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.