When I told a handful of friends I was going to witness the execution of a death row inmate, something I had never done in more than two decades as a journalist, one of them told me it would be an image I'd remember the rest of my life.
And now, after seeing a man's life ended through lethal injection of FDA-approved chemicals, an execution method approved by Arizona voters in 1992, there's no doubt that I will.
Donald E. Beaty, 56, the maintenance supervisor of the former Rock Point Apartments in Tempe who had been on Arizona's death row since July 1985 for the 1984 sexual assault and murder of 13-year-old Christy Ann Fornoff, was executed inside the "death house" at the Arizona Department of Corrections prison in Florence on Wednesday.
His time of death, announced by Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan, was 7:38 p.m., 11 minutes after the process of intravenously injecting three drugs - pentobarbital, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride - began, as Christy's parents, Roger and Carol Fornoff, and about 30 other witnesses watched.
After the drugs were injected into his body, Beaty let out a huge yawn, his face turned ashen gray, and his eyes closed. At the time of his death, his mouth remained partially open.
In a sense, Beaty was the boogeyman, initially unknown when Christy was first reported missing on May 9, 1984, the day he killed her. That evening and the following morning, fear invaded Tempe homes as radio deejays reported that Christy Fornoff was missing and the Connolly school principal told students "one of our own is missing."
Christy never returned. Her friends would never get to roller skate with her again, play in the band with her or shelve books with her in the school library where she served as an aide.
Beaty, who had a criminal history, told police he found Christy's body behind a Dumpster the morning of May 11, 1984; later, he told a psychologist in jail that he didn't mean to kill Christy, but accidentally suffocated her by trying to muffle her screams, according to court documents.
The night before his execution, I didn't sleep much. Knowing the story had been a huge one in the Valley more than two decades ago and remains well-remembered now, on top of making the 50-mile plus drive to Florence in the morning, I knew I could not afford to run behind, so I only napped. After waking up at 4:30 a.m. and arriving in Florence at 7 a.m., the waiting game began and lasted for more than 12 hours as reporters got sunburned in the prison parking lot, their 5 o'clock shadows returning as Beaty's federal defenders filed a flurry of at least five appeals on Wednesday alone in an attempt to block the execution.
I have been on an execution witness list for about two years because I figured at some point a death row case/execution would be one that had affected the East Valley in a big way - the Fornoff case was it - and we would need to cover it.
But I didn't know what to expect. Gregg Paul, a radio news reporter and a friend from Fox News' KFYI (550-AM), who had witnessed the execution of Jeffrey Landigran in October and also witnessed Beaty's execution, gave me some insight. I agreed with his sentiments of being on "sensory overload" en route to watching the life of a child murderer also being taken.
As five news reporters walked single file across a prison yard between ominous, imposing buildings, only hearing the clomp-clomp-clomp of another reporter's cowboy boots on the concrete sidewalks, I was very aware that these buildings housed evil people who did bad things. There also was the sound of heavy metal doors shutting and locking as we went through various checkpoints en route to the "death house."
In the events surrounding and leading up to watching a man die, it was surreal, morbid but somewhat relieving, to know that Beaty, who will be remembered for shattering the innocence of the East Valley and instilling fear into the hearts of junior high kids during what was supposed to be a kinder and gentler era, will not be falsely professing his innocence any longer.
In fact, as a dark blue curtain opened inside the "blue room" where he would be put to death, a teary-eyed Beaty, lying on a gurney covered by a white sheet up to his neck, finally apologized for the first time to Christy's family. The scene looked sterile, but also like a horrible dream or science fiction movie as Beaty shook on the gurney and his mouth quivered.
The witnesses were packed in tight and the room was marked by an awkward silence, the hum of an air conditioning unit and whir of a fan mounted near the ceiling. Five reporters feverishly wrote notes with prison-provided pencils on yellow notebooks among the occasional sniffle and sight of someone wiping away a tear.
Moments after the curtain parted, Beaty made eye contact with everyone in the room including Roger and Carol Fornoff and his brother, Freddie Beaty.
After mouthing the words "I love you" to the side of the room where his brother and at least two of his friends were, Beaty spoke his last words:
"I just wanted to say to the Fornoff family, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. God'll let you see her again. Freddie, I love you. I kept my promise. Thank you all for being here for me."
He also mouthed "I'm sorry" again to the Fornoff family and "I love you" again toward his brother and Nancy and George Mairs of Tucson.
The Mairs had corresponded with Beaty through letters for about 10 years when Nancy Mairs wrote a book about death and dying and interviewed about 12 death row inmates with the help of the Coalition of Arizona to Abolish the Death Penalty. The Mairs described Beaty as "very religious," "Bible-based" and said he often drew cartoons of "silly-looking" faces on his letters. He never forgot anyone's birthday or an important holiday, Nancy Mairs said.
The Fornoffs will never forget the memory of their daughter. Her death, they said, is something they carry with them every day, though her killer's execution does bring some closure.
After the execution, Carol Fornoff said that Christy's life was not in vain and even in death, she has brought light to the darkness of evil that surrounded her when she was murdered.
"We are here for many reasons," Carol Fornoff said. "Some for closure, some to pray for Mr. Beaty's soul with the hope that he has asked to be forgiven, all of us to represent Christy and the love our family shares as we travel the ups and downs of our lives. We would like to thank all of our friends and family who have given us support and love throughout the years."
She added, "We just, as a family, are going to be peaceful about this, and we just want you to know that we feel peace right now."
We all could stand to learn something from the Fornoffs who have faced such a tragedy with dignity for decades.
When their daughter first went missing, Beaty falsely assisted in the search with Roger Fornoff and also attended Christy's memorial service where he walked up to the front of the church and shook Fornoff's hand afterward to offer condolence.
"We're relieved that he did say that he was sorry to us," Roger Fornoff said after the execution.
We can only hope and pray that Donald Beaty really meant it.
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