A death row reporter reflects on the sixteen executions she witnessed in Oklahoma.

Death’s Yellow Door

by Kelly Kurt

“We may be indifferent to the death penalty and not declare ourselves either way so long as we have not seen a guillotine with our own eyes. But when we do, the shock is violent, and we are compelled to choose sides, for or against.”

Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

Within the maze of oppressive gray halls of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary’s H unit, the door that leads to the death chamber seems as out of place as a birthday balloon. It is yellow. Bright, daisy yellow. The color is unnerving.

It’s almost 6 p.m. when I cross the threshold with six other media witnesses. Gary Roland Welch already lies strapped to a gurney a few feet away behind the window of the adjoining room. He’s hidden from view by a closed shade. We take our seats on a row of metal folding chairs and listen for lingering signs of death row’s sendoff. The sound began 10 minutes earlier, a forceful clanging and rhythmic tapping that echoed through the concrete corridors. CLANG. CLANG. Ping. CLANG. CLANG. Ping. This is how other condemned men pay their respects—by slamming their cell doors with their feet or tapping their commodes. Death row’s goodbye sounds like someone trying to break out.

Six stone-faced men—prosecutors, law officers, and a state official—take seats in front of us. Behind us, behind one-way glass, sit three family members of the man Welch killed. No one is here on Welch’s behalf. My stomach churns as we sit in silence, waiting for the mini blind to rise.

When the shade finally goes up, Welch is looking at us. His thick body is bound to the gurney—legs, arms, chest, shoulders. Tubes run from his arms and disappear into the wall behind him. I glimpse a colorful tattoo on a forearm. A graying ginger beard covers his jaw and chin. He turns his head and his eyes meet mine.

In a matter of minutes, the 49-year-old will choke on his last word and die, marking the nation’s first execution of 2012. For now, he lifts his head, straining to see each witness through the glass. His eyes reach the row’s end, and something unexpected happens.

The condemned man suddenly smiles. And then, he winks.

* * *

I am here to witness a homicide. Not a murder, which is a crime. Even the governor is in on this death. I’ve been here before and this is what I’ve seen every time: A brightly lit room. A clock on the wall. A warden standing with clasped hands. A prison official on a black wall phone with a long coiling cord, ready in case the governor hands down a last-second reprieve. What I’ve never seen: a reprieve. Or the three executioners hidden behind the wall. No one sees them. They arrive wearing hoods on their heads and faces to cloak their identities.

I am told that some people see the face of Jesus in the pattern of the concrete wall next to the yellow door, but I’ve never seen that either.

* * *

Sometime before Welch’s January 5 execution date, I realize that I have lost track of how many men I’ve seen die here. Since 1915, Oklahoma has executed 177 men and three women. The oldest was 74. The youngest, 18. Ninety-seven died by lethal injection, 82 by electrocution, and one by hanging. Most of the executions I witnessed took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a time when Oklahoma’s death chamber was one of the nation’s busiest. Welch’s execution, I later learn, is my 16th.

More than 60 percent of Americans favor the death penalty. But very few people actually have witnessed a modern execution.

At one time, executions in Oklahoma were public. A crowd of 30 or 40 onlookers crammed into the penitentiary known as Big Mac to watch the warden flip the switch on Old Sparky, the heavy wooden electric chair with its leather straps and helmet. Newsmen and sightseers, even children, were there, says Dale Cantrell, a 28-year Big Mac veteran who serves as the prison’s de facto historian. A 1934 story by The Associated Press described what they heard and saw—“a sudden hum of a motor, a violent stiffening of the body.” A crackdown on the circus-like atmosphere ultimately brought a section of law entitled “Persons Who May Witness,” which largely slammed the door on public access. It did provide that “reporters from recognized members of the news media will be admitted upon proper identification, application, and approval of the warden.”

Sister Helen Prejean, the death penalty abolitionist whose book Dead Man Walking spawned an Oscar-winning film and an opera that will open in Tulsa this month, predicts more Americans would turn against the death penalty if executions were more open. Responding to arguments that public executions could “coarsen” society, she wrote:

“An execution is ugly because the premeditated killing of a human being is ugly. Torture is ugly. Gassing, hanging, shooting, electrocuting or lethally injecting a person whose hands and feet are tied is ugly. And hiding the ugliness from view and rationalizing it numbs our minds to the horror of what is happening. This is what truly ‘coarsens’ us.”

Witnessing executions did start to feel like ugly business to me—but not at first.

It was part of my job as a reporter for The Associated Press, the one organization Corrections Department policy guarantees by name to claim one of the 12 seats reserved for the media. I was surprised to discover that I could witness a man’s dying breath, write about it in detail, and later drive home, with my eyes on the road and my mind on dinner. Only once did a dead man haunt my sleep. I opened my eyes and saw him hanging by a meat hook above my bed. When I awoke fully, I was sitting up, staring at the ceiling fan.

With every execution, however, came a family’s story of deep and lasting loss. The victim’s survivors told me again and again how their lives had been shattered by a single act of violence. Dusty Miller, who was left to raise three children alone, marveled that a killer “could meet somebody like Gwen [his wife] and still make a decision that the world didn’t need her anymore.” The parents of Michael Houghton and Laura Lee Sanders, who were burned alive in the trunk of a car, endured more than 15 years of court proceedings before witnessing the lethal injection of one of the killers. The niece of Muskogee grocer Claude Wiley described his smile and kindness. He often delivered food to the poor and homebound, until the day he made a delivery to a home where a man was waiting for him behind the door with a baseball bat.

Sometimes an elderly woman, the mother of the condemned, sat in front me, clutching a tissue and weeping with loss, too. Jim Fowler, himself the son of a murder victim, saw his son executed for killing three people in a botched robbery, saying afterward in a shaking voice, “It makes your gut sick to see your boy die.”

Some people call capital punishment justice. Others call it barbaric. In the death chamber, I feel a pervasive sadness and sense of futility. When people ask me what I’ve learned about the death penalty, I tell them the only thing I know conclusively: It doesn’t take away the sadness or bring anyone back. But it does shut a person up.

What I have heard:

  • A cop’s killer begging his victim’s family, “Forgive me as the Lord has forgiven me.”
  • A woman’s weeping for her condemned son, whose crimes included the murder of his sister.
  • The warden announcing, “Let the execution begin.”
  • Victims’ families clapping after a five-time killer is declared dead.

What I have never heard: a condemned man cry.

* * *

Welch turns his scraggly bearded face toward the ceiling and speaks. “I was just going to ask everybody if they could hear my brothers out there,” he says, referring to death row’s clanging. “I know it’s kind of quiet now, but I want to acknowledge that my brothers are here for me to send me off on my journey. They are here on my behalf.”

Welch claimed he killed Robert Hardcastle in self-defense on the evening of August 25, 1994. He said he went to the 35-year-old’s Miami home in pursuit of drugs and ended up fighting for his life after Hardcastle came at him with a knife.

“My intentions were never to kill him,” he told a McAlester News-Capital reporter during his clemency hearing in December. “But I also didn’t intend for him to kill me either.”

The jury believed the prosecution’s story—that Welch assaulted Hardcastle in his home and then he and co-conspirator, Claudie Conover, chased him into a ditch. There were multiple witnesses, including a family taking their 11-year-old to football practice, who saw Welch stab Hardcastle repeatedly with a knife and, when it broke, slash him with a broken beer bottle.

The first police officer on the scene, Officer Jim Gambill, found Hardcastle covered in blood sitting up in the ditch with his clothes in shreds. The officer recognized him. He and Hardcastle had grown up playing Little League ball together.

“Jim,” Hardcastle said, “Gary Welch did this shit to me. Get that motherfucker.”

Hardcastle then asked for some water and soon after fell on his back and died. He left behind 2-year-old twin sons.

“A big hole remains in our hearts that will never go away,” Hardcastle’s parents wrote to the Pardon and Parole Board, which rejected clemency by a vote of 3-2. “To know justice has been served gives us some closure to the agony we have had to endure.”

“Closure” is a word that means different things to people whose lives have been turned upside down by crime. Grieving families after the Oklahoma City bombing described it as justice or, in some cases, vengeance. For some, it meant the end of round after round of court appeals or at least the silencing of the killer. Some described closure as relief from intense grief. Brooks Douglass, the man who authored Oklahoma’s law allowing victims’ families to watch executions, told me for an AP story that he did not find immediate solace after watching one of the men who killed his parents die for the crime. But, he said, the execution did restore his faith in the justice system.

The Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972, finding that the power of juries to decide whether a defendant should live or die for a crime resulted in arbitrary and capricious sentencing. States brought capital punishment back, rewriting their statutes and giving judges and juries new sentencing guidelines.

But Lyn Entzeroth, who teaches a course on capital punishment at the University of Tulsa’s law school, believes the system remains flawed.

“To me there is no way of discerning what murder case gets death and what murder case doesn’t,” she says. She notes a report by the Death Penalty Information Center that shows county-by-county discrepancies in how often the death penalty is sought.

Fifteen counties, including Oklahoma County, were responsible for 30 percent of the nation’s total executions since 1976. Exclude Texas (with nine counties on that list), and Oklahoma County tops the list with prosecutions resulting in 36 executions since 1976. Tulsa County was 14th with eight executions.

“The discretion of that prosecutor in that county can have a huge effect,” says Entzeroth, who also co-authored a death penalty casebook used in law schools. “When Bob Macy was the DA in Oklahoma County, there were a large number of death sentences sought. That’s changed since then.”

Support for the death penalty remains high—61 percent, according to a 2011 Gallup poll. But that number represents the lowest level of support since 1972 and a significant decline from an all-time high of 80 percent in 1994.

A spate of exonerations tied to DNA evidence may account in part for the decline. Evidence of innocence has brought the exonerations of 140 people on death row since 1973, with 66 of those occurring since 1999, according to the DPIC. Four states in four years—New Mexico, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois—have effectively abolished the death penalty. And late last year, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on the death penalty, saying he refused “to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system.”

Along with concerns about wrongful convictions, the option of life without parole sentencing is changing the debate, Entzeroth says.

“Because someone has committed a horrible murder, we as a society would like that person incapacitated, not back out on the street some day,” she says. “The option of life without parole gives that option, that security.”

* * *

What no one saw (other than the robbers): Who pulled the trigger that fired bullets into my friend, Michael Fifer.

Mike left college to stay home with his terminally ill mother. Years later, he ended up working the graveyard shift at a Circle K in Tulsa to pay the bills. He didn’t get to choose his final words on November 30, 1991, the night the gunman pulled open the convenience store door. He died facedown on the floor, shot in the neck and back. Two teens, Johnny Davis and Eric Johnson, each accused the other of being the shooter. Both received no-parole life terms for the killing, though Johnson’s was later reduced by an appeals court. A prosecutor said the jury gave then 17-year-old Davis the no-parole term to ensure he “didn’t get out.”

But he found a way out.

In 1996, Davis slid through 6-inch bars and climbed four stories down a homemade rope to escape the maximum-security floor of a private prison in Texas. He was on the run for four days.

Davis is now 37 years old. Mike died at age 25.

A murder that touches your life changes you forever. I still carry the weight of it. At some point, I stopped using the word “closure” in news stories.

* * *

Hours before I’m in the death chamber, I stand in the threshold of my closet. It sounds frivolous, but deciding what to wear to an execution is worse than deciding what to wear to a funeral. I reject the new black-and-white striped shirt that my kids dubbed “the burglar shirt.” The sweater I got for Christmas seems too bright. I end up in a white shirt and black pants. When I stop for a soda to carry me to McAlester, the store clerk comments, “Black and white? You must be a waitress.” I shake my head. He tries again. “Band leader?” I leave him squirming. How do you tell someone you dressed like this to watch a man be put to death?

Freedom meets its end on a long winding road at McAlester’s edge before I even get to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. If there’s a road to perdition, it’s this one.

I pass a minimum-security prison, the county jail, a juvenile detention center, an animal shelter, and a street named Electric Avenue on the way to the prison gate. Built in 1904, Big Mac rises like a medieval fortress behind 30-foot, whitewashed walls topped with coils of razor-tipped wire. I glimpse armed guards watching from a prison tower as I drive through the gate, past the warden’s house where Christmas lights twinkled one December when I came here for two executions in seven days.

Executions used to take place at midnight. That meant that after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an inmate’s final appeal, we had time to eat dinner. While the condemned ate his last meal, journalists, photographers, prosecutors, and visiting law officers rushed to Pete’s Place or some other Italian eatery in Krebs for heaping plates of pasta and lamb fries. In the late-night darkness, I scurried back to the lockup, burdened by too many carbs and the dread of what was to come.

I was at the prison as a student journalist on September 10, 1990, when Charles Troy Coleman became the first man executed in Oklahoma following the reinstatement of the death penalty. It was the inauguration of lethal injection, too. Reporters, TV crews, and photographers jammed the prison’s visitation center—a one-room building that converts to a media center on execution nights. These days, often only two or three reporters come to witness. TV crews make rare appearances.

This time, when I pull open the door to the media center, more than six years have passed since I last saw an execution. Jerry Massie, the Corrections Department’s public information officer, is inside waiting like always. He’s been the media wrangler at every execution I’ve witnessed, and there’s something comforting about finding him here, sitting in front of a tray of chocolate chip cookies and bottled waters. More than once after an execution, I’ve heard him quietly ask some reporter, “You doing okay?” But Massie is also the gatekeeper to getting inside and tends to give the impression that causing him trouble is a bad idea.

Tonight, there are seven media witnesses, four of whom have never seen an execution. Massie goes over the rules. We can’t take anything in. No recorders. No notebooks. No pens. No cell phones. (The phones, we’re later told by prison spokesman Terry Crenshaw, can sell for $1,000 inside the lockup.) And if we need to go to the bathroom, we better do it now “because once you get to the H unit, it’s almost impossible to use a facility,” Crenshaw says. We pile into two vans that drive to the back of the prison where the modern H unit crouches in the earth like a bunker. Inside, a female guard tells me to take off my shoes, turn around, spread my arms and turn my palms up. She pats me down, first from the back. “Coming around,” she says, as her hands glide over me searching for contraband.

We put on our shoes and enter a barred holding area. The heavy cell door behind us slowly rolls shut and locks with a reverberating KUH-CHUNG. In a prison, you wait for doors to open, and slowly the one in front of us does. We are led to the law library, a rectangular room where inmates can work on their cases enclosed in small cells with desks.

“Do you have the notebooks?” I ask Crenshaw.

The prison usually provides us with notebooks and pencils, but this time they’re missing. He sends an officer in pursuit of them. The clanging from death row begins, and Crenshaw notes that it is louder than usual. The notebooks arrive. There’s a knock at the library door. It’s time.

* * *

What we report: No one says much of anything on the ride back to the media center after Welch is dead. I look out the window and notice the moon, a five-eighths moon, shining on prison buildings. The seven of us reassemble in the media center to piece together what we saw and heard.

Who did he wink at? “Was he winking at the DA?” I ask, thinking of the case’s prosecutor who was sitting at the end of the row where Welch directed his smile.

“No,” says the reporter from the McAlester paper, who had previously had a lengthy interview with Welch. “I smiled at him.”

Massie, overhearing, puts his head in his hands.

“Should I not have done that?” she asks.

“Probably not,” Massie sighs.

Over the next few minutes we scan our scribbled notes and contribute bits and pieces of Welch’s last statement. None of us got it down in its entirety.

The reconstruction goes like this:

Me: “I had, ‘I want to acknowledge …’ Um.”

Second reporter: “ ‘… that my brothers are here with me …’ ”

Third reporter: “ ‘here with me to send me off on my journey. They’ve already given me my sendoff …’ ”

Me: “I heard ‘my little sendoff.’ ”

A fourth reporter questions the order of sentences. We reexamine our notes. We move a sentence. Everyone works to get it just right, although it’s doubtful anyone will ever question those final words. You can’t libel a dead man.

* * *

 The clock on the death chamber wall reads 6:04 p.m. Welch finishes his last statement saying, “They’ve already given me my little sendoff. So let’s get it on because that’s what we’re here for.”

Each of the three executioners injects a different drug. The first, pentobarbital, is the same sedative used to euthanize pets. It causes unconsciousness. The second, vecuronium bromide, a paralyzing agent, halts respiration. The third, potassium chloride, stops the heart.

“Let the execution begin,” says the warden, setting off the process.

Immediately, Welch launches into a chant, his chest heaving against the straps:

“Valhalla. Odin. Slay the beast!” he says rapidly, almost shouting. In Norse mythology, Valhalla is the great hall in which the one-eyed god Odin receives the souls of slain warriors. The hall has 540 doors. “Valhalla. Odin. Slay the beast! Valhalla. Odin. Slay … the … beast. Valhalla.” He slurs and chokes. “O….”

The next several minutes are awkwardly silent as we stare into the sterile room. My thoughts turn to the details of the crime that was so heinous jurors thought a man should die for it. I picture Robert Hardcastle lying slashed along a road, bleeding from nine stab wounds and a dozen other serious cuts. He died eyes open, his head on green grass, no chance to say goodbye to his sons. I see Welch, his eyes closed, releasing a slight snore and then going still. His face slowly changes from pink to purple to gray. There is no terror in this quiet scene, except for the fact I know this man is tied to the bed and his life has just been taken.

The physician steps forward, checks for a pulse and finding none, looks at the clock. “Time of death,” he pronounces, “6:10 p.m.”

The mini blind goes down. The door opens. We file out into the darkness.

* * *

I’ve walked through death’s yellow door 16 times to see 16 men die. They were Benjamin Brewer, Michael Edward Long, Stephen Edward Wood, Scotty Lee Moore, Bobby Ross, Gary Alan Walker, Charles Adrian Foster, Gregg Francis Braun, Mark Andrew Fowler, Vincent Allen Johnson, Alvie James Hale, Daniel Juan Revilla, Scott Allen Hain, Robert Don Duckett, Kenneth Eugene Turrentine, and Gary Roland Welch. The crimes that brought them here claimed 30 innocent men, women, and children. Every story has two sides and, in the death chamber, I’ve sat sandwiched between them.

Here’s what else I have seen: When the execution is over and the mini blind goes down, you still see a face looking at you from the window of the death chamber; the other part of the story.

That face is your own.