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!”