I have served as a state’s witness at two executions. They were solemn affairs. I was impressed with the effort the state made to keep the executions dignified. There were no jokes or wisecracks from the correctional staff.
Everyone seemed aware of the potential for these things to turn into Jerry Springer shows. That’s because the families of the victim and the condemned are present, albeit separated.
State’s witnesses are on one side of the execution chamber. Directly across are the family and friends of the person to be executed. When the curtains are opened, the two groups can see each other. The person to be executed is already lying on the gurney. He is covered with a sheet. Tubing from an IV is visible, coming out from a wall and snaking up under the sheet.
The family and friends of the victim are in a viewing area at the foot of the gurney. They cannot be seen by the other two groups.
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In each of the executions I witnessed, the state used a three-drug formula. A disembodied voice quietly announces as each drug is administered. The first drug renders the condemned unconscious. In both executions I witnessed, the condemned man coughed lightly. There were no signs of distress. The second drug stops the respiratory system. The final drug stops the heart.
Moments after the third drug is administered, the voice informs the three groups that the condemned man has been pronounced dead, and the execution is complete. The curtains close.
Both of the men whose executions I saw were prime candidates for the death penalty.
Stephen Johns, who was executed in October 2001, killed 17-year-old Don Voepel in February 1982. Voepel was a high school senior working part-time at a gas station in south St. Louis. Johns robbed the gas station and shot Voepel three times in the back of the head.
Martin Link was executed in February 2011. Twenty years earlier, he snatched 11-year-old Elissa Self-Braun as she walked toward her school bus. He raped her and strangled her and dumped her body on the banks of the St. Francis River in Wayne County.
In neither case was there any question of guilt. Still, I am ambivalent about the death penalty. People on both sides make sound arguments. There is no need for me to rehash them.
At the moment, the future of executions in Missouri is uncertain. One of the drugs in the three-drug cocktail is unavailable, and there is a problem with the single drug that was going to be used as an alternative. It is commonly used as a surgical anesthetic, and its European makers are threatening to cut off supplies to this country if it is used for executions.
On Friday, Gov. Jay Nixon announced the state would postpone an execution that had been scheduled for this month — the first since Link’s — because of concerns about causing a disruption in the supply of the surgical anesthetic.
So the state is casting about for yet another alternative. Attorney General Chris Koster has previously suggested a return to the gas chamber. That seems unlikely.
With the death penalty in the news lately, I have been getting a lot of notes from readers. Some of them are serious, some facetious. Among the latter was a proposal to return to Roman-era gladiator days. Sell tickets, promote gambling on outcomes, create a reality show, do whatever necessary to raise money.
That seems unlikely, too, but given the nature of the Missouri Legislature, I wouldn’t say it’s impossible.
But it did make me wonder a little about public executions. After all, for most of the long history of capital punishment, executions were public. Maybe they were more of a deterrent that way.
Also, if we are going to execute people, maybe we should do it publicly. If the state is going to take a life, why do it behind closed doors? If it is state-sanctioned, don’t act like it’s something to be ashamed of. That’s another thought.
Most historians give Missouri credit — or blame — for the last public execution in this country. In May 1937, Roscoe “Red” Jackson was hanged in Galena, Mo. The sheriff handed out 400 tickets to the hanging, which was conducted inside a stockade. If that’s not quite public, the honor goes to Kentucky, which hanged a man a year earlier. No tickets were necessary.
If we were to go public, though, we’d probably want to steer clear of lethal injection. The executions I witnessed were antiseptic in nature. Professional and clean. It was like watching a person fall asleep.