Covering an Execution

Therese Apel, beat reporter for the Clarion-Ledger, has written a blog post detailing her experience covering her first execution last week when Mississippi executed Edwin Hart Turner. It’s a good account, so I’m taking the liberty of reposting it here.

***

A week ago at this moment (5:59 p.m. as I begin this blog), I was just about to watch my first execution.

Edwin Hart Turner, known to his family and friends as “Hart,” was being strapped to the table with thick leather straps right now, his hands tied down flat with ace bandages so you couldn’t even see them from the viewing room. I was waiting in a van outside the building at Parchman with Bert Mohr from the Associated Press, and Charlie Smith from the Greenwood Commonwealth, and I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to think at that moment.

Let me back up a little. On Wednesday of last week I was headed in to work and got a call right around 10:10 a.m. that the execution was back on. Suddenly all my plans for the day were out the window, and I was frantically making calls to get my affairs in order, as it were, but then it was a long, quiet ride.

I’ve seen a lot of life and death as a volunteer firefighter/first responder and as a crime reporter, needless to say, and I signed up to be a media witness because it seemed like something for the journalistic bucket list. But as I drove up to Parchman, I got to thinking: How am I supposed to feel about this?

I’ve always thought that abortion and execution are two things you’re convinced you know where you stand on until they affect your life. Whatever affect they have, it may strengthen or soften your view, but you just don’t know until you get there. Also, I have a personal belief that having a child die in your hands will reset your “what’s important” meter. My mindset going into Wednesday was, “I’ve seen so many innocent people die in so many ways they didn’t deserve. I’m fine with the state wielding the sword of justice in these cases.”

I called my dad, who is a prosecutor in Ohio. He had been preparing for a death penalty case just that week. He said he was glad that the defendant had decided to plead guilty, not because he didn’t feel like he could win it, but because he knew he probably could. Sending any man to his death is a big burden to bear, even for my dad, who I promise is no softy.

“Just let it make you think about the value of a human life,” he said.

So then I got all existential on that long, flat, drive. I started looking at the flat, flat ground and thinking, “Can you imagine knowing that Parchman is where you’re going to die? That you’ll spend your last moments there?”

It was a strange thought train, and made me a little apprehensive. I’m sure I exhausted the veteran media witnesses once we got there asking questions about it.

But anyway, back to the van outside the building. As we sat and waited to be escorted into the viewing room, Charlie told us local info, like how Hart Turner always wore a white handkerchief over the bottom part of his face to hide the disfigurement from where he tried to commit suicide one time. Everyone in town knew he was the guy with the white handkerchief. On the night he and his accomplice went on their drug-induced spree, he wore the same white handkerchief. In a very small town. Where everyone recognizes that, basically, as your face.

He wasn’t even trying to hide his identity, really.

Charlie mentioned a picture he had seen of the sheriff at the time leading Turner down a driveway in nothing but his boxers and his handkerchief when they arrested him the next day. I pictured that in my mind, and what an impact it would have had on the front page of any newspaper.

And I thought about the victims. Eddie Brooks and Everett Curry were just nice guys having normal days until they crossed paths with Hart Turner. It was blind luck. And based on what I was told about the small community, I wondered if they knew Hart, and if they were wondering, “That’s the Turner kid… Why’s he doing this? He’s not REALLY going to kill me, is he?”

I pondered the tragedy that it was: A desperate, depressed, drugged-up kid spinning all the way out of control, or at least that’s the way it sounded, and the shock wave he sent through that community every time he pulled that trigger that night.

We were in the victims’ families viewing room, and they didn’t make a sound throughout. I don’t even remember them touching each other, and nobody got emotional. (And I couldn’t help but notice that Turner was wearing a pair of Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers, which are my personal trademark. I thought hard about that for a second. In heavy situations like that, I find myself pondering weird details, and as I say that, I really hope I’m not the only one who does…)

When Turner was asked if he had any last words, he simply said, “No,” and then he laid his head back and closed his eyes.

I had expected as much, but I was frustrated by that. I wanted him to say more. I wanted him to explain himself. I wanted him to tell me what part of blowing away two good men whose families would never see them again made him feel better about how sad he must have thought his life was. And I wanted him to tell me what about his life was so sad that he thought that was the answer.

We watched, the only audible noise was our pencils on our pads as we soaked up all the details. I tried to see if I could see Turner’s chest rising and falling, and for the most part, I couldn’t from where I stood. I started to wonder if it was just me, or if he was turning a little gray. Then I saw one big sigh, which Bert said later happens with all of them. That’s actually their last breath, apparently. Shortly thereafter, at 6:21 p.m., the coroner pronounced him dead. We waited for the family to leave, and then we headed back to the van.

I remember looking at Bert and saying, “Yeah, I’m not traumatized. I think I tried to be, but I’m not.”

As I drove home, I talked to my mom on the phone to let her know I’d come out of it unscathed. She read me some of the comment posts from the articles that had already been put online, and we talked about how some of Turner’s family members had said he’d had time to find God. Others, of course, were bloodthirsty and wanted him dead.

I admit there was a time I was one of those, back when I was younger and things were more absolute, and before I understood death a little better. I used to see it as payback, possibly even as vengeance for the evil, evil, senseless things these guys do.

I thought about how Eddie Brooks’ family has grieved for all these years, and Everett Curry’s family has grieved for all these years… and Hart Turner’s family has grieved for all these years.

And then I realized what it was I was feeling.

I know some of you want me to say that he was evil, that he should have been shot like a dog in the street. But I can’t say that. He was human, and we all make our choices and carve our own paths. I’m grateful that whatever haunted him so profoundly that he chose the way his life went has never sat on my shoulders and dug into my heart.

But no, I’m not sorry for Hart Turner having to be executed. He got what the law says he has earned through his actions. But I am sorry for the tragedy that was his life that led up to the moment he decided to kill two men who never did anything to him. I’m sorry for the families who didn’t ask for any of this, for every last person that loved all three of these men. I wanted to tell Hart’s family that he was brave at the end, and I wanted to tell Eddie and Everett’s families that the man who blew their worlds to pieces was gone and now maybe they can sleep.

But I also felt like what I saw wasn’t just a reckoning, or revenge, or even justice. In a strange way, it was mercy. I don’t think Hart Turner had seen a day of peace in his life. I don’t think he necessarily knew what peace was until 6:21 p.m. on February 8, 2012.

Each execution has its own story. Each murderer has his own varying degree of evil. Each victim, at least in this case, had a degree of bad luck we can only pray is never our own. But there is no silver lining. There’s no happy ending by the end of the day.

The picture that will always be in my head when I think of my first execution is seeing Hart take that one big last breath, kind of the way a child goes to sleep. I hope that moment brought closure and peace to Eddie and Everett as they watched, and that it eventually will to all the people that loved all three of them.

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One thought on “Covering an Execution

  1. mephitic says:

    Interesting post, thx

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