Ernest was scheduled to die in just a few hours, and we still had not heard from the Governor’s counsel. Why was he waiting so long to tell us his decision? Was it a good sign? Maybe he just wanted to wait until the evening news had been put to bed. Or was it a bad sign? If it were good news, wouldn’t he want to relieve our pain?
Around 9:00, John’s phone finally rang. The room fell silent. It was hard to breathe. “Yes sir,” I heard John say. “I understand. Thank you for your consideration.” John closed his phone and shook his head. There would be no clemency. The shock was palpable. The wailing began.
This moment may be the hardest moment in death work for an attorney. The emotional pain is intense. I could literally feel it in my gut. Yet, you have responsibilities: to your client and to your client’s family and others on the legal team who have invested so much in the fight for life. Thus, you tamp down your own sorrow, to make it through the night.
I headed for Rose, who was sobbing. She gave me one of her legendary bear hugs. “I am so sorry,” I said through my own tears.
We needed to tell Ernest. John, Matthew and I bundled up and walked toward the main building. When we entered the visiting cell, Ernest was waiting on the other side of the rear door. Our eyes met, and I tried to crack a smile, while we waited for the steel door between us to slide open. Ernest stepped in, and John broke the news: “The Governor denied clemency, Ernest.” Ernest was the only one not crying. “Don’t worry,” he said as he hugged us. “I am ready to die. I appreciate all you have done for me.”
Ernest’s family was standing outside the cell door. We needed to step out and let them have their final visit. We would return for ours.
The execution was still three hours away. I wanted to run, to escape, to go anywhere else and weep in private, but there was nowhere to run, at least nowhere with electricity. When I reached the front door of the prison, I walked past the visitor center straight to the group holding vigil. Most of the few left were my friends. I thanked each of them for their support, as I tried not to break down.
In our last visit with Ernest, he called us his “dream team,” and urged us to “continue the fight.” I had no plans to witness Ernest’s execution; I had seen enough clients die. Besides, I knew John and Matthew would do it. But not witnessing made it even harder to say goodbye to Ernest. I would never see him again. This healthy man was about to be killed. Before the guards took Ernest away, I hugged him tightly, kissed him on the cheek, and said “I will never forget you.”
The lawyers and family were ushered into the prison mailroom, located downstairs from the execution chamber. We passed the time by praying, singing and telling stories about Ernest. At 1:30, the warden came for the witnesses: John, Matthew, Rose and Ernest’s brother Gerry. I moved to the couch to sit next to Sonya. We agreed that she would be my adopted little sis. As the clock ticked to 2:00 and beyond, I held her and rocked.
At 2:25, Rose burst through the prison mailroom door, looking like she was going to explode. Her face was beet red and as puffy as a cabbage patch doll. She was trying to hold in her pain and anger as the tears ran down her cheeks. John and Matthew didn’t look much better. Rose blurted out that she wanted to speak to the media.
Still crying, Rose’s pain was obvious as she approached the podium at the 2:30 a.m. press conference in the visitor center. “I just want you to know, my brother went with courage and dignity,” she pronounced. “The State of North Carolina did not hurt my brother. He is in heaven.” Pointing to her red, puffy face, she added, “this is who the State hurt; they have created more victims.”