When I witnessed death by appointment

Updated 7:50 AM ET, Thu June 22, 2017

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Story highlights

  • As a reporter, Dean Miller witnessed an execution in Idaho
  • He writes: I understand why the death penalty still exists in the United States

Dean Miller is a career journalist, former director of the Stony Brook University Center for News Literacy and currently at work on several manuscripts, including a citizen's guide to finding reliable news. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)TV kliegs lit up live shots in one corner of the parking lot, where protesters prayed, preached and crowded onto the scene. Midnight, January 5, 1994, was coming fast.

I rushed to clear the first gate and head down the empty, well-lit walkway past B Block, a close supervision wing at the Idaho State Penitentiary. Prisoners screamed and banged on the steel security panels over their windows, and one voice howled. "You're going to see him die every night the rest of your life!"
Dean Miller
Inside, I lined up with other reporters in the press pool to cover the execution of Keith Wells. The 31-year-old had beaten barmaid Brandi Rains and her friend John Justad to death with a baseball bat in 1990 while robbing the Rose Bar in Boise. Wells pleaded innocent at trial, was convicted and, a month before the execution, called a newspaper to confess. He ordered his attorneys to stop fighting the execution, and the state granted his wish to die.
America continues to grapple with the death penalty, most recently the controversy over Arkansas' trying to rush the executions of eight prisoners because the state's supply of a lethal injection drug was expiring.
As someone who has served as an official witness to an execution, the death penalty is no abstraction, but it's also no horror. My response, or lack thereof, makes me suspect we lack the moral acumen to carry out the death penalty.

The witness lottery

    There is no smaller talk than the mumblings of reporters waiting to be picked to witness an execution. We shuffle around on the buffed linoleum floor of the family visitation room where a few plastic chairs are unstacked for us.
    Our guide, a Department of Correction staffer, reviews the rules: Four reporters will join the families, lawyers and state officials in the death chamber. When Wells is dead, the lottery winners will come back to the cafeteria to conduct a press conference before filing their own stories.
    Idaho hadn't executed anyone in 36 years, so the process and protocol are new to everyone there.
    The first name is drawn.
    "Yessss!" anchorman Bob Holland pumps his fist. Big ratings for KTVB, the local NBC affiliate, tonight. But as I'm sneering at his unseemly display, I am leaning forward, listening intently to see if the next name is mine.

    On choosing to bear witness

    I'm here to watch because I can, not because my editor insisted. I told myself I volunteered because I think attorneys and trial courts are fallible, while death is permanent. Also, it seemed, and still does, that if the state is going to kill killers, the public has an obligation to test its commitment to the law by personally observing and absorbing the moral impact: Do we like the reality as much as we like the theory?
    It ought to be televised, I've said, playing devil's advocate with true-believer friends. Shut off all other programs and make everyone watch, I argued.
      This drama of ethics, orchestrated by Wells and celebrated by hardline crime fighters, had begun to confirm my most comfortable prejudice: that we all lack the seriousness to make defensible life-and-death decisions in noncombat situations. It's one thing to see a threat and save a life by taking the life of an attacker. That's instinctual. But when the predator has already struck, what is gained by methodical state extermination?
      In the industrialized world, only the United States, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan still execute criminals. The rest of the First World is retreating from it, according to data compiled by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
      I also told myself I was there to bear witness just like Nellie Bly, who secretly took notes while guards abused women in the insane asylum where she went undercover in the 1880s as a patient. I'll be no different than Eddie Adams, I thought, who got the photo by not grabbing Gen. Nguyễn Ngọc Loan's gun arm as he shot an un-tried Viet Cong prisoner, Nguyễn Văn Lém, in the streets of Saigon in 1968.
      My job is to help voters test their commitment to the death penalty by witnessing Idaho's first execution in several decades. I can only do that if I watch and write about this execution.
      "Bill Scott" the prison staffer reads from a lottery slip. Scott is a serious journalist. He covered the Kent State shootings by National Guardsmen and is a fixture around the Statehouse. Without a word or even a change of expression, the bespectacled radio man unslings his portable tape recorder and joins AP correspondent Bob Fick, who has an automatic seat by virtue of The Associated Press' service to newsrooms worldwide.
      Fick, whose name we say is just a typo of his favorite word, isn't smiling, either. The chain-smoking Missouri Mule is not a fashionable cynic, but the real thing: a disappointed idealist.
        I could withdraw with full confidence in the seriousness and competence of the press witnesses. But I don't.
        Elsewhere in the prison, Keith Wells eats his last meal, we're told. Another tic on the to-do list death house staff have developed.
        "Dean Miller."

        I the witness

        Learning from Holland's too-honest fist-pump, I play it cool and try not to show the thrill. This is big. This will set me apart as one of a tiny handful of reporters who knew the moment someone was to die and set about to watch it happen. So, the first thing I witness is that even a self-righteous snob like me can lose clarity about the seriousness of an execution. I'm not thinking about morality or the first draft of history, the rule of law or justice for the victims or punishment of the killer. I'm thinking about my career.
        Our guide reviews the ground rules and leads us out.
        Behind the prison, we crunch across the gravel prison yard under searchlights to the kind of cheap trailer often parked around overcrowded schools.
        Plastic chairs are arranged in two rows in front of a picture window in the wall that bisects the trailer. Bright fluorescent light leaks through the cracks in the vertical shades. A deputy Idaho attorney general waits by a phone in case of a last-minute pardon.
        No bleeding heart, County Prosecutor Greg Bower chomps his gum like a coach at the tip-off. The coroner, a funeral director named Erwin Sonnenburg, is red-faced and sweaty in the front row. He'll have to touch the guy when it's over.
        Idaho Maximum Security Institution
          He's dressed well for this big moment, as am I, in a blue shirt and red tie, the uniform TV producers tell us to wear for the best on-camera look.
          One of Wells' lawyers, whom the murderer ordered not to file appeals, stands around, just in case. This loss won't go on his record, but it's all over his face, which is gray with something that looks like fear.
          When it's over, I'll tell my colleagues what time everything happened. What it looked like. I won't say what strikes me most: that it is as sterile as closed-circuit TV. And just as unreal, except Wells isn't acting and we're doing more than just watching. We're participants.
          At 12:40 a.m. a shadow moves, and then the vertical blinds snap open. It's like a large-screen TV has been turned on, showing a doughy young man strapped down to a gurney in jeans and a short-sleeve chambray shirt, feet to the witnesses' left, head to the right. He had lain there for more than a half hour while the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals and US Supreme Court rejected last-minute appeals filed by death penalty opponents.
          Now Wells turns his head toward the window and smiles, appearing to make eye contact with Amil Myshin and Gus Cahill, the attorneys he ordered to drop appeals. He attempts a thumbs-up gesture with his left hand. The IV tubes run from his arm to a screen, behind which three anonymous workers wait to push the buttons. There are always more volunteers than are needed, we have learned.
          The mechanism will randomly select which of their buttons deliver the lethal combination. It's a device designed by a non-doctor, who is not bound by the Hippocratic Oath.
          Bower's gum is still cracking. At the time, I thought he could see himself in the big time among prosecutors. Not many have sat in the death house, and he seemed to be making sure he remembered it all. It's the kind of story that needs to be told well.
          Maximum Security Warden Arvon Arave stands at the foot of the injection table and reads the death warrant. His voice, coming to us via a low-fidelity intercom in the death chamber, sounds distant and scratchy, though he stands less than 10 feet away.
          Wells stares at the ceiling and declines to say anything when asked if he has any last words.
          About then, the spare liturgy of my Congregationalist childhood comes to me. "He promises to all who trust him forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace..." How is it that I sit there as indifferent as I would be while waiting for the state senate to tally votes on the turn signal exemption for wheat combines?
          "Thou shalt not kill," tolls in my head. What was I thinking all those years when I solemnly assented to the Ten Commandments, or sang "We shall live in peace..." with the easy virtue of a safe church pew? Did I think I'd never be tested when I raised my right hand to swear that as a Boy Scout I would "...help other people at all times ... keep myself morally straight."
          They're killing a man right in front of me, and all I'm going to do is watch, and on purpose? I know the law of self-defense protects those who kill to rescue others from harm. Doesn't that mean there's a concomitant obligation to defend those in harm's way? I sit there, taking notes instead of taking action.
          Someone tells us the dose has been administered.
          Wells' eyes blink three times and then close. His chest rises once, as if he were taking a deep breath. The hand and spiderweb-tattooed arm closest to us seems to clench and relax. Then, nothing.
          It's like he fell asleep.
          No jerks, twitches or shouts. It's hard for me to tell if he has stopped breathing. The window into the death chamber is like a frozen TV picture, with the frame focusing attention on the last image.
          I had braced for worse. Sometimes the drugs don't work correctly, and the spasms and death throes give rise to the cruelty argument against lethal injection. But that didn't happen, and I feel less emotion than I do at the death of a favorite character in a novel.
          The coroner gets up and, by doing so, kind of changes the channel, waking us up. He is let in the door through the wall, goes to Wells and peels back an eyelid to check the pupil. Then he uses a stethoscope to listen for a pulse. He declares the time of death, signs the death certificate and stands by as a witness signs. It had taken nine minutes to kill Wells. It had taken hours for his bludgeoned victims to die.
          All of which I scribble into a notebook. We, the journalists, shuffle out, raising our eyebrows at people we know, searching the eyes of the prosecutor, attorney general and defense attorney for doubt or any sign of impact. Nothing. People grieve harder when Boise State's football teams loses.
          We are marched back through the labyrinth to the room usually reserved for prisoners hugging their wives and children. The TV lights click on, we straighten our ties and conduct a news conference, an odd reversal of our typical roles, taking turns reading from our notes, making observations and answering the pack's questions.

          'Most people don't have to watch'

          It was my 33rd birthday, so a reporter friend took me out for breakfast at a truck stop on the way home from the state penitentiary. Over bacon and eggs, we talked about my experience watching an execution, but there was no cathartic release at the end of it. And that struck me as wrong.
          Driving home, I thought that one day the execution of Keith Wells might come up, and one of my as-yet unborn children would be surprised to learn that I volunteered to watch. What, I wondered, would they think of me?
          Today, my daughter is 20, my son 16, and while we've talked about the Wells execution, they seem to see it as just one of those things a journalist does, like friends of ours who cover war and revolution overseas.
          But when I look back on that night, what I find most disturbing of all is that those prisoners, who cursed at us as we filed in to witness and report on the execution, were wrong. I have never dreamed of Wells' death, even as I've been writing and revising this piece.
          And I don't observe in humans the moral muscle or judicial skill to appreciate the seriousness of the act of killing. Perhaps that is why there has not been the political will to bring the United States into line with the rest of the First World, where the death penalty has been all but eliminated: Most people don't have to watch, and even those who do are often unmoved -- like me.
          Do we hold life sacred? I don't think so.