new policy required witnesses to be selected from media in the county where the murder took place. The Associated Press is invited to cover all executions and a final witness is selected by the Ohio Legislative Correspondents Association, the organization representing media covering state government.
Over the years, as executions continued and became regular events in Ohio, my editors at the Dispatch and their counterparts at other news organizations began to see less news value in execution stories, especially if they were not local cases. Stories that had been on the front page began a slow, steady move to the Metro section and then inside the newspaper.
Where I had once covered clemency hearings, in which convicted killers get a final chance to make a plea for life to the Ohio Parole Board and ultimately the governor, I was told it was no longer worth the time from a news point of view. I stopped going.
I argued then, as I do now, that media coverage of executions is more than just a job duty. I consider it a critical societal responsibility to have an independent observer watch, from beginning to end, what goes on when the state puts someone to death. My experience has shown time and time again why news media must continue upholding this paramount responsibility.
Sometimes things go wrong, as in the executions of Rommel Broom, Joseph Clark and Dennis McGuire. Other times, things are said or done in the execution chamber that are newsworthy, as when Michael Beuke spent 17 minutes reciting the Lord's Prayer, the Apostle's Creed and the Catholic Rosary. Even when everything goes as planned, it is vital that there is an independent record of executions.
There is always news at Lucasville, always a story to tell.
Death Up Close
The Death House is 42 feet by 26 feet, but the Death Chamber within it takes up just 17 feet by 9 feet, about the size of an average bedroom. The chamber once contained both the electric chair and the lethal injection bed, but the chair was removed a decade ago when the General Assembly took away electrocution as an option.
Were it not for the large plates of glass between the Death Chamber and the witness rooms, witnesses could almost reach out and touch the condemned man. It is that close.
The lighting in the chamber is dim, giving the scene a surreal purplish glow. It is a very spartan room. There is a clock on the wall at the back of the chamber. A microphone hangs on the wall, poised to capture last words. Clear tubes snake out of the wall of the adjoining room where the machinery of death, the syringes of heart-stopping chemicals, are located. There is a one-way glass between the chamber and the equipment room.
It is a somber task to watch a man be put to death. It tests the limits of my professionalism, stamina and religious faith.
One way I deal with it is by writing down everything I see and hear, from the moment I enter the Death House until the warden announces the time of death. No cameras, cellphones or recording devices are allowed, so reporters must rely on note-taking skills, using a stenographer's notebook, pen and pencil supplied to us by the state while witnessing an execution. The state is thrifty; we are expected to return the writing utensils and the unused portion of the notebook.
These are my notes from the execution of Marvellous Keene on July 21, 2009, as he was put to death for a murderous rampage in Dayton in 1992.
9:55 a.m. – Media enters Death House. The hearse is already stationed outside.
9:59 – Witnesses for the victim and inmate enter.
10:05 – Defense attorneys are in place.
10:06 – Monitor comes on, showing view from ceiling camera of inmate on execution table.
10:08 – Technicians working (to insert IV line) on left arm.
10:10 – Working on both arms; inmate motionless.
10:13 – 12 people in the victim witness rooms.
10:15 – Blood drips from IV on right arm.
10:16 – Blood on left arm too.
10:19 – IV procedure done.
10:21 – Inmate moves to chamber; monitor off.
10:22 – Inmate strapped down to execution table.
10:25 – Inmate is asked for a final statement. "No, I have no words."
10:26 – Chemicals begin flowing.
10:27 – Lifted his head, turned left, closed his eyes.
10:28 – No motion; technician checks IVs.
10:30 – No motion. Total silence.
10:32 – No motion.
10:35 – No motion; warden looks toward equipment room. Curtain is closed (shielding witnesses from Death Chamber).
10:36 – Curtain is reopened. Warden announces time of death: 10:36 a.m.
Some inmates, like Keene, fade away without a word. Others make statements. Before his execution on July 12, 2006, Rocky Barton apologized to his step-children for murdering their mother.
"I'm sorry for killing your mama. I'm not asking you to forgive me. Not a day goes by that I'm not trying to forgive myself.
"Don't let your anger and hate for me destroy your lives. I'm sorry."
"Mom, Dad, Larry. I'm sorry for the embarrassment and shame I brought on the family. I love you all."
"As Gary Gilmore said, 'Let's do it.'"
Lawrence Reynolds could have expressed remorse for killing an elderly widow when he was executed on March 16, 2010. He did not.
Instead, Reynolds used his final statement to blast "the flagrantly flawed system we have today. Stop the madness!"
"Yeah, yeah. It's gonna stop now, right now," said Denise Turchiano, murder victim Loretta Foster's niece, who watched Reynolds' execution.
With the Family
I wasn't in the Death Chamber for every execution. I spent one morning waiting in a small, smoke-filled prison conference room with the family of John W. Byrd Jr. during his execution.
For an agonizing 90 minutes, Byrd's relatives cried, cursed, prayed, smoked cigarettes and drank coffee as they huddled in a cramped, stuffy room in the prison's business office. A tray of pastries in front was untouched. Elsewhere in the prison, the family of Monte B. Tewksbury, who was murdered 18 years earlier in Cincinnati, waited out Byrd's final moments.
A prison employee came into the room where the Byrd family waited. "It's done."
Mary Ray, Byrd's mother, wailed, an otherworldly cry of pain and sorrow the likes of which I had never heard before or since.
"They just did it. Oh, baby. My baby's at peace," Mary Ray screamed in a raspy voice. "God, no!"
Outside the room, some people labeled Byrd unrepentant, a cold-blooded killer who deserved to die. Inside, he was declared innocent, a brother, nephew and son whose "laughter just makes me smile," his mother said.
I have thought many times since then that Byrd's mother had committed no crime, had done no wrong to the Tewksbury family. The only thing she had done was bring a son into the world who would later be convicted for murder.
That is the way it goes when the law harkens back to an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.
As former Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery said on the night of Wilford Berry's execution, "There are no winners here tonight."
I've also sat with the survivors of the killers' victims. I spent the last few hours before the execution of David M. Brewer with the family of his victim, Sherry Renee Byrne.
Minutes before watching Brewer executed, Joe Byrne, the murdered woman's husband, slipped on headphones, punched a button on his portable CD player, and listened to Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road," one of Sherry's favorite songs. Byrne put his head in his hands and sobbed.
Ed Byrne of Urbana, Joe Byrne's uncle, expressed his sentiments on a white T-shirt: "No more tears. The lying, murdering bastard is dead."
The public seems to have both great interest and distaste for the discussion of an inmate's last meal, or as the prison agency calls it, the "special meal." It is the meal served the evening before an inmate is executed. It's technically not the last meal since the condemned is offered the same breakfast meal as everyone else in the prison on the morning of their execution. Most don't eat it.
The rule for last meals is that inmates can have pretty much anything that can be purchased nearby and prepared in the prison kitchen. No restaurant or carryout food is allowed.
Inmates occasionally refuse a last meal, though some go all out. Here's just a sampling:
John Glenn Roe (02/03/04): T-bone steak, onion rings, macaroni and cheese, ham, roast beef sandwiches, two kinds of ice cream.
Robert Buell (09/25/02): single black olive (done, he said, so an olive tree would grow from his grave as a sign of peace).
William Garner (07/13/10): Porterhouse steak, fried shrimp, barbecued ribs, a large salad, potato wedges, onion rings, sweet potato pie, chocolate ice cream and Hawaiian Punch.
Mark Wiles (04/18/12): large pepperoni pizza with extra cheese, hot sauce, garden salad with ranch dressing, Cheetos, strawberries, vanilla wafers, cheesecake and Sprite.
Donald Palmer (09/20/12): chipped ham, Velveeta cheese, wheat bread and mayonnaise, Cool Ranch Doritos, peanut M&M's, hazelnut ice cream, cheesecake and a Coke.
I learned early on how important it is to try, as much as humanly possible, to balance an execution story between the news, which is the execution itself, the crime and the victim. A victim's family members (and some readers) often complain that an inmate's death was "too easy" compared to the horrendously brutal murder of the victim.
They are right. Ohio law does not call for executions to be as violent and senseless as the murder, no matter how angry grieving family members might wish that was so. The U.S. Constitution prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment," so executions must be as humane as possible. Much of the court litigation in such cases focuses on the lethal injection process and whether it causes inappropriate suffering.
Mary Lutz was dissatisfied after watching Daniel Wilson's rather peaceful exit on June 3, 2009. Wilson had killed her daughter, Carol Lutz, by locking her in the trunk of a car and setting it on fire. "I know today his suffering was nothing like Carol's," Lutz said.
When the suffering of victims really hit me was after watching the execution of serial killer Alton Coleman on April 26, 2002. There were so many survivors of his eight victims present that prison officials allowed some of them to watch via an in-house television connection. It was the first and only time that happened in 17 years.
About 30 minutes after Coleman's execution, some of his victims' relatives began filing into the media briefing room, one after another in a seemingly endless procession of pain. In all, 28 people from three states gathered uncomfortably behind a prison lectern, united forever by the deadly swath Coleman carved into their lives.
"It's over, and I'm glad," said Juanita Wheat of Kenosha, Wisconsin, whose 9-year-old daughter, Vernita, was the first of Coleman's eight victims. "Thank God Almighty we can get justice and peace."
The Last Execution
Ohio's last execution was more than two years ago when a gasping, struggling Dennis McGuire was put to death on Jan. 16, 2014.
It was the most troubling execution I ever witnessed. McGuire did not go easily.
Things appeared to be going as planned until about five minutes after the chemical cocktail began flowing into his veins. The state was using a two-drug combination that had never previously been used in the U.S. Suddenly, he began to gasp and appeared to choke. A minute later, he gasped so deeply that his stomach heaved up and down. It continued for nearly 15 minutes. McGuire clenched his fists repeatedly and several times appeared to try to rise up off the table, only to be prevented by the restraints on his chest and arms. His grown son and daughter looked on in horror, sobbing uncontrollably. The family members of Joy Stewart, the pregnant, 22-year-old victim, watched in stunned silence.
"Is this what's supposed to happen?" one whispered.
My own anxiety grew by the minute, as McGuire tried in vain to stay alive.
I found myself wondering if it was too late for prison officials to call it off, to end the death drama playing out on the other side of the glass. There was no way to unring the bell.
"Please die. Just die," I remember thinking, thoughts that still haunt me two years later.
At 10:52 a.m., about 23 minutes after the deadly chemicals began flowing, the curtain was pulled. Unseen, a physician listened for a heartbeat and found none.
In the weeks and months that followed, a controversy swirled about what had happened and why. The state said that an execution took place, as planned. Capital punishment opponents called it torture.
The state abandoned the two-drug combination, but has yet, in the intervening 31 months, come up with a new lethal alternative for the nearly two-dozen scheduled executions. The General Assembly passed a law allowing the state to make anonymous purchases from small "compounding pharmacies" that mix drugs to customer specifications. No Ohio pharmacies were interested in the state's business.
Gov. John Kasich was forced to push back all scheduled executions. The first one, Ronald Phillips, is set for Jan. 12, 2017. The state acknowledges it does not have the lethal injection drugs necessary at this point to carry out Phillips' death sentence.
So for the time being, Ohio is out of the lethal injection business. I will not be making any trips to Lucasville as an execution witness in the near future. Maybe never again.
If there are no more executions, I won't miss Lucasville. Being a witness to death is an important job and the media should always be present. But I won't mind if someone else is watching from here on out.