Execution on Ice

Ernest was scheduled to be executed on December 6, 2002, at 2:00 a.m.  All executions are scheduled for 2:00 a.m. in North Carolina.  Urban legend is that this early morning hour was designated long ago to limit inmate unrest, as well as public demonstration.   Maybe so, but the late hour is brutal on those involved in an execution, especially the witnesses and the family and friends of the inmate.   For those trying to stop the execution, exhaustion mixes with hope to stave off despair.

I awoke on Wednesday, December 4, to a grey sky.  A winter storm was on its way.   I went downstairs and flipped through the Raleigh News & Observer until I got to the latest weather report:

It is not yet officially winter, but the Triangle is bracing for its first brush with icy weather today and Thursday.

Forecasts call for snow and sleet starting by mid-afternoon, changing to a mix of sleet and freezing rain tonight. The storm could produce a quarter-inch of ice or more on roads by Thursday morning, when more rain or freezing rain is expected.[1]

“Great,” I said sarcastically as I recalled my execution mantra: expect the unexpected and roll with it.

My mind began to ponder the possible scenarios.   What would it take for the State of North Carolina to call off the execution?  Maybe the Executioners won’t be able to get to the prison?  Then a panic set in.  What if I can’t get to the prison?   What if my co-counsel, John and Matthew who live even further away, can’t get there?  And what about Ernest’s family?  Eight of his nine brothers and sisters, along with nieces and nephews, planned on being at the prison for their first contact visit with Ernest in a decade.  They would be devastated if they were unable to tell Ernest goodbye, as would I.        

It was raining when I went to bed early on December 4th.  I was awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of tree limbs breaking and transformers blowing.  Our electricity had gone out.  I snuggled closer to Pat in bed and tried not to think what the next 24 hours might bring.

When I woke again, the sun had risen.  I blew into the air and saw my breath.  I sat up, looked out the window, and saw a winter wonderland.  Everything in sight was covered with ice.

Unbeknownst to us, we were experiencing an ice storm of historic proportions.   New records were set across the Carolinas and Virginia on power outages and their durations, traffic accidents, school closing durations, and fatalities resulting from an extreme weather event.  Some dubbed it “Hugo on Ice” because the storm broke the previous record for regional power outages set by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.  Raleigh recorded the most freezing rain from a single storm since 1948, more than doubling its previous record for freezing rain totals. [1] OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pat went downstairs to turn on the gas fireplace and stove to give us a little relief from the arctic air.  I checked my cell phone.  No service.  I could not communicate with my co-counsel, the prison or Rose.  All I knew to do was to strike out for the prison.

Thanks to a gas water heater, I was able to take a hot shower before putting on layers of clothing.   I pulled on my hiking boots and carefully slid to the car.  Pat stayed behind to care for his elderly mother and our dogs.

My slow 30 mile trek to the prison took me through a surreal white landscape.  Those trees that were not snapped into pieces were arched to the ground by the weight of the ice.  It was lonely on the road, which was a good thing: fewer things to hit or to be hit by.

There were no signs of electricity, until I reached the prison.  As I pulled into the
de-iced driveway leading to the visitor center, planted between the road and the prison, I saw the lights on inside. “Damn. I guess they are up to an execution.”

 


 

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From Lawyer to Reverend

The usher handed me a printed program as I rushed into the funeral home.  It was only when he spoke that the mental clues began to fall into place:  “Are you the minister?”  Well, I did go to seminary, I thought to myself as I stared at the well-dressed man, wondering how he knew.  I opened up the program; yep, there was my name: Cindy Adcock, Officiating.

There was a part of me that was not surprised that I would be officiating at Ernest’s funeral.  I had prepared somewhat for such an eventuality, though not exactly for this eventuality.

Ernest’s sister, Rose, had called me the day before.   Pat and I were on our way to Laurinburg, ironically for a memorial service.  Pat’s beloved Uncle Charles had died a month earlier.  His funeral was held in California, where he had lived for decades, but he was now being buried at the McCoy family plot.  As we traveled the rural back roads, I was in a haze watching the ice-covered trees give way to a drier, but still bleak, landscape.

Rose asked if I would be coming to Ernest’s funeral.  “Of course,” I answered without skipping a beat.  I had never been to a client’s funeral before, but then I had never been invited.   “I was also wondering if you would be willing to say a few words,” Rose added tentatively.   “I would be honored,” I replied reassuringly.

Perhaps it was my preconceived notions of what a funeral for a man just executed might be like, but my mind latched onto “a few” words.  I imagined a few friends and family members gathered in a small room taking turns saying “a few words” about what Ernest had meant to us.

After Rose hung up, I turned to Pat, who was driving.  “The funeral is tomorrow in Kinston.” I paused and then added, “You will go with me, right?”  I expected he would.   Pat had been my rock over the last week.  Besides, I knew he understood the importance of funerals, always attending those of friends and family.  He had flown across country to be at his Uncle Charles’ funeral.

My cellphone rang again.  I looked down at it and saw Rose’s name pop up.   Guess she forgot something.  “How do you want to be identified in the program?” Rose asked, quickly adding “Reverend?”   Hmmm.   My mind searched for meaning in the question.  I had been Ernest’s lawyer.  Would that be appropriate?  “No, not Reverend,” I responded.  In the end, I left it to Rose.

That was an odd question, I thought to myself after we hung up, but my mind quickly turned to other matters.