Wednesday, November 11, 2009

waiting for someone to die

A journalist is rarely at a loss for words, but there is an absense of adequate adjectives when describing what it is like to cover the story of a criminal who is being put to death.

It's such an eerie feeling, waiting for someone to die.
While personally I am not opposed to the death penality, I can't imagine what it must be like to watch the clock tick, the minutes evaporate, the seconds disappear until you take your last breath. All of this while a panel of people watch and stare at you in this state of dispair and fear, finality.

A few years ago, I reported on the case of Danny Rolling. He was a convicted serial killer in Florida. He is a man who brutally killed five college students at the University of Florida in August 1990. 15 years had passed and his appeals ran out. The day his death sentence would be carried out had arrived. The prison is in Starke, Florida. It's a town, literally, in the middle of no where. It's the back woods of Florida. It's the kind of town where hanging at Burger King is the hot spot at night. The prison is located right outside town and it is the heart of the economy there.

It was a media circus that day. TV news live trucks, reporters, photographers, gawkers, protesters. We all waited across the street from the prison waiting for updates on Rolling's last day. We got word of his visit with visit with his brother and spiritual advisor. We were informed of his last meal. The hours slipped away. All we - the media - could do at that point, was wait for this man to die.

I found myself looking up at the prison from time to time, its barbed wire fences and walls, trying to image the scene inside. It's something I still can't wrap my head around.

I wasn't one of the journalists who witnessed his death. There were a few among the panel who had been selected, among a pool who had volunteered, to sit and watch Rolling get the lethal injection. It's standard. It's part of the duty of being a journalist, if you can bare it. Your role calls for witnessing history, acting as the public's eyes and ears, making sure the sentence is carried out the way it is intended. I am not sure if I ever would sign up for that duty. I know there is a part of me who could certainly handle the task, however another part of me is ashamed at the macabre curiousity.

I am writing this post tonight, having learned of the death of the DC Sniper. 48-year old John Allen Muhammed convicted of killing 10 people during a three week shooting spree in 2002 with the help of a teenage accomplice. He was put to death last night via lethal injection at a Virginia prison.

Word of his death brings back the day I covered Rolling's last day alive inside that Florida prison.

I never met the man. I never covered the murders he committed. They happened across the state, many years earlier, when I actually was in middle school in Pennsylvania. At that time he wasn't even a blip on my teenage radar.

While Rolling may have justly deserved what he had coming to him on that day in 2005, it left me with a sour taste in my mouth. I had to sit and wait, on an hot and humid summer afternoon in a desolate field, outside blank, cold prison walls. I had to sit and imagine, sit and wait for this man to die.

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