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.

What’s a holler?

No, I didn’t spell it wrong.   Though you can spell it “hollow,” those of us from Appalachia pronounce and spell it “holler.”   Technically, it is a “small valley between mountains.”   But we never really think of it technically.

It didn’t take me long to conclude that I was the right person to be investigating a murder case in the hollers of Western North Carolina.   Not because of any brilliance on my part, but because of my common heritage with the people of the region.   While I am not a mountain woman myself, I am not far removed.  (more at https://mysites.charlottelaw.edu/personal/cadcock/Personal%20Documents/Blog%20entries.docx).   In addition, I spent my early adult years deep in Appalachia, getting my schooling at Carson Newman College (recently turned University — http://www.cn.edu/ ).   That is where I met my first husband, who was from “them thar hills” down the road in Kingsport, TN.  We were married 10 years.

My common heritage with Zane, his friends and family was not just geographic in nature, though; it was also socio-economic.   Who would have thought that living in trailers in the country as a child would come in handy as a lawyer in my 30s?  Also, though sad to say, it didn’t hurt that I was white.   It was rare to cross paths with a black person in the hollers but not rare to pass a confederate flag.

So, I was comfortable with driving – though never by myself — the winding, sometimes dirt, back roads into the mountains and down into the hollers.  My most colorful visit was with one of Zane’s aunts, Elsie.  She was a sister of Zane’s mother, Selma.  Selma was living with the Hills at the time of the shooting but had passed away since Zane’s trial.   So, we got most of our information about Zane’s childhood from Elsie, Mary (Selma’s other sister), and Frannie (Zane’s wife).   All three were strong mountain women, but Elsie won the “best in show” prize.

The year was 1994 but it could have been 1894.   Elsie lived in a holler known as Big Sandy Mush.  As one website even describes it today,

Though less than fifteen miles from Asheville, the historic farming community of Big Sandy Mush seems a hundred years away in time. It’s completely ringed by mountains that have protected it from unkind progress. There is no commercial development in Sandy Mush-not even a gas station-and life goes on here at a gentler pace. http://www.randallglen.com/bsmandsh.php.

Though I would typically call the family members of a client ahead of a home visit, Elsie had no phone.  So, my investigator, Pat, and I headed off for Big Sandy Mush, not sure if we could find Elsie or, if we did, whether she would speak with us.

Elsie lived at the end of a long winding dirt road in a wooden shack next to the local school bus turn-around, which was the landmark that people would give us to find her.  What we found there was an old small cabin surrounded by dirt, chickens, and firewood.  Not far from the cabin was a well, situated near a babbling brook.

“Well, this is quaint,” I said to Pat as we got out of our non-descript rental car and approached the cabin.   An elderly woman in a housedress emerged.   “We are looking for Elsie.”  I announced.  “What you want?” the woman responded suspiciously.  I explained that we represented her nephew Zane on appeal and wanted to talk to her about him.  The look on Elsie’s face shifted from concern to relief.  “Of course,” she said, “I would do anything for Zane.”

Elsie welcomed us into the cabin, which seemed to consist of two rooms, only one of which Elsie occupied.   It was dark inside, lit by a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling.  There was very little room to move around as Elsie’s possessions – clothes, blankets, books, medicine, and just stuff – were piled up all around the walls.   The room included a pot-belly stove which served both as a heater and a cooking surface, a few hard chairs and a big pile of blankets, which appeared to be Elsie’s bed.   We chose to sit on the chairs, from which we could see through the cracks in the walls.

Elsie was a delight.  She had nothing but good things to say about Zane.  “Poor boy.  He never had a chance.”   Describing Zane’s childhood, Elsie provided insight into a world in which women rarely found a good man.   Women who survived either had run off their scoundrel of a husband or were lucky enough for their husband to disappear on his own.    Those that didn’t, like Selma, suffered greatly, as did their children.

Elsie’s husband was long gone, and she had been on her own for decades in her little cabin on the brook.   Her children visited and tried to get her to move out, but she would not.   Despite her 80 some years, she had rarely seen a doctor.  She showed us her leg as evidence of just how little she needed doctors.    She had sores on it but they had been worse.  “I just pulled the skin off the sores and fed it to the chickens,” she said proudly.

Meeting my first death row client

A man in a read jumpsuit appeared outside the door on the other side of the viewing window.  His movements suggested that the guard was removing handcuffs.  When the door swung open, Zane shuffled in and took a seat.  He was just a couple of feet away but the concrete wall with the plexiglas window kept us from physical contact.   Zane did not look the death row type.  He looked like a “normal” old man, older than the 57 years he had behind him.  The hard life of the mountains and the hard drinking were apparent.

Henderson explained our purpose, and Zane seemed pleased that someone was paying attention to his case.  I explained how I would be developing the facts of his case, in support of his court appointed attorneys.  We had to move fast given the deadlines set by the Court.   He was ok with my plan, but he wanted me to know one thing: “I can’t do a life sentence.”

Hmmm.  “So, you would rather be executed than do a life sentence?” I asked.   He slowly nodded and explained the hellacious prison conditions that were draining him of life.

“I didn’t mean to kill him,” Zane said, referring to his son.  “Randy was a good kid . . . but he pulled a gun on me.”  Zane continued to tell us his perspective of what happened that fateful night, which was consistent with his trial testimony.  He believed that he shot his son in self-defense and that he did not shoot at his wife.  Rather, the gun went off accidentally when he went out the door.

Zane was polite, looking down much of the time, glancing up occasionally as if to check to see if we were still there.  The D.A. offered a plea deal to second degree murder, but Zane believed even then that he couldn’t do the time.  Had he taken the offer he would be eligible for parole in 7-10 years.  But Zane was a stubborn man.  His clouded memories of the shooting convinced him that he shot in self-defense, and he hated being locked up.  He was very fearful of police and of guards.

Zane had no trusted attorney to walk him through the deal.  He hired one of the best lawyers in town when first arrested, the lawyer who had done previous work for him, but Zane ran out of money very quickly.  So, he was assigned court-appointed attorneys, who he didn’t know and who had very little capital experience.

I asked about his wife.  “Are you and Frannie still married?  “Yea,” he answered.  “She visits me every month.”  Really?   This news was encouraging.   The mother of the victim regularly visits her son’s killer.  One of the hardest aspects of a death case for defense lawyers is dealing with the surviving victims.  In domestic cases, the killer’s family and the victim’s family are one and the same.  This reality complicates the work of the legal team who relies upon a client’s family for help in building a case for life.

Zane assured me that Frannie would help me.  I had my doubts, but told him I would contact her.