"VARNER, Ark. — They often enter in silence. They almost always leave that way, too.
The death penalty holds a crucial, conflicted place in a nation deeply divided over crime and punishment, and whether the state should ever take a life. But for such a long, very public legal process, only a small number of people see what unfolds inside the country’s death houses.
Witnesses hear a condemned prisoner’s last words and watch a person’s last breaths. Then they scatter, usually into the night. There is no uniformity when they look back on the emotions that surround the minutes when they watched someone die.
The most recent person to be executed, Ledell Lee, died at the Cummins Unit here in southeast Arkansas late Thursday. By next Friday morning, the state hopes to have executed three more men.
In separate phone interviews, five people who have witnessed executions — some years ago, one as recently as Mr. Lee’s — reflected on what they had seen and what it meant to them.
The interviews have been condensed and edited.
The witness room facing the execution chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio, where Charles E. Coulson saw the executions of two men. Credit Caroline Groussain/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Photo by: Caroline Groussain/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Charles E. Coulson
Witnessed two executions as prosecuting attorney for Lake County, Ohio
In both cases, I was invited by the family to attend. The victim advocates sit down the night before, and you meet with them at dinner, and they go over step by step what’s going to happen. They draw diagrams and show you where the death chamber is, where the defendant is going to be, where the defendant’s family is going to be.
You’re watching through glass, and then the process starts.
They had a chance to offer last statements, and I was disgusted because they were so self-serving, narcissistic statements for these people who had caused so much pain and suffering.
We were just waiting for the signal; one time, it was when the warden touched his glasses. You’re looking at the clock, but you’re mostly watching the defendant, watching to see if he’s still breathing or not. It is very quiet and respectful.
It’s not like watching a gory murder in a movie. When I watched the executions, I was very impressed with the State of Ohio and how dignified they handled this. In my opinion, these two defendants didn’t deserve any dignity whatsoever.
The only time that I was emotionally involved was when I had to make the decision, and I actually had to go and speak and tell the jury that this man, sitting in a room a few feet away from me, should be put to death for his crime.
A prosecutor has to have no doubt: not proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but no doubt that a person committed those crimes. As long as you have no doubt, I don’t think there’s any valid argument against the death penalty.
These were two evil people, and their executions did not bother me at all. It’s what I thought they deserved. I don’t think about it much. It was done. It should have been done. I don’t really think about it.
Gayle Gaddis at home in Pearland, Tex., under a commemorative plaque for her son Guy P. Gaddis, a police officer who was murdered in 1994. Credit Michael Stravato for The New York Times
Photo by: Michael Stravato for The New York Times
Mother of Guy P. Gaddis, a murdered Houston police officer
I wanted to be sure it was finished, and that’s why I went.
Before the execution, we were in a room without a clock. It’s a terrible experience. We were there, it seemed, like hours, while they were making sure he didn’t get a stay. We were all just miserable.
Then the warden came in and said, “Good news: There are no stays, and he’s going to be gone,” or something like that.
I went in the room, and I saw him strapped on that gurney. Then I couldn’t watch it. They gave me a chair, and I just turned it the other way. One son was kind of hitting his elbow against the glass. My other son asked why he was doing that. He said, “I want him to look at me.”
Edgar Tamayo was his name, and he wouldn’t look or speak or anything. I was hoping he’d say, “I’m sorry,” but he wouldn’t even look at us.
It didn’t hurt him: I would have liked to have stoned him to death or something horrible. He just got a shot like you were going to have some surgery. It was too easy, for all of the pain he caused my family all of these years.
Right at the end, all of a sudden, there was the sound of motorcycles revving up that went through the walls. I realized it was the motorcycle policemen — support from the policemen — and it made my heart feel good.
As we walked outside, his daughter was across the big driveway. She was holding up a great big sign: “Don’t kill my dad.” I did feel sorry for her. He just ruined all of these lives for so long.
I always thought the death penalty was right when there was no doubt that somebody was guilty. When this happened to me and my family, I was very supportive of the death penalty, and I still am.
They caught him right there where he shot my son. I just don’t understand: 20 years before they killed him.
Jennifer Garcia on Friday at the federal public defender’s office, in Phoenix, with artwork from a former death row inmate. Credit Deanna Alejandra Dent for The New York Times
Photo by: Deanna Alejandra Dent for The New York Times
Assistant federal defender in Phoenix who witnessed one execution
He was my client. His name was Richard Stokley, and he was executed in December 2012.
Often for our clients, they didn’t have people they could depend on, or who fought for them. Once we get on a case, we will stay on it, usually, until the end.
The reason why we witnessed was, he asked us to. If he needed reassurance, he’d be able to see one of us smile at him.
By the time we got in there and walked into the witness room, I was just so tired, and I was so emotional, and I knew I had to hold it together for him, and I had to make sure he was O.K. through the process.
The execution itself was surreal. I cannot even tell you how unbelievable it was to see people deliberately get ready to kill your client. With Mr. Stokley, they couldn’t find a vein. We just sat there for a long time while they started with his hands and worked their way around the body, trying to get a vein. I was trying to maintain my composure because I didn’t want him to look at me and seeing me upset or crying. But it was so hard to watch somebody do that to your client and be powerless.
When they pronounced him dead, I think I felt happy that he was no longer being hurt as part of the process. The fact that I knew it was over and there was nothing else worse that was going to happen as part of the execution, that part was a relief. But over all, you feel shellshocked.
I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily haunted by it, but I’m very aware of it. If I have a client who asks me to be there, I will be there. Until you are trapped there in that room under such tight control by the prison, and there is no way you can react to that somebody is killing somebody right in front of you, it’s hard to know how you’ll feel. But there is nothing you have already done in your life that will make you go, “Oh, this is fine.”
Marine Glisovic, a television reporter in Little Rock, Ark., in the KATV news studio on Saturday. Credit Jacob Slaton for The New York Times
Photo by: Jacob Slaton for The New York Times
Reporter for KATV in Little Rock, Ark., and a media witness for Thursday’s execution of Ledell Lee
You walk in, and all the seats are to your left. It’s almost set up like a mini-movie theater. We walked up to the front because there were three seats left open for us. There was a black curtain in front of four window panels.
They peeled back the curtain, and the inmate is lying down already, and he’s got an IV in each arm. He’s horizontal before us. He stared up the entire time. When they peeled that curtain down, they turned the lights off in our room, the witness room, so the only thing that was lit up was the chamber.
As it’s going on, it’s quiet. No one’s saying anything. It was very sterile and clinical. It was like watching somebody be put to sleep, if you will.
We had an hour-and-a-half drive home. I got into Little Rock, stopped at the station, got into my car. It wasn’t until I got to my friend’s house that night, it hit me as a person, once I’d gotten out of the journalism mode. I don’t even know how to describe how it hit me.
When I got to my friend’s house, she opened the door, and I couldn’t say much at first. I sat down. I want to say I got to her house at about 2 in the morning and I didn’t fall asleep until probably about 5. I just keep talking to her, and just going over it, over and over again.
It is probably the shortest yet longest 11 minutes of my life. No matter what anyone says, there’s really nothing to prepare you for what you are about to see.
The Rev. Carroll L. Pickett at his home in Kerrville, Tex. Credit Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times
Photo by: Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times
The Rev. Carroll L. Pickett
Former prison chaplain who witnessed 95 executions in Texas from April 1980 to August 1995
One time, we had three nights in a row. They’d come in in the morning, and we’d do three executions on consecutive nights. Putting people through that is terrible.
I’ve seen a reporter pass out. He was about 6-foot-4. I’m on the inside in the death chamber itself, but I have a mirror, and I could see him just go collapse on the back row. And the major couldn’t take him out because the law says you can’t open the door until it’s over.
That’s one of the byproducts that people don’t realize. Family members get sick. Witnesses get sick. Some of my best guards who were with them all day long — they got sick. The warden changed it to where I would have the same guys all day long, and those are the ones that just eventually had what they called a nervous breakdown, which I just think is horrible — to see some good-looking captains and lieutenants leave the system because they just can’t do executions. It affects everyone, one way or another.
The victim’s family is hurt, and the family of the individual. You’re not just killing a person. You’re killing his whole family. There’s a lot of people involved in this, not just the poor kid lying on a gurney.
People don’t realize that you never get over it, unless you’re just cold and calculated. I’ll never forget it. Not a day goes by. Not a day goes by. And I don’t expect it to. If it does, then I didn’t do what I was supposed to do, as a Christian and as a chaplain and as a human being.
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