I've been asked twice before to witness executions as a part of my role as a reporter. Twice, I refused. This time, I agreed to witness my first 'sentence to death,' and it will undoubtedly stay with me for life.
The process begins innocuously with a roll call of media witnesses and a seat aboard a white van. Entering the Florida State Prison feels like entering most any other prison or courthouse. Some barbed wire fences, locked doors, and a metal detector began the voyage inside. We gathered inside a prison dining hall to receive our copies of official documents and our designated pencil & paper. You see, you can't take anything inside: no cell phone, no camera, not even a pen!
While waiting for your next step, it's easy to strike up conversation with other journalists about to witness the execution. Almost instinctively, the other reporters could tell I had never done this before. Maybe it was my youth. Maybe it was the look of apprehension on my face. Regardless, the accounts of other executions began to flow. One newspaper reporter told me this would be his 52nd time witnessing an execution. Yes, fifty-second. Florida has put 71 people to death since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1979. This man had been there for nearly 75% of those executions.
As the clock ticked closer to "that time," I couldn't believe the stories I was hearing. Some of the executions by the electric chair ended with sparking, smoke, even flames from inmates' bodies. I even heard about lethal injections where people screamed and cussed just before the process began. Needless to say, it unnerved me.
The trip to Florida's death chamber ended with another march down a long, gated hallway. One more trip in a white van took us to the part of the prison where we would witness Oba Chandler's last minutes.
Walking into the witness room brought a stifling feel. 32 people sat to watch the execution. The white-walled room, filled with 4 rows of chairs had one large window on the main wall. For the first 10 minutes, a brown curtain covered the inside of the window. That meant we could only speculate what was happening on the other side. It had the odd feeling of being in a waiting room with only a single air conditioner on the wall. That air conditioner would be virtually the only sound I would hear for the next half hour.
When the curtain finally rose at 4:07pm, there lay the man sentenced to death. Oba Chandler had a white sheet covering him up to his neck. His arms were strapped down with an IV already in place on his left arm. Chandler took a brief look at us, as best he could with his body flat on a gurney, then closed his eyes for good. At 4:08pm, the warden asked him for a final statement. Chandler only responded, "no." That set the execution phase into motion.
If you had no prior knowledge of how lethal injection works, you would hardly know anything was happening. A few minutes in, Chandler's mouth fell open without a sound. No one in the room made any sound either -- not even Chandler's victims' family and friends.
By 4:24pm, the warden called for the doctor. The man walked in, as if in a television drama, with a stethoscope around his neck. Just one minute later, the doctor nodded a 'yes' that Chandler was dead.
While uneventful by comparison with those who've seen dozens of executions, the feeling in the room stays with you. There's an overwhelming gravity of what brought us all to this point -- the brutal murder of three women vacationing in Florida. There's also the stark awareness that a life is about to end right before you.
Looming largest of all was the time that passed as color drained from Oba Chandler's face. We spent only 35 minutes or so in the room. Only 18 of those minutes involved the lethal injection process. Chandler's victims spent far more of their final minutes in suffering, in agony, and in terror of what would happen next.
I don't know the future of the death penalty in Florida, but I do know this experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. I also know there's a family and circle of friends who will always miss Joan, Michelle, and Christe Rogers for the rest of their lives.
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