Lethal Injections

P1040474On Saturday, I awoke to find my old black lab Macey in a bad way.  Pat and I knew this day was coming; we just hoped there would be a clear sign.  Now there was.  It was time to help Macey “crossover” to greener pastures, where she could once again roam free . . . to rummage through trash cans, one of her favorite activities.   At least that was the image I chose to hold onto to get me through the next few hours.

The employees at the vet hospital were very accommodating.  I arrived unexpectedly a couple of hours before they closed for the weekend.  “Don’t worry.  We can work her in.”

Macey was in the back of our Honda Element.  It had been a struggle to get her there.  Macey had lost the use of her back legs, but I had managed to pull/drag her out of the house and lift her to the very spot where she now rested.  (Pat was out of town.)

Now, I had help.  The aide and I struggled to get Macey onto a stretcher and strap her down so she wouldn’t fall off.  Then she was carried off to the back of the hospital to be “triaged.”  I was not allowed to be with her.  Instead, I was shuttled into an exam room, to wait . . . alone.

I tried to call Pat on my cell but could not reach him.  So, I just waited.  Thankfully, it wasn’t long before the door opened.  Two women entered with Macey on the stretcher.  She seemed to float in, on a magic carpet, partly covered with a comfy quilt.

I was thrilled to see Macey looking like her old self, even as she confusedly looked around the room.  I noticed a port taped to her front leg.  The aides sat the stretcher on the floor and left us alone to visit until the doctor was available.  Macey was never much into being touched, except in certain spots.  So I massaged those places, as I reassured her that all would be ok.  “I am ready,” she seemed to say.

Macey was over 14 years old, old for a lab.  We adopted her six years ago as a companion dog to our blind dog, Whitey.  Macey’s health had been declining for a while.  She had lung cancer, though a nerve disorder is what had brought her down.  Macey had rallied for the holidays, though, and that meant a lot to the family.

The vet entered the room, gently interrupting our visit.  She made a point to assure me that I was doing the right thing.   “It is best for Macey and that is what matters most,” she said.  I felt ready.

“Have you gone through this before,” the vet asked.  I nodded.  I couldn’t help think about it, in the same hospital, with Whitey.  “Okay, I have a syringe in my pocket,” the vet said as she reached toward her lab coat pocket.   “She will just go to sleep.”

WHOA . . . .  Not so fast.  “I don’t want to be here for that,” I blurted out.  “Sorry, I wasn’t sure,” she replied.  I was flooded with mixed emotions.  I knew I couldn’t stay, but I feared I sounded uncaring.  I looked to the doctor for direction, and she came through.  “I will leave the room.  You can say your goodbyes to Macey and then just leave.  I will take care of the rest.”   She then hugged me and left Macey and me alone.  I took a deep breath.

“Bye girl,” I said as I rubbed Macey in her special spots.  “You have been a great dog.  Everything is going to be fine.”  Tears were running down my face.  Not wanting other dog owners to see my upset, I raced through the waiting room and left alone in our Honda Element.

Perhaps it is common for pet parents to not stay with their animals being put down.  I don’t know, but I was angry that I could not.

I am a capital defense attorney and have witnessed the execution of four clients.

Zane, Willie, Steve and Timmy were all strapped down to a stretcher with a baby blue blanket pulled to their chins.  I never saw the tubes that I knew were inserted into their skin.  Separated by a thick window, I kept my eyes on each of their faces, trying to provide whatever comfort I could.  I sat there staring at Zane, Willie, Steve and Timmy, mouthing words of comfort and smiling.  All the while knowing that they were being poisoned to death — or as some like to think of it, being “put him to sleep.”

Yet I could not be there for my dog.  Witnessing those executions has left me vulnerable to traumatic stress reactions.  My first time was stepping up to have my own blood drawn, months after Zane’s execution.  The discomfort is less about the images and more about the flood of emotions:  the paralysis, the helplessness.  It is a state of mind one avoids if possible.  And on Saturday, I did.

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Beaverdam Loop Road

The most stressful part of investigating a death penalty case for a defense attorney is talking with the family members of the murder victim.  Needless to say, many survivors of murder are not expecting to be contacted by the killer’s attorney – especially years after the trial — and many are not happy when they are contacted.   But when the family members of the victim are also the family members of your client, you have no choice.  If you want to be a diligent and effective advocate, you have to reach out to your client’s family.

We had one reason for hope of victim family cooperation in Zane’s case:  he and his wife Frannie had reconciled.   After an initial period of shock and anger, and after Zane had been tried and sentenced to death, Frannie began making the four hour trek once a month to Central Prison to visit the man who had killed her son.  According to Zane, she had forgiven him and she would help us.  See post at https://cadcocknc.wordpress.com/2012/10/12/meeting-my-first-death-row-client/

This news was good, but it wasn’t news I could count on.  Frannie still lived in the same small house in which Zane had shot and killed her son — on Beaverdam Loop Road, set far back in a holler.    Zane had given me a long list of his friends to contact, many of whom lived on Beaverdam Loop Road.   There was only one way in and out of the holler and that was by Beaverdam Road, a long winding country road through beautiful farmland.   We had to take all precautions to protect our investigation, in case Frannie would not speak with us or, worse, tell others not to speak with us.  Thus, my plan was to talk to as many friends that we could, and before any of the Hills found out we were in the holler.

Zane had given me many addresses of his family and friends, which was helpful.  In the early 1990s, there was no internet you could use to find people.  Without an address, the resources were the phonebook and good old fashion gumshoeing. If you couldn’t get an address, you could often find someone who could tell you how to find person you sought.  Directions given often were descriptive in nature: “Go over two hills, turn right at the tree with a big split in it, then go past the red barn and just past the pasture with the big black cow, you will see the trailer on the left.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Zane’s neighbors.  These people may have once been Zane’s friends but would they still think of him that way?   Or would they want to have nothing to do with their friend-turned-murderer?  After all, Frannie still lived among them.  Would they be willing to help Zane without her okay?   So, our first trip into the holler was not preceded by any phone calls.  We just showed up, hoping people were home.

Stealing my nerves, my investigator and I began knocking on doors.  To my great relief, Zane’s friends — young and old, male and female alike — were welcoming and eager to help.   They accepted that Zane had shot his son, Randy, a man they all liked.  He was the “good” son, the one that caused no trouble.   But, person after person believed that Zane would not have shot Randy if he had been in his right mind. Yes, they knew about the reported history of domestic violence but most minimized it.   More than one neighbor explained, “Frannie could give it as good as she got it.”

Family Secrets (Part II)

Zane’s father, Curtis, was by everyone’s account mean and cruel.  His meanness did not come out of a bottle, as one might expect from a mountain man.  Curtis did not drink alcohol.  He was just plain mean.

Zane and his mother lived in constant fear of Curtis.  Curtis would get angry at them for anything or for nothing at all.  When he was mad at Zane, which was most every day, Curtis would yell at him, call him stupid and tell him he was a bastard.

Curtis would beat the living daylights out of Zane.  Curtis would beat him with his fist or whatever he happened to have in his hand at the time.  Zane was forced to milk the cows before school.  If he did not “do it right” or – heaven forbid – he spilled some of the milk, Curtis would beat Zane.  Once, when Zane was about seven years old, he broke his arm.  Curtis beat Zane for breaking his arm.

Curtis would often beat Zane as a matter of routine when Zane came home from school.  To avoid Curtis and the abuse, Zane would plow the fields until late into the night, sometimes as late as two or three in the morning.  When Zane was about ten, he started spending his time over at his neighbor Hoile’s house to avoid Curtis.  Zane would stay in his room a lot when he was younger.  If he was not in his room he would be over at Hoile’s.

Curtis would do other things just to be mean to Zane.  When Zane was very young he had a pet dog which he loved.  Curtis killed the dog and made sure that Zane knew it.  Curtis never offered an explanation to Zane for why he killed his dog.  But then, Curtis seemed to have no misgivings about hurting animals.  He was known to regularly beat cows with sticks, once beating a cow with a hoe in the head killing it.   Curtis even beat his blind horse.  He would get mad at the horse because it did not know where it was going.

Curtis was also known to wield a knife.  Curtis once cut the throat of Albert Whitaker, who had been dating his daughter, Margaret.  Albert made a comment about Margaret going out with other men.  The next thing Albert knew, he was in the hospital, with a gapping slit in his throat.  Curtis even tried to cut Zane with a knife, but Zane escaped.

Despite the reprehensible nature of Curtis’ treatment of his only son, it paled in comparison to the brutality Curtis heaped upon his wife, Selma.  There was physical abuse.  Selma’s sister Mary and her son Zane both recalled seeing the bruises, black eyes, and welts on Selma’s body from Curtis’ beatings.  Curtis used to jerk Selma out of bed in the middle of the night for various reasons such as to go look for Zane or to milk the cows.  Curtis beat Selma once with a switch to try and get her to milk a cow that would kick people in the head when anyone tried to milk it.  Selma’s back was always hurting her.  She even had to go to the hospital a couple of times because of her back.  Eventually Selma had to have her kidney removed, apparently caused by Curtis’s abuse.

There was also psychological abuse.  Curtis was always yelling at Selma, often calling her crazy.   But the worst came at bedtime.  Curtis would twist his shirt up like a rope and keep it by his bedside.  He would tell Selma to go to sleep but not expect to wake up, because he was going to strangle her in her sleep.   Alternatively, he would threaten to hang Selma.  Once he was caught with Selma up on a ramp in the barn with a rope around her neck.  Someone entered the barn and he desisted.

Mary was very protective of her sister Selma.  Mary told me that Selma was the quiet one and that she was the fighting one.  When Mary came around, Curtis would behave himself.

Neither Zane nor Selma talked to others much about Curtis’ abuse.  Selma was afraid of Curtis and never told of Curtis’ abuse until after he died.  Some family members saw the abuse firsthand.  After Curtis’ death, Selma told a few close friends of the abuse.  When the abuse was occurring, the young Zane told Hoile about some of what was happening.  As an adult, Zane rarely talked about Curtis.

When I asked Zane why he didn’t talk about the abuse, he said he was ashamed.  “I knew that other kids weren’t treated like that by their fathers, so I didn’t want anyone to know.”   Now I knew why he didn’t tell his defense attorneys at trial . . . and why I had to get the details from his family.  Old secrets are hard to break.

Family Secrets

Like Aunt Elsie, Zane’s Aunt Mary was very receiving of Pat and me.  She was as sharp as a tack and, on several occasions, opened up her home, which unlike her sister’s was quite normal.   Selma had confided in Mary all those years ago, and now Mary passed along the tragic tale of Curtis’ cruelty to his family.   Adding to this tale was Curtis’ old buddy Hoile.  Hoile owned a dairy farm across the road from where the Hills’ raised their children.   Though Elsie, Mary, and Hoile were all eager to help Zane, no one had ever asked for their help.  As a result, Pat and I were able to gather crucial mitigating evidence that Zane’s jury never heard.

Zane was one of three children born to Curtis and Selma Hill, who were tenant farmers.  They were extremely poor, owning very few personal possessions.  Yet, poverty was not what ground Selma and her children down.  It was the almost constant psychological and physical abuse heaped upon them by Curtis.

Monroe was the first born of Curtis and Selma, arriving on May 19, 1928.  He lived less than two years, dying on March 25, 1930.  Monroe died of Pellagra, which is a disease associated with malnutrition.  It was the Great Depression, but Monroe suffered from more than just being hungry.   Selma revealed to her sisters that Curtis could not stand Monroe’s crying, and would threaten to beat Monroe.  One story stood out:  once when the baby was crying, Curtis took his son by the heels and swung him in the air.   Monroe’s short life was a secret kept from Zane until he was twelve years old.

Margaret was born not long after Monroe’s death, but she did not suffer the same fate.  No one ever saw Curtis yell at Margaret or physically abuse her.  Some said she was spoiled, while others wondered if she suffered a different kind of abuse.  Margaret escaped her family by joining the military and never looked back.  She settled in Hawaii.

Zane was born on May 9, 1936.   He remembers first hearing his mother cry when he was five or six years old.  Zane began to realize his father was hurting his mother.  From then on, Zane would hear his mother cry most every night.

The young Zane and Margaret were described as opposites.  Zane was viewed as easy going, friendly, and slow to lose his temper.  Margaret, on the other hand, was viewed as spoiled and short tempered.  Zane made friends easily and was generally liked by other kids.  Such was not the case with Margaret.

Margaret and Zane were prone to fight.  With Margaret being five years older, she tended to get the upper hand.  However, Zane remembered Margaret always standing up for him whenever he fought with others.   He also remembered that Margaret, even when present, never stood up to Curtis when he abused him or Selma.   Zane didn’t blame Margaret though.

We tried to locate Margaret but made it only as far as one of her daughters, Susan.  “Mom’s dead,” Susan told me on the phone.  Zane and his aunts all believed she still lived in Hawaii.  “Mom told us not to notify her family of her death.”   No, this request did not seem odd to Susan who explained that whenever she would ask her mother about her childhood, Margaret would respond with “It’s none of your business.”  No, Susan did not know about her uncle being on death row.  Margaret told her long ago that Zane had been killed in an accident when his truck rolled over into a ditch.

Saying Good-Bye to a Client

Basden funeral

The usher handed me a printed program as I rushed into the funeral home.  We were late; Pat was parking the car.  “You must be the minister,” the well-dressed man posited.   “What?”  My mind was trying to make sense of his declaration that sounded more like a question.   “Well, I did go to seminary,” I thought to myself as I stared at the usher, wondering how he knew.  I opened up the program in my hand; yep, there was my name:  Cindy Adcock, Officiating.

Rose had asked me the day before to say a few words at her brother’s funeral.  Ernest was my third client to be executed, but my first to have a funeral.  I had imagined a small room with a few people saying “a few words” about Ernest.  I looked through the open double doors.  The room looked like a church sanctuary, and it was packed!  I took a deep breath and headed down the hall in search of Rose.  I reminded myself of my execution mantra:  expect the unexpected and roll with it.

************

The images of the last few days flooded my mind as I walked onto the elevated platform at the front of the funeral home.  Ernest lay in front of me in a flag draped coffin.  His family sat in the front rows of the packed house.   Organ music was playing.  When it stopped, Ernest’s niece, Kristin, rose and began singing a cappella: Precious Lord, Take My Hand.   I moved deliberately to the podium, led a prayer and spoke from the notes that I had scribbled in pencil under the blankets early that morning:  “We are all more than our worst deed, and Ernest Basden was much more.  What I want to share with you today is what I believe Ernest taught us.”  I proceeded to share lessons in forgiveness, hope, faith, death and continuing the fight against the violence of the death penalty.

After I sat down, Ernest’s brother James rose and stepped onto the platform.  He had been designated the “family spokesperson.”  I didn’t know what to expect.  He began singing/speaking “Let it Be” in an endearing off pitch manner.  When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me.”  Mary was the name of Ernest and James’ mother, who died tragically long ago.  James struggled to remain composed, as did I.

At the end of the service, I stepped down, walked to the center aisle and slowly led Ernest’s casket to the waiting hearse.  My silver pick-up truck had been designated the lead vehicle of the funeral procession, immediately behind the police escort.  “Seriously?” I snarked to my husband.  “They killed him and now they are honoring him.”

The long procession slowly snaked through Kinston, finally turning right, just past the Walmart, into the cemetery.

The sky was a clear blue.  By the time I reached the gravesite, Ernest was waiting in his casket.  As I approached, Rose handed me Ernest’s Bible and asked me to read the marked scripture, his favorite but one I cannot now remember.

After I read the verse, moved by the Spirit I guess, I kissed the Bible and lifted it to the heavens, as if I were releasing Ernest to God.

Who is Hurt by Executions?

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.”

The Benefits of Being a Dead Man Walking

Ernest’s family had beaten me to the prison and were already visiting him in small groups by the time I arrived. I circulated among those waiting, to see how each was doing. Eventually, John and Matthew, and even the two law students who had worked on the case, made it to the prison. John had to literally chain-saw his way out of his driveway.

Not wanting to take family time away from Ernest, we lawyers patiently waited for an opportunity to visit with him. After the lunch break, we were given our chance, so we made our way through the gauntlet of steel doors to reach the visitation area.

It is perverse, but the visits on a condemned inmate’s last day on this earth are often some of the most enjoyable of his life. Instead of the usual visits in a small phone booth with no possibility of human touch, leaning down to speak through a grate, visits before an execution bring visitor and inmate together in the same small concrete and glass cell, with full opportunity for talking, laughing, crying and, yes, touching.  All hugs, kisses and touches, however, are closely monitored by a guard in the cell, as well as others monitoring from outside the cell, and thus, must be quick and appropriate. It is like being in a fishbowl or more aptly, a research lab. The inside guard writes down every move made and every word said.

Ernest was in good spirits. He was enjoying his visits and, as with most “dead men walking,” he had been given drugs to relax. Most of the day was lighthearted. After all, there was still hope that Ernest would not be killed that night. We joked about how the Governor should grant clemency because of the weather, if for no other reason.

Darkness set in early. So did hunger. We had put so much energy into getting to the prison that we hadn’t thought about needing to leave it. The students volunteered to venture out in search of food. Though we were in the middle of the city, it took them over two hours to return with food. “We couldn’t find anything open; then we saw a pizza place with its lights on,” Matt reported. “They had a generator and were pumping out the pizzas, but they were low on ingredients.” He opened a box; the sauce was ranch dressing. We dug in.

Outside the prison gate, about a dozen protesters braved the bitter cold and ice to stand vigil. I threw on my coat, hat and gloves and headed up the hill to see if Pat was among them. It was hard to identify anyone; they were all bundled like Eskimos head to toe. Then, I recognized the familiar big purple parka. I grabbed Pat and asked a guard if I could bring him in. The guard stepped aside and let us pass. A banner attached to the fence read: “The death penalty makes us all murderers.”