Tuesday, June 12, 2007

the awful machinery

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This morning when I came to work I met with the news that one of the people we were trying to keep from being executed in a neighboring state had just lost his final appeal in the circuit court. His execution is scheduled for midnight on Thursday.

I came into the dirty office with scattered paper and piles and piles of cases on tables and boxes stacked everywhere with names on them of the different death row defendants. The mood was somber and distracted. I was supposed to read the trial transcripts of a southern woman on death row for killing her husband, but I was distracted, too.

I found a picture of the death row guy on the internet. In it he looks like the boys I went to high school with, the ones with long hair and skinny shoulders and unbuttoned flannel shirts and hairless, board-flat torsos who drove trucks or muscle cars and smoked outside every morning in the smoking area (when high schools had such places). I was afraid of most of them but they were always nice to me. They had fathers who came home tired and dirty, who drank every night and made their sons quit school at 16 to go to work on the road crews, because that meant another paycheck for the family. Those boys came in for cigarettes every afternoon at the general store where I worked on weekends. When they got older they came in for beer, too. They had thin necks and hard forearms and soft eyes and soft, tired voices.

The death row guy has changed a lot since that picture. The ragged mullet is short now. The sullen, leonine face rearing back from the camera is quietly resigned, peering upwards, mouselike. He wears glasses but still has a thin, adolescent beard. His mouth is still uncertain in its expression. Soft. Now he could be a bank teller, or a junior high teacher, or a fast-food franchise manager.

The night that changed his life seventeen years ago he was so drunk he couldn't stand up. Apparently he was in the middle of a custody battle with his ex-wife over his two-year-old son. There was a vandalism call to the police but the police found only a very drunk young man crawling around on the ground near some parked cars, who told them he wanted to lay under them for a while and sleep. The court documents say he was lightly dressed. It was snowing and the men on duty decided to take him in that night for his own good. One officer patted him down and tossed him in the back of the squad car; another got in and started for the station.

The official version of what happened is that another police car on the highway saw an oncoming car slide off the road, and when they got near it, recognized it as a cop car. The driver was slumped in the front seat with gunshot wounds in the back of his head. The drunk teenager was still in the back seat, handcuffed. A gun with empty chambers was on the floor.

After lingering in the hospital for 11 days, the officer died. He left behind a wife and two children.

At the trial, police demonstrated how the teenager could have gotten a gun out of his pocket and shot the driver, though this would have required some dexterity. During the sentencing phase, the judge allowed the victim's wife and his boss to talk about the horrific impact of this crime on their lives. The teenager was sentenced to death.

Later this "victim impact" evidence was ruled inadmissable and harmful, but the death sentence stood.

The boy thrown into the sqad car that night is now 36 years old, and scheduled to die Friday morning by lethal injection. Today the circuit court denied for the last time the petitions filed by his lawyers to stay the execution. Most people hearing about the case think he deserves to die.

This morning we sat in the back room of a tiny storefront office and listened as the lawyer we work for told the death row guy gently over the phone that there was bad news. It was hard to listen to the soft tones of his voice, to hear him trying to comfort the taciturn person on the other end. Men are so often hard and sarcastic creatures. Lawyers especially. The lawyer we work for is sarcastic. He has to be. Listening to his voice being gentle made the upcoming execution real.

The last time this inmate, whose name is Michael, was sentenced to die, the Supreme Court stayed his death with only four hours to spare. He probably won't be that lucky this time.

He says he doesn't remember what happened that night, though he has confessed to mulling over different scenarios in his mind. I think he remembers, though. How could he not?

So the awful machinery rolls on. There won't be a nice public dismembering, frought with political allegory. He is scheduled to die at 12:01 am. There will be sedatives, and a last meal, and a midnight shackled shuffle down a dismal corridor or two. A procession with no bystanders. There will be no sun or moon or breezes. Other prisoners will be angry and sad. There will be arm and leg straps, and numb families sitting behind one-way glass, and fumbling with needles and fluid bags, and flourescent lights. There will be a death like a dog's death, but without the love, pity, and kindness of a dog's death. And it will be supposed to mean something, but it won't mean anything except that people will go to extraordinary ends to make meaning out of something senseless that happened on a winter's night in some teen-age midwestern kid's dead-end life.

They told us at the office to go home early this afternoon. The lawyer I work for tried to straighten up our table before we left. He half-turned to look at a shelf full of boxes labeled with Michael's last name. "We'll be able to clear these out soon," he said, with a short laugh. "We'll take them all out of here and file them away somewhere." He laughed uncertainly again and his eyes looked vaguely around the room, but it seemed like he wasn't really seeing anything that was there.


What Now? said...

Sfrajett, words fail me. Thank you for sharing your words with us.

Hilaire said...

Yes, thank you. This is a beatiful post - and somehow seems to do good for this man, to tell the story the way you have.

dbm/gaa said...

A lyrical tribute to Michael, thank you for writing it. When I got to the end I tried to imagine what this would be like for his son and I just couldn't, too heartbreaking.