Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison, Jackson Ga.
Thursday, June 23, 2011, 8:16 p.m.
We were almost there, I thought.
At 8:16 p.m., some 10 minutes after we had stopped at the open gate, the driver’s radio crackled to life. He responded with a “10-4,” and we began rolling again, this time past a basketball court and a volleyball court on our left. After we passed the courts, the driver turned left across the prison yard, and toward a small white building. I guessed that would be our destination by the fact that there were two armed guards in full riot gear, posted on either side of one of the red doors. They were both standing at attention, feet spread, motionless, and as always, weapons displayed prominently.
When Herald executive editor Jim Healy called an impromptu staff meeting in his office last week, I had no idea that one of my long-time wishes was about to be granted. After I left that meeting and thought long and hard about what transpired, I began questioning everything about myself, my motives, maybe even my own humanity.
Healy asked for a volunteer to witness an execution at Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson, just northeast of Forsyth off Interstate 16. An inmate was filing his final appeals, and was scheduled to be executed the following week. The Georgia Press Association called Healy and asked if anyone from the paper was willing to be one of three members of the press to witness the event.
I immediately volunteered. I’ve been in journalism for nearly 20 years and always maintained that if I ever had the opportunity to attend a state-ordered execution, I would do it.
And so, I got my wish.
I always had a pat answer for anyone who wondered why I wanted to witness such a ghoulish sight. Why, it’s simple, I’d say. I’m a proponent of the death penalty, and would like to see for myself just how strong that resolve is. I felt that watching a human being have death forced upon him at a specific time would push my idea of capital punishment in one direction or the other, but with a truer grasp of the concept itself.
Of course, the complexity of damning a man within the laws of our nation goes much deeper than that.
And I suppose morbid curiosity couldn’t be ruled out, but the idea of watching the execution certainly pushes past that realm. A real human being was going to be forced to breathe his last breath just yards from where I’d be sitting with only a pane of glass between us.
But how human the being might be is always a question for most people. It’s easy to see and read of the horrific things people do to other people and demand their death. However, I wondered if seeing the end product of that attitude with my own eyes would change my perception of our legal system’s last resort.
Thursday, June 23, 2011, 8:18 p.m.
We pulled up to the building, our caravan close behind, and came to a halt maybe 15 feet from the building and 20 feet to the right of the red door. The number 34 was stenciled in white on the door, and Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison Director of Public Relations Joan Heath confirmed that was where we would witness the execution. After the driver let us out of the van, he asked us to stand where we were. By this point, following orders was automatic, so we did so while the other vans unloaded and their occupants walked toward the building. The silence was deafening. There was a short walkway with a handrail on the left going to the door, and suddenly, there were several guards, officers and suited men lined up to the left of the walkway. With a gesture, we were instructed to walk past them and into the building where Roy Willard Blankenship would die just minutes later.
It’s not like I’ve always supported capital punishment. There was a time in my life when I felt the death penalty was an atrocity that simply degraded the value of life. One life was taken, another follows. Not as much as the senseless loss of life and searing swath of pain that caused the verdict and sentence, but nonetheless near the same level of the most uncivil act in what we believe to be a civilized society.
And there is always the inevitability of executing an innocent man.
When and where that opinion changed for me, I can’t say. I suppose many years of journalism may be the starting point. A person whose job is to comb through the Associated Press wire and other media outlets every day is bound to become exhausted of the unspeakable cruelties committed against friends, families and perfect strangers. It never ends, and sometimes, in the end, the easiest thing to believe is that these soulless creatures should just be erased from the face of the earth.
And who’s to be the judge of that?
Why, we are, of course.
Thursday, June 23, 2011, 8:20 p.m.
The room was much smaller than I had imagined. It held five pews, probably 10 feet long. And the room was well lit with fluorescent lights. I had always envisioned a viewing room as a dark room; I don’t know why. But the one other thing that took me by surprise was the death chamber itself.
The curtain was already drawn when we, the last group to enter, walked in. The chamber was even smaller than the viewing room. It, too was well-lit, almost too much so. The walls were white with a curtain covering the rear left corner. To the right was a yellow door. And in the center, taking up much more of the room than I could have ever imagined, was condemned Roy Blankenship, strapped with black bindings to a gurney, with a nurse at his right and Warden Carl Humphrey to his left. Because of the intimate nature of the facility, he was much closer to the viewing room than I had expected.
Of course, as soon as I accepted the assignment of watching a man die as state-approved lethal chemicals were forced through his veins, I needed to know who this man is and what brought him to this drastic end. To my surprise, I soon discovered that I remembered media coverage of his crimes and trial.
And much more to my surprise, I learned that the rape and murder this man was convicted of happened in March 1978. This man was condemned to death three separate times due to verdicts being overturned on technicalities, the first verdict coming in 1980 and the last in 1986. He had languished on death row all that time through appeal after appeal. And reading an account of what he did to a 78-year-old woman in her own Savannah apartment on that March date, I felt certain there was one thing I would not feel watching his life slip away; sympathy.
Without going into detail, the attack was beyond brutal. After breaking into her apartment and attacking this elderly woman, he told investigators he “got my pleasure or whatever you want to call it,” before leaving her either dead, or to die.
Any decent human being that reads the accounts of what he confessed to that day might think there would be a certain pleasure in watching such an animal take his last breath.
I volunteered, perhaps, to find out if I were one of those “decent human beings.” And if so, why do I want to see this?
Thursday, June 23, 2011, 8:22-8:28 p.m.
I listened to the warden read the state of Georgia’s condemnation of Roy Blankenship and he then exited the room through the yellow door to the right. I watched as the state administered a new sedative as the first step in the three-cocktail soup that now constitutes a lethal injection. I watched as he jerked and twinged while that dose of pentobarbital entered his veins. He jerked his arms at least twice, and at one point he lifted his head from the gurney and looked down at his right arm, his mouth apparently forming the word, “Ow.” His head then dropped back onto the gurney and he moved his lips as if mumbling, but soon he relaxed and was still for all eternity. The nurse, who had been standing by his side during the entire process then donned a pair of rubber gloves, and examined Blankenship’s eyes. This, I had been told, was the “consciousness check” that would allow the release of pancuronium bromide to paralyze him and then potassium chloride to stop his heart. She then entered the yellow door and closed it behind her. Just seconds later she returned to Blankenship’s side as the lethal chemicals began flowing through his motionless body. The death that was ordered more than 30 years ago was about to occur. Roy Blankenship’s long journey to justice soon would be over.
But I had been waiting too, in my own small and insignificant way. I expect my own death won’t be announced beforehand, and I may or may not be able to make my peace before I part this Earth. But those are questions that likely won’t be aired in the media. And who am I to record the death of Blankenship with a pencil and paper from a viewing room on death row at a prison in Jackson, Georgia?
Well, I did it because it’s my job.
I’ll keep telling myself that, and hoping I truly believe it.
Regardless, I was there to witness what more than three decades of appeals, stays and reprieves couldn’t halt; the state-ordered death of Roy Willard Blankenship.
Thursday, June 23, 2011, 8:37 p.m.
I watched as the final two drugs paralyzed his body, and in a matter of moments, his heart stopped beating. To me, it was a relatively uneventful end to a gruesome story that began 33 years ago. But to some it will be the beginning of a renewed debate on cruel and unusual punishment. The sedative should have put the inmate to sleep so the other drugs could work seamlessly, but that didn’t happen Thursday evening. Blankenship was apparently much more aware of his surroundings at a time when he shouldn’t have been, but that had no bearing on the ultimate result of his crimes committed some 33 years ago.
At 8:37 p.m. on Thursday, June 23, 2011, after two doctors checked his vital signs, Roy Willard Blankenship was declared dead.
The curtain between the death chamber and viewing room closed, and I walked out into a pleasant Georgia night, wondering if I had learned anything about myself or my fellow humans, both righteous and evil.
Three days later, I still don’t know.
Herald Assistant Editor Eddie Ledbetter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 489-9403