Execution Day – the End

Here is the last piece I promised to write about the Day of Execution to which I dedicated several updates.  Some will ask why so many of the updates. It is a good question for which I do not have an answer.   The only explanation that comes to my  mind is the fact that I swore when I marched into the execution room to bear witness to what I saw. I feel it is my responsibility to share my experience with as many people as possible. After all so few people ever watched an execution. Thinking or talking about the Death Penalty and witnessing an execution are two very different things. The devil ,as they say, is in the details. And  it is the details of that day that I found so illuminating.

My last update ended with a single telephone call in the administrative building and the look of the guard who informed me “it’s a go”. I followed him to the “cafeteria” where we have been waiting for 3.30 hours. I looked at the wall it was around 8.37pm.  All hopes were gone. Mark was going to be executed. The mood in the “cafeteria”  changed instantly.  Some began to cry, some hugged or held hands. I will never forget the walk from the cafeteria across the street to the prison.  We all hugged or held hands… some  cried.  The walk is a short one as you descend some stairs and go literally across the street to enter the prison.  However it is a walk that seemed to last for ever.  Adding to the surrealism was the knowledge that for those outside, this walk was the signal that all hope is gone and the execution was going to take place. There were only few television cameras but down the road behind the police line I could hear shouts and shrieking.  I felt as I would feel for the rest of the evening that I was participating in some absurd show …some bizarre ritual. My role …our role, was now to enter the  “theater” . Were were the selected  spectators. The rest  watched us knowing full well the nature of what we were going to watch.  We were not alone with our thoughts and feelings. We were being watched.  This contradiction between knowing that in few minutes Mark Stroman was going to be killed and the sense of this bizarre theater never left me throughout the process. This ritualized killing was for me one of the most haunting aspects of the execution. It was a testimony to how humanly complex this event is. The State has to dress up the execution with legal and clinical trapping as if by that they hope to add legitimacy to it.  We had a role to play in the “show”. We were going to watch the ritual as spectators .Nothing was done in the dark, nothing was “hidden”, as if shinning light on the killing would dramatically alters its nature.

The sense of theater only increased as we walked slowly towards the “stage”. We were alone accompanied by few prison functionaries,; the Chaplin and Mark’s  spiritual advisor (more about them later.) Only later I  realized that among this very small crowd there were two reporters. They had a role to play in the show as well. They were to “report” on Mark’s last words and behavior. One of them the AP guy  I have been told had an illustrious career of observing over 200 executions.  I have no idea if he received any prize for his “brave journalistic endeavors” but I do remember that  Sam, my camera person, who with a British print reporter interviewed Mark only a week ago , told me about how irate was Mark seeing this guy walking around the visitors hall.  Mark refused to talk to him and claimed he mistreated and misrepresented inmates. But now it was not up to Mark anymore. He lost the last privilege of the living: to decide who will be witnessing his own death.

We proceeded through corridors. No one talked . I remember a particular rcorridor  that seemed to be a visitor hall where families meet their loved ones separated by a wire mesh, not the cages with glass partition I got used to in Polunsky.

Another door and other curve and suddenly a blast of hot air. We were outside in an inner courtyard inside prison.  We were surrounded by tall buildings and barbered wire fence.

To our left   there was a very low building with few doors ,as if  it was an architectural after thought- an appendix in this “courtyard”.  I understood instantly that this must be the Death chamber.  It is as if that recognition hit me in my guts.  But why?   Why at that moment with so much tension building up, I sensed that this was the building was heading to. How come I instantly realized that that the building was the “Death house( a series of cells culminating in the Execution chamber)?  It was a mystery for me , that believe it or not, pre occupied me for at least 24 hours after the execution until it suddenly hit me:   The Gas chambers of Mejdanek of course!

Mejdanek was a concentration/death camp in Poland near the city of Lublin.  I visited it almost 20 years ago with my father a Holocaust refugee himself.  My father overwhelmed with emotions left my brother and me and returned to the car.  We set out to look for the Gas chambers of Mejdanek.  The camp unlike death camps ( exclusively reserved for killing)  served also as a slave labor camp with barracks for the prisoners.  Somewhere in the camp were the Gas chambers.  It was a gorgeous autumn afternoon with a golden sun setting lighting the camp.  The trees were blazing in red yellow and gold; the dark wooden barracks could be mistaken for some youth camp…at least from the outside.  And here were my brother and I stumbling amidst heaps of golden leaves searching for the illusive Gas chambers. And than on the outskirts of the camp we saw this low concrete building that stood out. It simply did not blend with the rest.  Sure enough it  was Majdanek’s gas chamber. Twenty years later and totally subconsciously I carried in me this image of a death house set apart and different looking from the rest of the buildings around it.  Somewhere in the depth of my mind an association was made. It would haunt me ever since. We went along that low building passed few doors and  a warden  ushered us through the last door. And here the comparison with that gas chamber was over.  In Majdanek we entered a bare room with a very low ceiling stained with bluish greenish color, that the a French tour guide explained to his  students, was the reaction of the chemicals of the gas mixed with the plaster.

In Huntsville we entered a bizarre show room. . It was small… very small. The ceiling here was very low too.  But rather than advancing in a bare  dilapidated structure, here we advanced in a darkened freshly painted room  towards a glass window. Behind it was yet another chamber ,oppressively  small and painted in green .In the middle was Mark Stroman strapped to a gurney.   Standing in that small room peeking at him through the glass I felt we were in a museum watching some rare exhibit.

When my daughter turned 13 years I took her and her friend  to see London. It was the first and only time I was in Madame Tousseau’s  museum.  What impressed us all were a series of  “Tableaux” in the “dungeons”. Here were life size wax statues of Jack the Ripper, Queen Elizabeth in her cell in the Tower of London, to name just few. We were passing from one glass window to the next watching a life  like “Tableau” through a window. This is how I felt once we entered this very small room and walked towards the glass window ,  behind which there was a scene out of a Madam Touseau.  Mark strapped on his back could only move his head slightly to recognize us. At the head of the gurney was what seemed to be a wax statue of a warden wearing a dark suit. He was standing a foot behind Mark ‘s head staring at the space head of him. He was wearing dark sunglasses, his hands clasped behind his back. He had a plastic earpiece like a Secret Service agent.

On the other side of the gurney was the Chaplin who  had instructed us in the Hospitality suite. He also stared at the space ahead murmuring some prayers.  In one hand he held what I assumed was a small prayer book.  He touched Mark’s ankle, with his right  hand.  He did it too according to “protocol”  It was for   “ human contact” , he  had  told us in the hospitality suite where he had  “prepared” us for what were were watching now.  If not for his moving lips he too eerily resembled a wax statute from Madam Touseau ‘s wax museum. The only  proof  of life in this “Tableau”   was of course Mark. He was very much alive, and painfully so. While we waved, cried and touched the glass he smiled and recognized us nodding his head. He was for me the only living person in this grotesque show.

Rick Halperin, A Dallas professor of Human Rights and an anti Death Penalty activist, had warned me, when  we met, to be prepared  for the sight of tubes. Rick witnessed an execution in  1998 and  he particularly remembered one tube  carrying a black liquid that was injected into the condemned prisoner’s veins. The State of Texas must have listened to Rick Halperin ‘s description.   In our execution chamber there were no tubes in sight, neither were  bags of liquid. No machine or other instrument could be seen.  Even the point where the needle pierced Mark’s skin was covered up with white bandages.  The room was sparkling clean . Mark was covered to his chest by a spotless clean white sheet and some green blanket

It was as if  we were in a hospital room. It all seemed to be so clinical.

Few minutes after we all piled into this tiny room   taking it all in , the  “show “ began. And what a choreographed shows it was!  Samuel Becket ,  one of the founding fathers of the Theater of the Absurd, could not have conceived of a better play.  Performance and Stage directions were honed to perfection.  Over 400 executions in Texas (more than all states combined) produced superb acting and precisely choreographed performance.

The “spectacle”  began with a door opening at the other side of the tiny chamber.  I was so tense focusing on Mark that I  have not even noticed that there was  a door painted in green, like the walls around it. A man dressed in dark business suit lowered his head and peeked into the little chamber:

Warden proceeds” he said and than without turning his back to us, he simply retreated back into the darkness from which he had  come and the door was closed.

No one moved or recognized  the existence of this  “intruder” . However that  was apparently  the signal for Mark to begin  saying  his final words.  I published them in an earlier update.  We were all glued to him and the glass.  The air was heavy,you could slice it with a knife. To make things worse,  in this otherwise implacable show, the microphone was faulty.  We were straining to hear Mark’s voice.

I remember the sentences from the scriptures, his beautiful sentence about Hate, the pain it causes and how it needs to stop.

Than according to the  “reporters “ who were present he said:

“Let’s do this damn thing. “

But did he say it?  None of us remember  him ever saying it.  What I do remember that he turned his head lightly towards us  (he was strapped on his back and this movement of the head must have been painful) and thanked us each by name.  It was such a “Mark’s moment” literally seconds before Death thanking each and one of us personally.

So did he say, “Let’s do this damn thing” or didn’t he?  Some of us agonized  over that because the “reporters’ allegation was that he uttered a “curse”.

I could not care  less. Actually if indeed he said this sentence I am even more proud of him. What would I have called this surrealist ritual strapped there on the gurney only seconds before my death?  Would I have chosen another word to describe it? Hell no!

If Mark indeed uttered a “curse” it paled in comparison with the obscenity of the spectacle we were now condemned to watch.

And than in yet one more typical Mark ‘s moment, he said :

I love you, all of you. It’s all-good; it’s been a great honor. I feel it; I am going to sleep now. Goodnight, 1,2… there it goes.

Those were his last words that I will remember as long as I live.  Mark calmly giving the cue to the Executioner, even counting till three like we do in field recording:” Coming in 3,…1, 2…

He closed his eyes and I never saw any change in his face afterwards . It looked from the outside as if he was peacefully going to sleep.  For me it was a relief.  I heard so many stories about the drugs used in execution. Only in late June a man was executed in Georgia after tossing his head dying with his eyes open.  I was a worried sick about Mark . But he seemed to die peacefully and at that moment it was a huge relief.

We were standing there hypnotized as the “show “ continued: an immobilized wax like statute of the Warden staring ahead, the Chaplin standing on the other side of the Gurney staring into space too. And in the middle was Mark, now lying with his eyes closed for what seemed to be an eternity.

And than from  “stage left” from yet another door that could not be seen through our  “window” another man emerged as if he was waiting in the back.  He was the doctor. He very earnestly stepped to the gurney and began to examine Mark with his stethoscope putting his fingers to his neck and checking his pulse.

And than he leaned slightly towards  the microphone above Mark’s face and said:

“Death occurred at 8.53 “

And as if on cue the Chaplin lifted the sheet and covered Mark’s face. He was now officially dead. I felt a slight touch on my shoulder this was yet another  the Chaplin who was with us in the Hospitality suite.  I never noticed him. It was time to go he said quietly.  The show was over.

Back in the parking lot of the Hospitality suite to where were driven in the Chaplin’s car we met the other “man of God” who for “human contact” touched Mark’s ankle. His new role now  was to deliver Mark’s personal belongings  There were several bags of meshed plastic net. To me they looked like  onion bags. We helped the Chaplin to dump all of Mark’s earthly belonging to our pick up truck. Offender Mark A. Stroman #999409 was no more.  Mark’s body was released minutes earlier and there  in the parking lot the state finished the process by releasing Mark’s belonging:  few sacks of legal work, typewriter some unanswered letters, photographs and food staples he bought in the prison commissary. Mark Stroman ceased to be the property of the State of Texas. His body and his belongings were now with us.

Execution Day Part 2


As promised here is my update, telling the story of the Day of Execution.  As you remember, I wrote a week or so ago  describing the first part of the day. This is the second installment. There will be a third one as well. For me the details of that day are important and in order to communicate them in full I need time and space.

To be honest I even debated whether to write it at all. Why to insist on yet one more dark narrative of that experience? But some how I feel I must.  Some friends who were outside the prison and did not witness the execution with us asked me, how was it?  What was my reaction?  I answered than as I will answer now that I feel privileged that I witnessed an execution.  I know that privilege sounds like an odd, even unfortunate word to use in this context.

Let me explain:

Many of us  object to the Death Penalty  for different reasons. But only until one witnesses it… experiences it, he/she realizes how abstract are our ideas about it.  I feel privileged because now that I have been through the process, I experienced it, I can really bear witness. I am far more energized to fight it. I have so much less patience to discuss it with those who support it. For them, like for me prior to July 20th, it is an almost abstract moral and intellectual issue. But execution as I learned  is far from abstract. It is a process that involves dozens of people.  It is a shockingly human process, in its banality, tragedy, its pettiness, obsession with details and protocols, all aimed to disguise the killing committed by the State.  All the legal social trappings used , are meant  to cover up what is essentially a very simple phenomenon in which humans kill other humans in the name of country, religion or in this case in the name of the Law.  Being such a profoundly human process it touches almost every aspect of society. It involves prison guards, doctors, clergy, religious volunteers, churches, secretaries, courts, judges  attorneys prosecutors and many others.

Almost ten years earlier ,on September 15, 2001, Mark Stroman an angry damaged and drug infused individual erupted  murdering  two people and wounding  one.  It was a  lonely act… a very lonely act of an individual out of control acting on a mix of emotions, prejudices and anger.  Why did he erupt like this is still an enigma that haunts many psychologists.  Compare this individual eruption to  the hundreds of individuals who over 10 years worked tirelessly and in a very deliberate fashion ensuring that on July 20th mark would be killed. They were all honest and righteous citizens, proud members of society. None has any criminal record; many have loving wives, husbands and children. All believed  that they were doing their job to uphold the law and protect society.

When I asked  Greg  Davies, the prosecutor  to contemplate on that comparison he got visibly angry.  How can I compare Mark brutal killing of two innocent individuals, he asked ,to the State giving Mark all the protection of the law.  I will write some day about that protection of the law and how Mark got the Death Penalty ( Mr. Davies’s big success). But  now I had the chance to witness the deliberate killing of the State after giving Mark “ the full due process as prescribed by laws”. In many ways this killing frightened me much more than watching Mark,  captured on security camera tape, bursting into Vadushev Patel  (his last victim) convenience store shooting  him on the spot. I find this lone act of an obviously damaged individual less threatening than dozens  and dozens of well meaning people spending almost a decade ensuring Mark’s death of July 20th, 2011.

It is a measure  of their  success that I was now driving to  Hunstville  to witness the execution . I would like to walk you carefully minute by minute through that experience.  I am able to do it because I will always remember every minute, every sight, every sound and every smell of that day.  That how alert I was, straining to absorb and mentally record every minute of that day.

If you recall  in the first “chapter” I described my last visit with Mark.  Mark had two more visitors after me and his official visitation was over at 12pm.  He was taken straight from the visitation room  to the prison in Huntsville- to the “Death House”. He had described to me earlier in the day how would this” death march” unfold.  There were 110 steps, he said, from where we were sitting to the  “Death Van” waiting outside.   From there it was a 45 min ride to Huntsville. It was going to be Mark’s first ride outside since he entered Death Row in April 2002.  He told me he was looking forward to it “like an animal, which has been caged for almost 10 years”.

We the witnesses re grouped and drove an hour later to Huntsville too. We were going to wait for the Execution in the “Hospitality Suit”; a house dedicated to families of inmates who come to visit their loved ones incarcerated in Huntsville or to the families of the condemned who have to spend the last 2-3 hours there until they are being driven 2 blocks  away to the prison to wait for the final hour before the Execution.

The  “Hospitality Suit “ is indeed  a wonderful  place.  It is runs by a church and private donations .It is  a spacious house.  We were welcomed to a home cooked lunch prepared by  wonderful church volunteers. The desert , home made Jello with real fruits, was memorable.  We were sitting in a comfortable large  living room, ( with an open fire for the winter!) checking our emails and text messages. We could even talk to Mark who kept calling us from the “Death House” periodically between 3-5 pm when he was allowed to receive calls from all over the world.  I described all of that in an earlier blog.

But to be honest I loathed this place and was furious at all the wonderful people who surrounded us from nice church volunteers to at least 2 chaplains and Mark’s spiritual advisor. I know it is  irrational and also unfair to be angry with people who tried  to make our stay, given the circumstances,  as pleasant as possible. But it was in the “Hospitality suit” that I understood for the first time how this wonderful “cover up” allows the State of Texas to execute so many people while still claiming to be moral and Christian. Execution, in the “Hospitality Suit” , was treated as some terminal disease from which Mark was going to die in few hours. We were the assembled relatives and friends to be with him in his last moment.  None of us had any power to change anything. Execution like death itself was an act of nature. We just had to accept it and all these wonderful people around us worked very hard to ease our  “acceptance”.  Huntsville prison could have been a hospice and we were going to see our dying friend. It is in the Hospitality Suite that I realized how many people are involved in the process of killing a prisoner and how they are basically decent nice human beings who truly believe that they are doing God’s work in trying to ease the agony of the relatives who are about to witness the killing of their loved one.  Now many of you would deem this description as unfair.  So what do you want?  I can hear people asking. Would it have been better if rude tough armed prison guards would have accompanied you barking orders and guarding you in some empty stark room?

For me the answer is Yes!  It would at least be more in tune with what is going on, instead of wrapping this capsule of cyanide with melted chocolate and Jello with real fruits. This anger continued to build  in me throughout that afternoon as I realized how insidious this civilized cover up is in helping us to accept what should be unacceptable.  After the execution I felt that I wished the Guillotine was back in service with  hooded executioners hoisting the head of the condemned showing  it  the cheering crowds. It was so “uncivilized “ in the French Revolution or Elizabethan England hundreds of years before, but it was a much more honest event showing execution for what it is .

But  soon even  the “Hospitality Suit”  became a distant memory. At 5pm few minutes after Mark’s last call we were ushered to the Chaplin’s car for a short two block ride to prison. Avoiding media and the few demonstrators we made our way to the back entrance of the Administrative building across the street from prison.  We were deposited in the Cafeteria accompanied by a prison guard and a Texas Ranger.  It is in this Cafeteria that our torture began.  We were in a bare room.  We had to leave our pocketbooks keys, coins and cellular phones with those who stayed in the “Hospitality Suite”. We were left in that room waiting…and waiting. It is almost impossible for me now to describe the wait.  For the first hour we barely talked. Each  curled  in his/her own chair and corner left to his /her own thoughts. On the wall above us was a large clock.  Time passed slowly …very slowly. With nothing to read besides some employer’s bulletins on the wall I could not stop thinking about the execution and what awaits us.  I knew that across the street Mark was in his cell only few feet from the Execution Chamber probably left to his thoughts as well. Worst of all we had no clue  what was happening in the outside world. We knew that the Federal Court dismissed Rais’s lawsuit and I assumed it was now going through the Appellate courts but what was going on?

Six pm came and went and I  asked the nice prison guard ( everyone was so nice in this kingdom of Death)  who was with us what was going on. “ It is the Courts,” he said.  But he did not know any specifics. He too was just a cog in the machine.  He was waiting for a phone call “ from the office of the unit”. They were in the dark too. They too were waiting   for a call.  The State Attorney office was going to call them when the Execution cleared the Courts.  Far away in Austin, New Orleans (where the 5th Circuit is) and the Supreme Court in Washington a legal chess game was going on. We had nothing to do with it. We were not a factor and neither was Mark whose life or death was to be decided in these various courtrooms.  As if we were spectators waiting for some bizarre game to begin, waiting for the referees and their entourage to settle their differences.  Being a father I could not even begin to imagine how would I feel if instead of Mark it was my son or my daughter and I was forced to sit there waiting to witness the execution of my child.

Why the Execution date was set before the legal battle reached its final end? Why the Execution date was not postponed to let the legal process one last chance to reach a legal conclusion?  Why all of that was happening at 6pm?   Those were some of the thoughts racing in my head.  As I learned it was very common for the legal battle to take place until the last minute but rarely it did not resolve itself by 6pm.

It was 6.30 already.  Hopes were building up quickly.  I learned from the guards (now after 6pm   everyone began to talk and socialize) that if Mark  was not going to be executed by 11pm , his Death Warrant”  was going to be  null and void ,since the execution needed to be completed by 11.59pm  (Protocols!). If indeed Mark was not going to be executed that night he would get an automatic stay of 30 days.

I knew Judge Anthony Scalia, the judge on duty on the Supreme Court that day  sealed Mark fate at around 4pm  by turning down  Mark’s last appeal . But Rais ‘s civil suit now still in litigation could have got him 30 days Stay.  Thirty days , I thought, is not something to sneer at when you are facing death.

It was few minutes past 8pm and it looked like it was not going to happen. Even the guards  sensed that if the case did  not resolve itself within the next 30 min it probably was not going to happen. Our mood improved steadily. It looked as if  Rais’s  desperate last move to stay Mark’s execution succeeded at least temporarily  . Maybe in 30 days something else could be envisioned legally.   Maybe a renewed Clemency appeal?  A new legal challenge?

A telephone call woke me up from my  reveries. I followed the guard earlier to a phone attached  to the wall at  the end of a long corridor . He explained to me than that this is where he would get the call from the ” Unit” to proceed.

I heard  the call . I was the only one in the room that understood what this call meant. I  followed the guard . I could not hear what he said but I remember him  standing  there at the end  of what seemed at the moment few miles long corridor.  He turned to me  saying : “It’s a go!”