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 Watching Steve Henley's execution tears at reporter's heart

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Location : Glasgow
Registration date : 2008-09-03

PostSubject: Watching Steve Henley's execution tears at reporter's heart   Sun Feb 08, 2009 9:44 pm

This morning I watched as lethal drugs flowed into the veins of a man.

Steve Henley was a murderer, or at least that's what the courts decided when they convicted him of shooting an elderly farm couple and burning down the house with their bodies inside. He lived under a death sentence for 23 years.

"I'm an innocent man."

It was the last thing he said before the warden said "Proceed," and sent him to death with just two powerful syllables.

I had spent the earlier hours at a variety of places: at a prayer vigil for Steve, where resistance songs were played and mourners bemoaned state killing at what felt like a funeral six hours premature. I stood in the 18-degree weather with a handful of early protesters, one of whom spent 20 years on death row himself before new technology made him a free man. He was opposed to any type of killing whether Steve was guilty or innocent, he said. I stood in the well-heated press tent with reporters who gave me pitying looks when they learned I was a witness, and the quiet ones who would be going in with me.

I spent an hour, an extremely awkward hour, getting shuffled with Steve's family from one concrete, clockless conference room to another while they counted down the minutes. The warden of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution had brought us into the room himself and let us know right off the bat there were no interviews on these premises. There were six of us intruding on those sacred moments, media witnesses who were told to stay silent.

But we listened while they talked about their father's fast car, the Chevelle that's since been sold that his son would give anything to drive again. His father could shift so fast, Greg Henley said, that he'd tape a $100 bill to the dashboard and offer it to you — if you could lean forward far enough to get it once he stepped on the gas. They talked about his innocence, how they couldn't believe the state was killing a good, innocent man.
We scribbled as quietly as we could with the provided pencils and notebooks, trying to record the moment as the family bowed their heads, held hands and prayed one last time for Steve.

Son says he forgives the state
His pastor, a staunch anti-death penalty advocate, said she couldn't believe this was really happening after all these years. His son Greg, who said he didn't comprehend reading that well, was repeating over and over the statement he planned to give later to the press, trying to commit it to memory.
"I forgive the state of Tennessee for executing my daddy. I forgive the state of Tennessee for executing my loving daddy. I forgive the state of Tennessee for executing my loving daddy, and I want you to know he is an innocent man."

Later, as we rounded an hour of silence on our side of the room, the press witnesses were confronted with a well-meaning question from Greg.

"Can I ask you a question? Are you guys … are you pro-death penalty, or anti, I guess?"
Another reporter lifted his head and said the warden told us not to talk to them. Greg apologized.

His sister said that they'd know how we felt once they watched our reports and gave me in particular a knowing nod.

With that, the stony-faced guard at the door nodded to us that it was time. We walked single file through the visiting room — there was a play castle, dolls and children's toys in the corner — to a small concrete room. A row of squeaky chairs faced a window. The blinds were drawn. Behind it was Steve, or Henley to those of us in the back.

We sat that way for 12 minutes, with the noises of preparation and shadows of prison officials leaking through. The microphone turned on. Greg stopped rocking back and forth. Steve's daughter asked for a bucket.

The blinds were lifted, and Henley was strapped to the gurney. A microphone was coming down from the ceiling for his last statement. He raised his head, turned to see his family, and stuck out his tongue. With his hands strapped down, he tried to blow a kiss. He made his statement. He said he was sorry for what Fred and Edna went through, but he didn't do it. He said he hoped this procedure would give some peace to them and their family, although he didn't believe death brought anything but pain. He said he was an innocent man.

Proceed.

His family began to sob. They stood by the window, shouted to him. He told them to quit crying, called them a pitiful bunch. He told them — perhaps his pastor especially — to never quit.

"I feel it coming," he shouted from the death chamber.

His head was already down, he snored a few times and went silent. In the witness chamber, it was chaos.

They were screaming, sobbing. His daughter began to throw up. His sister and his pastor joined together in the Lord's Prayer, so impassioned that even the pastor stumbled over the words.

I bit my lip and furiously wrote, knowing my notes were never going to match my memory or capture what was happening in that moment. The color drained from his face. He started to turn blue. And slowly it grew quiet in the witness chamber, too.

Don't cry. Don't cry.

I looked at the other reporters. They were still writing.

Soon Henley's sister turned and stared me and the others straight in the face.

"Not a tear in anyone's eye back there," she said to nobody in particular. "Don't human life mean nothing to you? You're like a pack of dogs."

Yesterday, throughout the day most of my colleagues asked me how I felt about covering this execution, watching a man die. I kept saying I wasn't sure yet. A few told me about other reporters they've known who covered them. Some were vague about the impact. Others told me I'd be traumatized.

Before it was time, I had called my boyfriend and asked him, what if I got emotional? What if I cried in front of the other reporters? He told me I would be professional and I would be real. If I cried, then I was being real about it. After all, I was watching a man die.

In truth, it probably was the only time I did successfully hold back tears. I have always been emotional, and always, during a good interview, find myself feeling my subject's emotions. It would be a lie to say I don't often wipe away a tear when interviewing people who have lost someone to murder or illness or ruthless tornadoes.

But on those days I never watched it happen. I have always come along in the aftermath, and felt the hot tears coming when I've heard about grief setting in.

This morning I watched it happen, a true rarity in the world of reporting on crime.

And today, who knows why, the tears held until I got home.

Contact Kate Howard at 615-726-8968 or kahoward@tennessean.com

http://www.tennessean.com/article/20090208/OPINION03/902080386
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