Witness to an execution - East Valley Tribune: News

Witness to an execution

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Posted: Friday, December 2, 2005 7:53 pm | Updated: 7:18 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

JONATHAN DREW describes what it's like to watch a man die.

The fat, bald killer kept his eyes pressed tightly shut as the men from the prison led him to the padded table. They tied leather straps around his arms and attached an IV tube to the needle-tipped shunt already in his forearm. On the other side of a wide pane of glass, I scribbled furiously on the white steno pad, watching every rise and fall of his white prison tunic.

The chest jerk was what we three reporters were looking for, eyes poised on the man on the table, wondering exactly when he would stop breathing. In the Lucasville, Ohio prison, we were told that right before someone dies of lethal injection, one last spasm was visible.

"Breathing becomes jerky at 10 a.m.," I wrote, staring intensely at his goateed face. "A slight shudder. Lips became blue at 10:01. Area around mouth turned purple at 10:02. Eyelids, cheeks, down to upper lip ... Whole face purple at 10:02. Veins on scalp visible."

Moments later, a curtain closed on the death chamber, and when it parted again, the warden stood in front of William Zuern's body, holding a microphone. Over the PA system, he stated that the inmate's official time of death was 10:04 a.m.

In many ways, Zuern's death was peaceful, in stark relief to the unprovoked stabbing of a sheriff's deputy for which he was sentenced to death. Zuern had plunged a homemade knife into the heart of an officer searching his jail cell.

By contrast, I was struck by the efficiency of the execution. The prison's doctor found a vein in Zuern's arm for the shunt, guards led him to the execution table, and he calmly lay down while the warden gave the signal to start a drip of chemicals that would render him unconscious and stop his heart.

It took about 15 minutes from the time they pricked his arm to when he was pronounced dead. But if states have gotten good at executions, it's really not surprising. On Friday, the U.S. executed its 1,000 death row inmate since 1976. Zuern's execution in July of 2004 was No. 913.

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The routine of an execution is carefully cultivated. The lethal injection is achieved through an elaborate series of steps so that the delivery of death is as humane as possible. Those steps also serve to dilute responsibility among the executioners. In Ohio, one person inserts the needle, another gives the signal to start the execution, and someone else hits the switch that starts the drip. The actual moment of death is also obscured among several different physical reactions induced by the lethal cocktail of chemicals.

Journalists stick to their own routines, which are just as important. Before the execution, a veteran journalist warned me to take as many notes as possible in the death chamber, to distract myself, "so you don't lose it," as he said.

It was good advice. Before they brought out the inmate, I stood in the tiny observation room trying to stifle a sensation that I was either going to burst into sobs or vomit. The penitentiary's air conditioner had chilled the sweat on the back of my neck. Noting that one of the victim's former co-workers had crossed and uncrossed his leg helped me regain my composure.

I had agreed to cover the execution because I was a young reporter eager for a national byline. I remember receiving an e-mail addressed to the entire newsroom asking for volunteers. Half asleep while working a night editing shift, I checked the electronic story archives to make sure previous execution coverage had been used on the national wire. I pressed reply.

As a reporter I had seen a corpse in a smashed car from 100 yards away, but it didn't occur to me how different it would be to watch the blue veins slowly appear on the forehead of someone who's not breathing. With Zuern, it was particularly easy because he shaved his head.


When I was in college, my girlfriend would try to provoke arguments with me over whether the death penalty was right. It drove her crazy that I didn't have a firm opinion either way. I still hadn't made my mind up when I volunteered to go to Lucasville; the execution hadn't seemed real until I stood there watching Zuern's final breaths.

Afterwards, I had strange dreams about dying. I sat by the pool at my apartment complex and tried to imagine what it would be like to sit in a cell, with the weeks of my life rendered a countdown and my death about to become a number on some advocacy group's list. Surely by now, I could form a stance on the death penalty, right?

It was ultimately too difficult to think about, so I stopped. Concentrating on Zuern's death while trying to extrapolate a moral lesson was ultimately like staring into the sun for too long. I even watched the state put a second killer to sleep -- No. 920 had stabbed and bludgeoned his parents with knives and a cutting board -- but I'm still not sure whether I think it's right or wrong.

One thing is clear, though: States have done their best to sanitize the process, but there's no way to completely strip violence out of the process of killing someone.

As I watched the motionless Zuern, I imagined the body trying to fight for one last breath and not being able to do it. The rest of the muscles and blood vessels are primed to keep churning forward and carry on life, but the heart-stopping drugs have done their work and the big muscle inside the chest has stopped pumping. The life ends.


asap staff reporter Jonathan Drew witnessed two executions while working in the AP's Columbus, Ohio bureau.

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