Witness to an execution

I watched James Elledge die in Walla Walla.

It was only nine o'clock and they weren't going to kill him until after midnight.We were in a makeshift media room inside the walls of the state penitentiary at Walla Walla. We'd had to prove our identities, empty our pockets, walk through a metal detector, and be patted down to wait here for the execution of twice- convicted murderer James Homer Elledge, now known to the Department of Corrections as "the ISCP" (Inmate Subject to Capital Punishment).

A few of us would be culled from the herd of our peers to witness the lethal injection, as DOC procedures require.

Elledge, 58, admitted that he killed Eloise Fitzner, 47, who was, from all reports, a nice, if naive, church lady. With promises of gifts and dinner, he lured her and a friend to Lynnwood's Lighthouse Free Methodist Church, where he worked as a janitor. His rage had simmered for over a year after she'd tried to sabotage his relationship with a woman whom he later married. In the church basement, he tied up and duct-taped the women, strangled and stabbed Fitzner, and stuffed her in a closet. The police say Elledge then sexually assaulted the other woman and released her, and she went directly to the authorities.

"There's something wrong with my nature," he later told authorities.

It wasn't the first time he'd confessed to murder. He'd been serving a life sentence for beating a 63-year-old woman to death in 1974 with a ball peen hammer when a member of the Lynnwood church befriended him. When he was paroled in 1995, church members welcomed him into their fold, found him a room, gave him a job, and included him in parish life. In return for their loving kindness, they got a bloody betrayal and a lawsuit from the surviving victim.

Elledge told the court, "There is a very wicked part of me, and this wicked part of me needs to die." Against his wishes, death-penalty opponents petitioned the Clemency and Pardons Board, arguing that the jury should have been told that in 1987 Elledge saved a prison guard's life during a prison riot, and that he once tipped off prison officials to the escape plans of other inmates. The board voted against clemency, and Governor Gary Locke, a former prosecutor who had the final call, denied it as well.

On this long Walla Walla night, two people could still stop this seemingly inevitable sequence of events: Locke and Elledge himself. There's a live telephone in the death chamber for any "legal impediments" to the execution—like a last-minute gubernatorial clemency. Since Elledge had waived his rights, they were his to reclaim at any time. Neither man had a change of heart.

Executions are relatively rare in Washington; this is the fourth since the penalty was reinstated in 1981. Child-killer Westley Allan Dodd was hanged in 1993, as was triple murderer Charles Campbell in 1994; triple murderer Jeremy Sagastegui was lethally injected in 1998.

PEEKS UNDER THE SHROUD of secrecy draped over the capital punishment process are carefully controlled by the state, personified here by our evening's natty, chatty, and informative master of ceremonies, Department of Corrections information officer Veltry Johnson.

The details of Elledge's last day were few and mundane, but details are what we were there for. It was like the Fox News coverage of Gary Condit—too much time, too little news. Questions from bored newsies went from the tedious to the ridiculous. Q: What is he wearing? A: Orange prison-issue "felony pajamas," T-shirt, sneakers. Q: Brand of sneakers? A: That information is not available. Q: His mood? A: Somber. Q: Is he cooperative? A: Very.

His last meal, that hallowed tradition for the condemned, took on vital significance. We were apprised that Elledge had chosen scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, waffles, sweet roll, OJ, milk. And cold cereal: Was it Wheaties? Special K? Inquiring minds of the free press needed to know. We were scrounging for irony here, but the shroud came down again—Johnson couldn't or wouldn't say.

Then a bombshell. Elledge had declined his last meal—AND the prison lunch offered him that day. Why? "No reason given," said Johnson. What then, did Elledge have for his 6 a.m. breakfast, essentially his last meal? Johnson began the litany of boiled eggs, oatmeal, and hash browns he was to chant throughout the evening. A reporter pushed to find out what Elledge didn't eat by refusing lunch. There was a lot of eye-rolling, and Johnson said he'd check into it.

NO ONE MADE US, the media witnesses, do this. We all applied and were picked by some mysterious process. Eight all together, we represented wire services, two TV stations, the Seattle and Everett dailies, and small-town papers. I covered it not only for Seattle Weekly but also for Agence France-Presse, a French international wire service always hungry for the gory details of American barbarity.

As we waited in a nondescript room once used by the parole board, Veltry Johnson, ever the host, led a wide-ranging conversation about executions past, notorious inmates, and capital cases. There was plenty of the nervous black—sometimes called gallows—humor that reporters, medics, and cops indulge in at times like this. And plenty of waiting. Execution was ordered for August 28 and scheduled for a little after midnight. Legally, Johnson pointed out, it could have been carried out at any time during that 24 hours. We groaned and waited some more. Midnight came and went. So did the deadlines for the morning papers. Reporters looked pained, cell-phoning shrugs through the ether to cursing editors.

Finally, the phone rang: Elledge was ready. Stripped of our watches and tools of the trade (lest our notebooks and ballpoints contain cameras or microphones), we were given prison-issue pens and paper and led through a maze of gated, locked, and razor-wired chain-link fence along the 20-foot cement outer walls bearing stenciled signs:

Out of Bounds

Inmate presence is unauthorized and will be considered an escape.

Lethal force will be used.

The high-ceilinged, double-duty viewing room has two curtained windows, one for each choice provided the condemned: one near the ceiling for hangings, another low for lethal injection. The death house has a gallows unused since triple murderer Charles Campbell was stretched in 1994.

Elledge got to choose not only that he would die, but how he would die. Before Campbell's execution, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun criticized Washington state for its gallows. "Hanging," he wrote, "is a crude and imprecise practice," noting that "the only three jurisdictions in the English-speaking world that impose state-sponsored hangings are Washington, Montana, and South Africa." Montana has since gone to injection, and South Africa has abolished capital punishment.

Washington has spent lots of money over the years defending its gallows. Campbell, the last man hanged, appealed his case for years, claiming that hanging is cruel and unusual. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals barely rejected his claim by a 6-5 majority, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene. In 1994, a federal judge ruled that 410-pound Mitchell Rupe was so heavy he'd be decapitated if he were hanged. (In Rupe's third sentencing trial last year, jurors deadlocked on his death sentence, effectively sentencing him to life without parole.) In 1996, the state Legislature passed a law that prisoners sentenced to death will receive lethal injection unless they ask for hanging.

We sat down on folding chairs, a wooden handrail between us and the window. We were joined by four men from whom we'd been scrupulously separated—two Snohomish County detectives and deputy prosecutor John Adcock. The other was William Jaquette, Elledge's court- appointed attorney and friend. After shrinks found Elledge competent, Jaquette represented his client's death wishes, which was difficult because of his passionate opposition to the death penalty.

Everybody in a free society, Jaquette says, has the right to choose and direct his own defense. But, he told a reporter, "the death penalty makes killers of us all.

"It is bad law, a terrible law," he says. "It's such a waste of human energy."

Elledge believed his Christian faith required him to die as redemption for his crimes. Jaquette tried to convince him he was legally and theologically wrong. Elledge was unmoved.

Jaquette says he represented his client as his professional ethics require, and he's taken a lot of heat from death penalty opponents. The clemency petition declared, "Mr. Jaquette and the prosecution have acted as one throughout this case . . . this has resulted in a complete failure of the adversarial balance essential to our criminal-justice system."

"He shouldn't have had this as an option," Jaquette says.

WE SAT ON THE EDGES of our seats like kids waiting for a puppet show. Then the curtain went up, revealing the shitty little room with its exposed electrical conduits, elevated now to the dramatic status of "death chamber."

A small one-way glass window behind Elledge's head concealed the anonymous "injection team." These "licensed medical practitioners" are chosen by prison superintendent John Lambert, their identities known only to him.

Elledge lay on his back on the old wooden gurney. The clear plastic intravenous lines coming out of the wall behind him led to catheters stuck in his arms under a dark blue sheet covering him feet to chin. His arms sat on rests angled away from his sides, hands completely covered with black tape.

With his eyes and mouth closed, he looked already dead. His scraggly beard was shaved, leaving one of those bushy 1970s mustaches favored by cops. His thin, graying hair was combed forward and looked blow-dried; his skin appeared very white. He was laid out like a corpse at a mortuary viewing.

Lambert, a balding man in shirtsleeves, came out and said hurriedly into a microphone, "Inmate Elledge has no last words."

There's more drama in putting down a dog, anesthetizing a frog, or salting a slug than there was in watching this human die.

I stared at his chest with the dark sheet against the light wall to detect a breath. I saw no movement. Some reporters said they saw a breath, some said an eyebrow twitched; we all saw his jaw relax and mouth open. The first drug, two grams of thiopental, a sedative, was so massive that even if they had stopped the other chemicals, it would have been over. Then came a load of pancuronium bromide, which paralyzed him from the neck down; finally, potassium chloride stopped his heart. In these amounts, any one of these drugs would be fatal. They wanted to prevent a "Rasputin phenomenon," an uncomfortable situation named after the mad monk who wouldn't die.

We witnessed very little. There was no beginning, and we knew it was over only when the curtain fell and Veltry Johnson told us Elledge had been pronounced dead at 12:52 a.m.

I felt ripped off. It seemed a mockery of the witness requirement—we were supposed to view the alleged humanity of this process, but we had no real access to it. His attorney had left him at 11 p.m. For all we know, in the next hour and a half he could have changed his mind, tried to stop his execution, been wrestled down by guards, had a needle stuck in his arm to shut him up, and then been laid out for us to "witness."

I HAVE NO REASON to think this scenario happened—nor that this Department of Corrections is evil. But I can't say that about Texas, Florida, or some future DOC. The awesome power given the state, with so much secret discretion in this life-and-death duty, is for me the overriding argument against capital punishment. Even if the judicial process could somehow be made perfectly just and fair, the power to put to death should not be in human hands.

Two of the last three men executed since the death penalty was reinstated here in 1981 have been "volunteers," waiving their rights to appeal. Is it state-sanctioned suicide? Nancy Nelson, a demonstrator from Seattle, won't let us off that easy. "We, the citizens of this state, are killing him," she says.

Mike Helland, the brother of Elledge's victim, never lobbied for or against Elledge's execution. But the role Elledge played in deciding his own punishment bothers him.

"I hope that I get the justice that Eloise got. And that's death," Elledge told police. "I want it so bad you can't believe it."

Is the killer getting what he wants? Is death the worst punishment?

"He had a choice," Helland says. "That's why my emotions on the death penalty are so confused."

Elledge's execution drew far less attention and protest than the previous three. The judicial system, usually so pokey, went very quickly this time. And Elledge was a quiet, guilt-ridden man who made no waves, said very little.

Outside the prison a handful of people waited in an area designated for death penalty supporters: a couple with their 8-year-old daughter, tourists drawn to the lights, and Don Earney of Spokane, who said, "The Lord willing, there'll be an eye for an eye."

In the area designated for those opposed, 100 demonstrators held signs that read "Revenge is bitter" and "Two wrongs do not make one right." They prayed, lit candles, and made the arguments against state- sanctioned vengefulness, the state's completion and complicity in the circle of violence, racial disparities, and the unique irreversibility of this punishment.

"This one's been very quiet," Timothy Kaufman-Osborn, vice president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, told The Seattle Times. "And that's a problem, because it becomes all too easy for us to forget that officials acting in our name are killing for punishment."

A Harris Poll found that national support for the death penalty dropped to 64 percent this year, down from 75 percent in 1997 and 71 percent in 1999. "The recent debate about the quality of justice in murder trials, the overturning of several convictions as a result of DNA tests, and the resulting moratorium on executions in Illinois have clearly had an impact on public attitudes to the penalty," said Harris Poll chairman Humphrey Taylor. The poll also found that 94 percent believed that some innocent people have been convicted of murder.

Only if these numbers continue to decline will there ever be a change. Judging by the present U.S. Supreme Court, the probable philosophies of George Bush's court appointees, and the southern Republican stranglehold on the U.S. Congress, the abolishment of the death penalty must happen at the state level.

Nancy Nelson's T-shirt asks the question that we must press the American public to address: "Why do we kill people who kill people to show people that killing is wrong?"


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