By Kim Curtis
I remember the first time. He changed my way of looking at the world. I don’t remember his name, his face or the color of his skin. I remember a nervous bundle in the pit of my stomach, elongated moments of fear, disgust.
When the curtain parted, he already was strapped to the gurney, covered with a white sheet that hid everything but his left arm and his face. His head was turned towards us in the cushioned chairs behind the glass. He watched a tired-looking woman in the front row. “I love you. I love you. I love you.” He mouthed the words. Wife? Girlfriend? I don’t remember. My notes don’t say.
I started work late that day, heading into the Columbia, South Carolina bureau of The Associated Press about 6 p.m. I had been assigned to cover that night‘s execution. I was late because I couldn’t figure out what to wear. How should a reporter dress when covering a man’s execution? Something respectable. Feminine, but not too feminine. Something professional, but not unfeeling. Something dignified, but not uptight. I eventually settled on a plaid tweed skirt that hung slightly above my knees, a blue sleeveless sweater and a matching brown tweed jacket. I wore black tights and black flats with silent soles. Around my neck I wore the dove pendant given to me years earlier by my best friend. It was my talisman.
When I arrived at the office, I gathered background material about the man scheduled to die. I read the Corrections Department’s press release about how he spent his last day—who visited, who he wanted to witness his execution. South Carolina allowed the condemned to invite two witnesses. They were usually lawyers and ministers. The press release also listed his last meal. Details that seemed utterly mundane on any other day, now on this, his last day, took on a certain profundity. These details sickened me. They mocked the man about to die. Suddenly, the state gave the man a family and loved ones and favorite foods. Hearty, Mom’s-home-cooking-type Southern food. Fried chicken. Sweet potato pie. Corn-on-the-cob. Sweet tea. Anything they wanted. Pizza. Steak. Shrimp and grits. These men had been locked up for most of their lives. Now they get dignity? Respect? I refused to include the inmate’s last meal in my stories. Red velvet cake. Apple pie. Chocolate ice cream.
About 10 p.m., I drove my beat-up station wagon to Broad River Correctional Institution, far from downtown, the Capitol, the governor’s mansion. I flashed my press pass at the gate. The guards joked with me, ignoring the tight knots of protesters and supporters separated by the gatehouse.
I parked my car and made my way to the press room where there were phones and computer jacks. I set up my laptop, organized my notebook and pens and checked my watch. I called my office, making sure my cell phone worked. John Barkley, the corrections department spokesman, greeted me. I handed over my cell phone and he agreed to call my office with a time of death. I wasn’t allowed to take a cell phone into the death chamber. I was allowed only one notebook and my two pens, all tucked into my jacket pockets.
After waiting several hours, the five reporters (chosen by lottery to witness the execution—The Associated Press always had a seat) were loaded into a van and driven to the building where the executions took place. It was a dark and winding drive about two miles from the entrance. The entire prison was on lockdown. I remember the silence and the dark and the van’s heater blasting onto my face. No one spoke. Unusual for reporters.
When we entered the building, we signed our names on a witness list and again on the death certificate before we were ushered into the viewing chamber. A female TV reporter wore heels and click-clacked down the quiet hallway. Embarassing. The witness room looked like the ones in movies: Three rows of plastic chairs. I took a seat in the second row near the end, to have a clear view of the victim’s family. South Carolina put no limits on how many members of the victims’ family could attend. They sat in the front row, closest to the glass. A minister and a lawyer sat in the back, in a corner. No talking, eating, reading or gum-chewing was allowed.
Shortly before midnight, a guard slid open the white curtain that covered the glass partition and we got a look at the chamber. It resembled a hospital room. The condemned man was stretched out on a gurney and had been given Valium—his choice—just a few hours earlier. He was strapped down at the legs, waist, chest and arms. He could move only his head. IVs were attached to his left arm and he was hooked up to heart monitoring machines that were mounted on the wall behind his head. Underneath, he wore a T-shirt and a diaper.
In the chamber were two uniformed guards—death chamber duty rotated among a small group of volunteers—a physician and a Corrections official dressed in a jacket and tie. The official read the death decree at a small podium. His amplified voice was piped into the witness room. “The state of South Carolina is carrying out the sentence of death imposed in the name of its people.”
The man in the suit read the murderer’s final statement. He said he was sorry. He said he believed in God’s forgiveness. He said he loved his family.
When the machine that sent the chemicals into the man’s body was switched on, his neck tightened. I could see the veins popping out. Then his eyes opened wide and his chest heaved. I found it a challenge to keep myself from throwing up. I scribbled useless notes in my pad. As he died, the man’s face turned gray. I had never seen anyone die before and I had no idea death could be so subtle. For several long minutes, the man in the suit and the physician stood by his side looking uncomfortable. Then the physician stepped forward to check for a pulse before pronouncing him dead.
It was the first of many such nights for me at Broad River. By the time I covered my sixth execution, they were no easier, but my skin was thicker and I kept my emotions wrapped up tight. I knew I was being tested. I was young and inexperienced and female and my editor was trying to break me. I refused to give him the pleasure. I never uttered a single complaint. When my co-workers urged me to ask him to assign the next one—there was always a next one—to someone else, I refused. I acted like it didn’t bother me. They started calling me Execution Girl.
I saw five lethal injections and one electrocution. All men. The electrocution was easier because I didn’t have to see the man’s face. His head was covered with a black sack. A stocky form strapped to an ancient chair. He had the IQ of a fourth grader. He believed the electric chair was built from the wood of Jesus’ cross. He called it the True Blue Oak. He was crazy. No one cared.
I swore I’d never forget how covering those executions made me feel. It disgusts me now that I can’t remember their faces or their names or their crimes. I was one of a handful of human beings allowed—no, required, for career survival—to witness their deaths and I can’t even remember who they were.
What I do remember is that those men’s deaths made me feel acutely alive. After being shuttled back to the press room, I called my office, filed my story, answered questions from other reporters. I said goodbye to John Barkley and the guards at the front gate. Then I drove home with the windows rolled all the way down no matter the weather, the stereo blasting to drown out my sobs. I wanted to feel the wind, hear the music. Loudly.