I witnessed death in Florida

I will never look at a yellow number two pencil the same way again.

I was one of the press witnesses to the first execution to occur in Florida in more than a year. Mark Asay was put to death for the murders of Robert Lee Booker and Robert McDowell via lethal injection Aug. 24.

That morning I was driving the five hours from Navarre to the Florida State Prison in Raiford. I was nervous. I’m young and the idea of watching a man breathe his last breath was turning my stomach into knots.

The song “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw came on the radio, and I began to giggle and hyperventilate at the same time. The sound of it was hilarious, I’m sure.

It was not just the thought of watching death, but the whole institution of it that was bothering me. For months I had been covering the ins and outs of Florida’s capital punishment. I had talked to stark proponents and adamant opponents.

And still I was conflicted. How could there be justice in waiting 30 years before carrying out someone’s sentence? How could there be justice in state sanctioned murder, especially when we have gotten it wrong?

And how was I supposed to sit silently and watch something so terrible as death? Weren’t humans supposed to run from things like this?

When I arrived across the street from the prison at the media staging area it was hot- miserably hot and sunny. The rain storms would not hit for several hours. While waiting I met a reporter named John Coch. John has seen every execution in Florida since the electric chair sent Ted Bundy to the grave.

That’s 74 executions in all.

John’s a fast talker, and he jumps from thought to thought at times too quickly to follow. He’s given more to smiling and laughter it seems, though to hear some of his past gave me a chill.

He reassured me that fear was necessary to be brave enough to watch death. He said the death penalty is necessary. He said only once did he not adamantly believe that the person before him deserved what was coming. For him it was black and white.

After being escorted into the prison, they took us to the visiting canteen to wait. It’s a relatively empty room except for vending machines and some tables that resemble a hybrid of stop signs and cheap playground equipment.

There the prison staff handed out manila folders containing a small notepad and two yellow pencils. We were transported to the execution chamber. It’s a cramped room with four rows of chairs. It’s silence except for the ugly moan of the A/C and the rain that is now pouring outside.

Like some cramped, grotesque theater, we all waited for the curtain to come up. And then it did.

I felt sort of distant from myself as we watched and notated the process. It took just a few minutes, then a human being was gone.

I felt nothing significant about it to be honest. It would not really bother me until days later as a friend spun a yellow pencil about in his fingers for a magic trick. I’m still not sure what I feel about it.

After it was all said and done, I met Herman Lindsey among the dispersing, rain soaked protestors outside the prison. Herman is the 27th person to be exonerated from Florida’s death row.

Herman is a well-spoken black man. He spoke optimistically about ending capital punishment in the state.

Herman had been accused of killing a pawn shop owner during a robbery, but further court hearings determined that there was not enough evidence to place Herman at the pawn shop let alone pulling the trigger.

I could not imagine him hurting anybody. As we stood in the rain, he refused an umbrella because he did not want that person to get wet.

Meeting him highlighted one of my biggest fears: Florida gets it wrong.

“We the People” have killed innocent men in the pursuit of justice.

I have always believed that there are some people who, through their own violent actions, have forfeited the right to live in our society.

Every life has value, but death is the penance for taking that potential from another person.

Yet it is in the process that my faith is shaken, and after witnessing it firsthand I am even less sure.

By Jamie Gentry


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