Art: Vince Larue
In America we love to kill people. Sometimes it is legal, more often it is not. But, legal or not, the killing is steady. Sometimes it is in self-defense, sometimes it is in a frenzy of rage or fear, and sometimes it is premeditated, planned for hours and days and months in advance.
I’ve watched two killings. I’ve looked in the men’s faces as they died. And many of the other killings happen near me.
I live in a small house in Central Phoenix. On many weeknights, and most weekends, there is audible gunfire. I can sit with a glass of wine, looking out at the hot darkness, watching the moths swarm around the porch lights, and when I hear the gunshots I think about the people who pull the triggers. I wonder what they will eat for breakfast in the morning, who they’ll wake up with, who they’ll never think of shooting.
It goes like this: the darkness is concussed by the gunshots, and then the police helicopter, the ghetto bird, hangs noisily above. If the cops come, it is said, that usually means someone was hit. The cops deny this, but it is said that there are so many shots fired that they can’t afford to respond to them all.
And sometimes it goes like this: a man is locked in a room, and he is told that he is going to be killed on a certain day. And when the day comes, he is taken to another room, tied down and killed while a group of people watch. Some of those who watch will be people who love him. Others will be people who hate him. And still others will be people like me.
On nights like tonight, I play with my cats, listen to the song of the ghetto bird, and my mind rolls back to the last killing I watched. Scribbled words that lie dead in old notebooks come back to life, and all at once it is no longer night and it is no longer now. Instead, for at least the hundredth time in my mind, it is the furious daylight of June 1999.
He will smile and demand lunch. A moment later, they will kill him. But, as I speed towards Florence just after sunrise, that is still a week away.
Florence, Arizona, is a town that belongs to an earlier time, but some people think it - and other towns like it - are the future of American suburban life. It hasn’t changed a great deal in the last fifty years. The dirt roads have been paved, but that’s about it. Development hasn’t come this far, and it probably won’t. The prison keeps it away.
Although the official population of the town is around ten thousand, only about five thousand of them are visible. The others are inmates of the prison. Many of the ones on the outside would probably not be there if the prison wasn’t there too. Go into any store or bar or restaurant, and you’ll have to search hard to find anyone without a family member who’s employed by the Arizona Department of Corrections.
Some theorists have predicted that it won’t be long until there are entire towns where everyone is in prison, either as an inmate or as an employee. Anyone who wishes to see a prototype of such a town ought to visit Florence.
But that’s not why I’m there on Wednesday, June 9, 1999. I’ve come to watch a judge decide whether or not to end the life of one of the prison’s inmates in a week’s time.
My visit to Florence today was set in motion in 1977, when I was 11 years old, by a man I did not know, Michael Poland. With his brother, Patrick, he dressed as a cop, and, in a car equipped with emergency lights, pulled over an armored van on Interstate 17, just North of Phoenix. There were two guards in the van, Cecil Newkirk and Russell Dempsey. The Polands kidnapped the guards and drove 250 miles to Lake Mead. Once there, they wrapped their captives in canvas bags and dumped them in the lake, leaving them to drown. Three weeks later, the bodies washed ashore on the Nevada side of the lake, and the Poland brothers had scored themselves bunks on Death Row.
That’s the version of the story on the record, and it’s the version I believe, because I have found nothing to suggest that it isn’t true. There are other versions. Patrick tried to blame it all on Michael. Michael’s lawyer says that the guards were dead before they were put in the lake. He says that his client only intended to rob the van, but that one of the guards died of a heart attack when the gun was pointed at him, so they had to kill the other one to cover it up.
I don’t believe Patrick Poland’s version and I don’t believe the version told by Michael Poland’s lawyer, and if Michael Poland was willing to talk about it I wouldn’t believe his version either. The only credible version of the story is silently told by two men at the bottom of a cold lake twenty-two years ago.
There are people on Death Row who should not be there. Debra Milke, who was convicted solely on the testimony of the man who murdered her son. Teddy Washington, who was convicted on flimsy circumstantial evidence, and whose post-conviction hearing was handled by a judge who was suffering from organic brain damage. There are plenty of others whose residency on Death Row is not based on anything they did. Michael Poland is not one of these people.
The feds didn’t care about the guards, they just wanted to recover the stolen money. They offered Michael Poland a chance to escape with his life if he’d forgo a trial, plead guilty to murder and tell them where the money was. Poland told the state to prove its case. It did, and got the death penalty. Poland has been in Florence Prison ever since.
In October 1998, he was about to be executed when his lawyer got him a stay from a judge in Hawaii. It came at the very last minute. Poland had invited me to witness his execution, which was to take place at three o’clock in the afternoon. I was in the waiting room with Poland’s son and daughter-in-law. An official came in and told us that the execution was being delayed until five. A short while later, the same official came back and said, “There isn’t gonna be an execution today.”
There are two essential criteria a person must meet if they are to be executed. They must be aware that they are about to be killed, and they must understand why they are about to be killed. Poland’s lawyer had argued that his client was not competent to be executed, that he was insane and believed that he could not be killed. His lawyer was driving to Florence for the execution when he got a call on his cellular phone, to tell him that the judge wanted to have a conference. He pulled to the side of the road and they did the conference by phone. The judge agreed to a stay of execution to allow a competency hearing to take place. The Attorney General’s people, who were also taking part in the conference, didn’t like it. “Judge!” one of them said. “If you grant this, tomorrow they’ll all be claiming to be incompetent.”
Poland’s lawyer is Dale Baich. Today, as I head for Florence to watch the competency hearing, I’m in Baich’s car and he’s driving.
We’re a strange mix, Dale Baich and I. He is a lawyer, and I am a reporter. A reporter’s job is to find out what happened, from whatever evidence can be found, and to make the information available to anyone who is interested. A lawyer’s job is to select those facts that support the version of the story that is most favorable to his client, and to quietly overlook those facts that don’t. Reporters and lawyers have opposite agendas and are natural adversaries. But Dale Baich and I are friends.
I met him two years ago. For almost a year prior to that, I had been curious about the death penalty, which is immensely popular in Arizona, but is rarely covered in any depth by the media. If people were being killed by the state in which I had made my home, I wanted to know about it, how it worked, who worked it, who it was worked upon and how well or badly it worked. I wanted to read about these things, and complained that I couldn’t. I grumbled for a year, then realized that if I wanted such reportage to be available, I might as well do it myself.
I called the Arizona Department of Corrections and talked to a public information officer. At that time, I was working as a columnist for a weekly paper, and the paper had recently published a parody of the DOC’s execution checklist. The public information officer told me point blank that no one from that paper would ever be allowed to witness an execution, even though such access is supposedly available to any reporter.
“Why not?” I asked him.
“Because I read that article in the paper. You were making jokes about it.”
“We don’t think a person’s death is anything to laugh about.”
“Neither do I. But then I don’t kill people. You know, I’m not a psychiatrist, but if you’re having such a problem with it, maybe you’ll feel better if you stop.”
That was the end of the conversation.
Looking for a guide who could tell me how to navigate this territory, I asked around, and someone put me in touch with Dale Baich. We met at a party at the house of one of his investigators, Lisa Eager. We talked a little, but not much, and made tentative plans to call each other. We called each other, and met at a bar the following week. That conversation revealed a mutual love of blues. Since then we’ve closed many a blues show in the late or early hours, sitting at the bar with the musicians as the crowd dwindled.
Soon after we met, Baich told me he believed that people ought to bear witness. I told him that was why I’d approached him. A few months later, I watched as Jose Jesus Ceja, strapped to a gurney, was pumped full of poison. Ceja was 43. He had been convicted of a double murder when he was 18. At his clemency hearing, the judge who had originally sentenced him to death now pleaded for his life, admitting that he had made a mistake in passing the death sentence. The Board of Executive Clemency voted four to one to kill him anyway. Welcome to Arizona.
Ceja had invited me to attend as one of his witnesses. If the DOC tried to prevent me from attending, Ceja would have the right to file suit, and the execution could be postponed. This is what Ceja’s lawyer hoped would happen, but Ceja held little hope. He was right.
As I watched, Ceja’s face seemed to explode. His lower lip billowed out from his face, like a rag flapping in a strong wind. I don’t know whether the pancuronium suffocated him before the potassium chloride stopped his heart.
On my way to the death house, and on my way from it, I imagined being Jose Ceja. It wasn’t hard to imagine. I only had to think of the words of the cops who arrested Ceja. Eloy Ysassi described the carnage as “a panicked act by a young, immature person.” In 1984, when I was 18, that would have been a fair description of me. That winter, I was broke and hungry and on the verge of being kicked out of the place where I lived.
One freezing morning, I hadn’t eaten and didn’t know how I was going to eat that day. I went out, taking with me a screwdriver with a weighted handle. The tool barely fit into the inside pocket of my jacket. I went inside a quiet old bookstore and pretended to look at the books. The owner, an elderly man, looked at me suspiciously, but he wasn’t hostile. He sat behind a desk with a heater beside him, and read a newspaper. For more than an hour, I skulked behind shelves. I couldn’t see a cash register. A customer came in and bought some books, and I saw where the money was kept - in a desk drawer. When the customer left, I planned what I was going to do - smash the man’s head with the screwdriver handle, pocket the money from the drawer and get out of there. I’d toss the screwdriver in the nearby river as I walked home. Business was so slow at his store, there was a good chance that I’d be able to do it and leave without anyone seeing me.
It didn’t happen, though it nearly did. I walked toward the old guy, my hand inside my jacket, holding the screwdriver. He had no idea what was about to happen to him - he just thought I was leaving his store. “Bye,” he said. And his voice panicked me, and instead of hitting him on the head, I did what he thought I was going to do: I walked out of his store.
I walked down to the river and dropped the screwdriver into the water.
It wasn’t my conscience that saved him, though I’d like to believe that it was. The truth is, I chickened out.
As I lay in bed after watching him die, I imagined being Jose Ceja.
The next day, I was stricken with a debilitating virus, and confined to bed for several days. When I recovered, I realized that I had joined a certain club. Baich was a member. He had seen his client John Joubert die in the electric chair in Nebraska, and, when I asked if he still thought about it, he answered, “Every fucking day.”
To those who are not in the club, this might sound like rhetoric, overstatement for dramatic effect. I thought so, too, until I witnessed Ceja’s death. Since then, I have known that Baich was telling the literal truth. I don’t have a good memory for faces. I can meet a person in a bar, talk with them for hours, and not recognize them a few days later. I only saw Jose Ceja for a few minutes while he was being killed. But I can remember his face in perfect detail, and, if he were alive and I saw him somewhere, I would recognize him for certain.
In 1999, Baich is in his early forties. He came to Phoenix from Cleveland, Ohio, less than three years ago, to take the job. He’s running to fat, but still looks angular, and has brown eyes and thinning brown hair. His life in Phoenix is streamlined - he works, attends baseball games and hangs out with his friends at blues shows. He writes profiles of bluesmen for a local free paper. He regularly travels to New Orleans to visit his girlfriend, an editor at the Times-Picayune. He has an air of almost unnatural calm. When he gets angry, only those who know him well are aware of it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him raise his voice. When he’s under pressure or under attack, he loses his usual warmth and speaks in impatient monosyllables. During the state’s first attempt to execute Michael Poland, this was how he usually spoke to me.
We have two relationships that co-exist, mostly without problems. To me, he is a close and trusted friend, and also a lawyer who will provide information to me, or try to throw a smokescreen before me, depending on how it suits him. To him, I am a close and trusted friend, and also a reporter he can sometimes make use of, and sometimes must protect his clients from. In our bar-room discussions, when local politics is the topic of conversation, I often find myself ending questions with the words, “off the record,” even though at these moments we always are.
Many of Baich’s colleagues dislike him, because they think he isn’t sufficiently gung-ho in opposing the death penalty. The truth is that his opposition to it consumes him, but he doesn’t let his ego get involved in his work. He knows the death penalty isn’t going to be abolished anytime soon. And he knows that making passionate speeches about the morality of capital punishment won’t help his clients, so he’ll do his campaigning on his own time. His professional concern is to represent his clients, not to change the world. He works procedurally rather than emotively, looking for legal reasons why the client shouldn’t be executed. Although he’s unwilling to join with the zealots among his colleagues in a chorus of “Kumba-Ya,” some of his peers regard him as one of the best death row lawyers in the nation. After he got Poland a stay last year, he claimed it was a team effort. One member of the team, Pat McGillicudy, told me, “It was all him. The guy never misses a thing. Don’t let him give the credit to anybody else.”
As we head for Florence, I’m worried about him. A few weeks ago, Robert Vickers was executed. He wasn’t Baich’s client, but Baich got involved on a consultancy basis. He had to. Vickers’ lawyer, Alan Kyman, wrote to the court saying that he didn’t believe he was capable of providing adequate representation for his client, and asking that Baich also be appointed to the case. The court refused. Vickers was killed in the afternoon. That evening, Baich called me from a bar in central Phoenix. “I’m fucked up,” he said. I went over to the bar and found him. When he’d said he was fucked up, I’d assumed he meant he was drunk. But he wasn’t, or, if he was, I’ve seen him far drunker and still capable. He was distraught. He could barely speak coherently or follow what otherpeople were saying from one sentence to the next. He had met with Vickers, and he couldn’t believe that the state had killed him. “He was like a kid,” Baich kept saying.
That one was hard for me to swallow. Vickers had the reputation of a real-life Hannibal Lecter. While in prison, he had killed two people. He was nicknamed “Bonzai Bob” because he’d mis-spelled the Japanese war cry Banzai while carving it into the body of his first victim. He firebombed the cell of his other victim, burning him to death, then asked a guard, “Did I do a good job?”
I mentioned Baich’s comment to his colleague, Ken Murray, who wasn’t surprised by it. “Everybody has everything human in them,” Murray said. “Parent, child, everything. And Dale sees the child in everybody.”
Baich decided to go home, and insisted that he was okay to drive. I didn’t believe him. I insisted on following him home. He was all over the road.
And Vickers wasn’t his client. Michael Poland is. And so, exactly one week before the scheduled execution, I’m worried about Baich. If the judge orders that the execution go ahead, I’m afraid of what it might to do him.
It’s seven in the morning as we roll down Highway 79 going South, but it’s hot already. Baich cranks up the air conditioning. He’s wearing a sober blue suit and a striped tie, the kind of get-up he only ever wears at court, executions and weddings. We stop at a convenience store and get some food and soda. Baich is good-humored and optimistic, too focused on winning his case to be worried.
We pull into Florence at around eight, and park outside the Pinal County Courthouse. With nearly an hour until the scheduled starting time, it’s already quite busy. There’s a writer from Tucson, and reporters from the Associated Press, the Arizona Daily Star and the Prescott Courier. The state’s largest newspaper, the Arizona Republic, doesn’t have anyone present. The Federal Public Defender’s Office is well represented; as well as Baich, there are three other defense lawyers - Ken Murray, Jason Hawkins and Pat McGillicudy - two paralegals, two investigators and five clerks. The state is represented by assistant attorney generals Galen Wilkes and Kent Cattani. Wilkes, who will do all the talking for the state today, is a small man with hair that looks as though it might have been spray-painted onto his head. Cattani is young and sullen-looking. Two days ago, he was screaming at Baich over the phone, frustrated at the public defender’s stalling tactics.
Whether in a big city or a rural boondock, courthouses are always the same. Only the size varies. This building is relatively small, but the walls are lined with the usual solemn portraits of former judges and clerks of court.
In the courtroom, Baich stands talking with Hawkins, who is thirty years old and completely bald. Murray reads paperwork. Time drags. With fifteen minutes left until things get started, the clerks sit and chat, or go out in search of coffee or soda.
One of Baich’s clerks sits beside me. I’ve never met her before, so we introduce ourselves and talk for a while. She is in her early twenties, a woman of almost shocking beauty. She is a law student at Arizona State University, and is interning at Baich’s office to gain experience. I want her terribly.
Judge James E. Don comes in, and doesn’t conceal the fact that he doesn’t want to be there. Yesterday, when talking with Baich on the phone, the judge said, “So how long will the hearing take? An hour?” When Baich explained that it would be a lot longer than that, Don wasn’t happy. It meant he wouldn’t be able to hang out with his friends at a judges’ convention that’s being held in Phoenix today. If it were any other judge, the defense would be feeling optimistic. But Judge Don’s nickname is “Prosecutor Don,” and he is infamous for walking into courtrooms with his mind already made up.
As soon as he sits in his chair, Don begins rocking back and forth, glowering at the lawyers.
Michael Poland doesn’t want to be here either, but he’s required to show up and say so. They bring him in without fanfare. He’s 59, gray-haired and bespectacled, wearing chains and an orange jumpsuit. He looks old, and seems to be slightly stooped, but that might be the weight of the chains. Baich extends a hand, and Poland shakes it.
“You don’t know how good that feels,” Poland says. “It’s been so long since I touched anybody.” This is the first physical contact they have had. When Baich has visited Poland, they have been separated by glass. Baich motions towards the spectators, and tells Poland which one I am. Poland looks at me, then smiles at Baich. “Yeah,” he says. “I can just imagine the two of you hanging out together.”
They sit side by side, Baich whispering to Poland, feeling the warmth of his body near him, feeling the breath come out of his wet mouth when he speaks. I can’t stop looking at Poland. The veins on the backs of his hands, the freckles on his elbow. All that will be ashes soon.
I pull my gaze away from Poland, and look at the law clerk I talked to earlier. She’s looking at a sheet of paper, so I lean towards her and read it over her shoulder. It’s a list of food items.
“What’s that you’re reading?” I ask her, thinking it might be a prison menu.
“Nothing to do with the case,” she says. “I’ve applied for a job as a waitress. They’re interviewing me tonight. ButI have to get the whole menu memorized, so that’s what I’m up to.”
I can think of nothing else to say to her. She goes back to looking at the menu. I sit there and look at her, with her head full of plans for her job and everything else, memorizing the things she’ll need for the future. I look at the long dark hair and the brown skin, and the black top she’s wearing. I imagine how easily she must raise her long arms over her head to pull the garment off, and how easily the fabric would roll over her skin. I imagine how her breath would feel on my skin, how warm her body would feel to the touch. When I look at Poland again, I know how easily they will take the orange suit from his body, how the straps will fasten him to the gurney, and the needles will slip into his veins.
Baich tells the judge that Poland wants to say something. Poland stands up and says he doesn’t want to be here, he wants to be taken back to the prison. “There’s no good reason for me to be here,” he says amiably.
The judge asks him if he understands the seriousness of the hearing, that his life will depend on the outcome.
“I don’t see it’s any great concern of mine,” Poland tells him. “No disrespect to your honor, but it doesn’t concern me.”
The judge has no choice but to let him be taken away. Back in his cell, he doesn’t say his prayers or say his good-byes to his family. He reads newspapers, watches TV, exercises, eats.
Poland’s lawyers have decided not to call any witnesses of their own. They don’t have to. The state’s expert witness will make their case for them.
The state had appointed a psychiatrist from Tucson, Barry Morenz, to examine Poland and find him sane and fit to be executed. But Morenz has found Poland to be incompetent, so the state changed its mind about calling him as a witness. When Baich subpoenaed him, the state changed its mind again and decided to call him and attempt some damage limitation.
Morenz tells the court that Poland doesn’t know he’s going to die. He examined Poland twice, and says it took him an hour and a half to recognize that Poland was crazy. “Mr Poland… at first comes across as very together, very intelligent, very well-spoken,” he says. “A cursory interview might overlook his delusional system.”
He says that Poland seemed complacent and comfortable, and that, when Morenz had talked to him about the impending execution, “It was almost like he was reassuring me.” Asked whether Poland could be faking, Morenz answers, “He is not acting. It would be difficult for a professional to malinger, let alone a lay person. He’s doing the opposite of faking - he’s trying to minimize his mental illness. He’s faking sanity.”
When Morenz’s testimony is over, the judge calls a break for lunch. Normally in such circumstances I would go with Baich, but right now I want to be away from anyone and anything judicial. Another friend of mine, a reporter, is here. We go out into the searing daylight and I get in his truck with him and we go in search of the Florence Historical Society. We spend about a half-hour there, trying without success to find out how a local hotel, the Blue Mist, got its name. The woman behind the desk tells us that Mormons are plotting to take over the world. We find a Mexican restaurant, sit at a table and eat albondigas. There are various players in the courtroom psychodrama sitting at different tables. I wave and smile at some of them, but I don’t talk to them.
I don’t want to go back to the courthouse, but I go anyway.
The state calls some more witnesses. All of them are prison guards, officers of the Arizona Department of Corrections, who have dealt with Poland. Galen Wilkes keeps asking the guards to evaluate Poland’s intelligence. Two things are never explained: why the guards are qualified to evaluate intelligence, and why intelligence matters, since the issue at hand is sanity. Ken Murray keeps objecting, and the judge keeps denying his objections.
Last year, Poland tried to persuade an investigator with the DOC, Mike Graham, to help him escape. He told Graham he still had a lot of the stolen money hidden somewhere, and would share it with him. He told him Baich was in cahoots with him and would help him. Although the plan was so ridiculous that only a completely delusional person might think it had a chance of working, Wilkes argues that such behavior shows that Poland was desperate, and therefore must have understood that he was going to be executed.
That such an argument would be allowed is almost bizarre. According to the law, it wouldn’t matter if Poland was competent last week, let alone last year. What matters is whether he’s competent now. Like it or not, the law dictates that if he’s not competent at the time of his execution, he can’t be executed.
This point is resoundingly made by Murray when he objects, but again the judge denies his objection. This happens again and again, and I realize that Murray doesn’t hold out any hope of winning at this hearing. He’s just trying to get everything into the record so the defense can appeal.
Sometime around the middle of the afternoon, the judge appears to fall asleep.
The hearing comes to an end for the day when Wilkes mentions some tapes that Graham secretly recorded of his conversations with Poland. Murray tells the judge that he had requested copies of these tapes, and had been told that they didn’t exist. Murray accuses the state of obstruction, and demands that he be provided with the tapes. The judge sighs and shakes his head. He orders Wilkes and Cattani to give the defense copies of the tapes, and orders the defense lawyers to listen to the tapes immediately and come back to court at nine tomorrow morning.
That night, I sit in the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Phoenix and wait for the tapes to arrive. When they do, there’s nothing on them that can be used as evidence by either side. The Arizona Republic calls me and asks for a report of the day’s events. I write the piece fast, there in Baich’s office, and file it. I’m so tired I forget what I’ve written, and when I read it tomorrow it will seem like someone else’s work. I call home, she answers, and I ask her to drive downtown and pick me up. She does. We drive across the dark city and she asks me what happened. When I tell her, she asks if Poland will still be executed. I say yes.
The next day, Judge Don delivers his decision in writing. He says that, “Like anyone sentenced to death in Arizona, he is presumed competent to be executed. To overcome the presumption, Poland is obliged to present clear and convincing evidence of incompetency.” The judge does not find the state’s psychiatrist’s evaluation to be clear or convincing.“This court, however, is not persuaded that Poland has proved the existence of his alleged mental disease or defect. The diagnoses were based largely on self-serving information Poland himself provided the experts.” He concludes that Poland is “aware”, and therefore can legally be executed. He gets his definition of the word from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New College Edition (1976). According to the dictionary, to be “aware” is to be “conscious; cognizant.”
Ken Murray sits in his office. He knew this was going to happen, but now that it’s official, he looks dumbfounded. “To have a case as strong as this - as overwhelming as this - and still not prevail…” He shakes his head. This case confirms all the beliefs that make Murray a death row lawyer. His step-father, the only father he knew, was murdered. And still Murray opposes the death penalty. He’s not a hardcore abolitionist; if the system could be administered fairly, he might change his mind. But he knows the realities. He knows there’s nothing you can do when the judge refuses to consider the evidence you present. “It’s not about justice,” he says. “It’s about egos run wild.”
The lawyers are forcing themselves to be optimistic. They’ve still got motions pending in the District Court and the Supreme Court.
The night before Poland is to be executed, I come home late. After hours in the office of the Federal Public Defender, watching the lawyers as motion after motion was denied, I went to a coffee house in the Biltmore Fashion Square, an exclusive strip mall. I don’t like the place much, but a friend of mine was playing music there.I sat at a table outdoors with some other friends and listened to Dave play his songs. The place was lit with bright lamps and there was a fountain behind Dave, the fragments of light ricocheting off the jets of water.
Now I come home, and she is concerned. She wants to help, but doesn’t know how. She asks me, but I don’t know either. “What’s going on in your head?” she asks. “How do you prepare for something like this?” I tell her you don’t prepare for it, that there’s nothing you can do to prepare.
She goes to bed, but I stay up. I usually stay up later than her. I sit on the couch in the living room and drink beer. I try to read a magazine, but my cat won’t let me. He wants attention. He jumps on the couch and rubs his head against me, purring. I pet him with one hand, but this isn’t enough for him. He pulls the magazine out of my hands and climbs on my lap. I play with him for a while, and he settles down and seems to sleep. It’s now the time of year in Phoenix when the heat never relents. Even at this time of night, the cooler in my apartment makes little impression on the temperature. My body is slick and wet, as though I just got out of the shower. I can feel the sweat seeping out of my pores, sweat that smells of beer. I think about Michael Poland, what he’s doing right now, what he’s drinking, whether he’s sweating, what he smells like.
Wednesday, June 16 is the day before my 33rd birthday. It’s five days after Michael Poland’s 59th birthday. It’s also the day when Michael Poland is to be killed.
When I show up at Florence prison, I realize that things have changed since January 21, 1998, when I witnessed Jose Ceja’s execution. That was an event. It was held at midnight. Outside the prison, about fifty people gathered in a vigil, their candles lighting the cold darkness. On the other side of the prison was a different kind of vigil - people cheering Ceja’s impending death. Security was very tight; on the way in, I had to show identification at a multitude of checkpoints, some only a few feet apart. And I had to go through it all again on the way back outside.
But it’s different now. Numbers have changed it from an event to a routine. Since the state of Arizona resumed killing people in 1992, after a hiatus of 29 years, the momentum has slowly built up to a conveyor belt of death. In 1992, there was one execution. Two the following year. None in 1994. One in 1995. Two in 1996, and two more in 1997. In 1998 there were four. In 1999, a record was set - six people in six months.
Towards the middle of 1998, the Department of Corrections decided to dispense with the drama, and moved executions to the afternoon. There is a reason for the tradition of midnight executions: the death warrant was only valid for one day, and if your lawyer could stall until the end of that day, they had to cancel the execution and get another warrant. So they liked to start trying to kill the inmate right at midnight, the start of the day, because it was unlikely that his lawyer would be able to stall for the whole 24 hours. But a change in the law removed that imperative by allowing the death warrant to cover a 24-hour period starting at a given time on the scheduled day of execution. This means the execution can take place the day after, as long as it’s still within 24 hours of the scheduled time.
There are several reasons for the change. Judges prefer afternoon executions, saying it’s hard for them to dispense justice in the middle of the night. Many people in the industry believe they just don’t like being hauled out of bed to consider appeals. Another reason is that executions seem less significant if they’re carried out in the afternoon. Fewer people can make it to the vigils, since they have to work, and candlelight vigils aren’t very effective in the Arizona sunshine. There is no shade available in the area designated for vigils; only the most hardy can stand to attend in the summer, when the ground is scorched all day long. For the same reason, reporters are less willing to cover the vigils.
Security has become less intense, even though the execution process involves about 120 prison staff. Today I get into the prison with hardly more hassle than it takes to get into a concert. I only have to produce ID twice - the first time when I arrive at the waiting room, and the second time when they take me to the death chamber.
There’s something about the demeanor of prison officials that tells you they know there’s something wrong about executions. In the waiting room, they greet the witnesses with forced joviality, and speak to us kindly. One of them remarks that I’ve grown a beard since he last saw me. He points to a table laden with sandwiches, fruit cocktail and soda, and tells us to help ourselves. There’s Poland’s son Kent, Kent’s wife Natalie, Poland’s son Marshall, and another writer Poland has invited. Baich’s investigator, Lisa Eager, is not going to be a witness, but she’s here in the waiting room, with Baich’s cellular phone, hoping for a call from a judge. Baich is with Poland.
Dale Baich is the last visitor Michael Poland will have. But Poland doesn’t seem to realize this.
“When are you coming back to see me again?” he asks Baich, towards the end of the visit.
“I’m not,” Baich says.
Baich doesn’t say anything.
As the guards take Baich out of the room, Poland calls out a good-bye. Baich looks back. Poland is standing in front of the toilet, with his back to Baich, taking a piss. He looks over his shoulder, smiles, and waves with his free hand.
They’ve moved us to another waiting room, next to the death chamber. It’s around two-thirty. An official comes in and reads us a briefing, telling us what’s going to happen. He stammers as he reads it.
Kent and Natalie Poland sit huddled together in intimate grief, reading a page of the Bible. From time to time they sing or hum quietly, something that sounds like a hymn, but so quiet I can’t make it out, and I’m not about to ask them what it is. She’s crying, and Kent is kissing her, whispering to her. His brother stares into space.
Natalie and her father-in-law are close, but, because she’s not immediate family, she hasn’t been allowed to visit him since his execution date was set. Eight days ago, he wrote her a letter, six handwritten pages. The tone throughout was cheerful. She had recently sent him some photographs of her daughter, and the letter began, “Nat, THANK YOU so much for ALL these wonderful, beautiful pictures of ‘you-know-who’! (Don’t want her head to swell anymore, right?) As I told Kent, though, the little one of her in her PJ’s and the black hat had black ink spots all over it as it looks like the ink was still wet when you sealed it. No big thing really, but I wanted you to know all the same so if you use that pen in the future just wait a bit till it dries, OK lady?” He went on to chat about the child’s health, and then recommended that she check out various recordings by Marty Robbins, Elvis Presley and Jim Ed Brown. He talked about the books he’d been reading recently - Emerson and Twain - and about the number of weddings that were happening that month. Towards the end of the letter he wrote, “Well, I saved the best (NOT!) for last, this thing with them stopping your visiting. I spoke just briefly with Warden Terry yesterday and he mentioned that Kent had either spoken with him or was pursuing it otherwise. However, he also fell back on quoting policy so I don’t think there will be any change anytime soon. As such, we’ll just have to wait until this is over and they move me back and then you’ll be able to visit again as before as I won’t be on ‘isolation’ any longer. It’s no big deal, Nat, so don’t even bother yourself about it as it’ll just be another week or so and then I’ll be seeing your smiling face again. Oh, and Frenchbraid Megan’s hair for me too, please!”
After Baich has left the condemned cell, they come for Michael Poland. They lead him to a gurney and strap him down. Then they put catheters into the veins of one of his arms. With some inmates, the veins are hard to find, so they dissect the arm, with the inmate fully conscious, until a useable vein is discovered. This process is known as “cutting down.” But Michael Poland is spared it. His veins aren’t hard to find.
This is done without witnesses present. It’s a cosmetic maneuver worthy of an advertising agency. They tuck a sheet around him, and strategically position the gurney so that, when the curtain opens, the witnesses will see no sign of needles, tubes or catheters. Poland will look like a man tucked cozily in bed, waiting for someone to bring him coffee.
Once he’s been strapped down and his veins catheterized, they leave him lying there for about a half-hour. There are still appeals pending. It’s about five minutes past three when all the appeals have been thrown out, and they know there has been no last-minute reprieve. They give the order to pull back the drape.
Poland raises his head and looks to his right, at the soundproofed window. It’s hard for him to see the media witnesses, who’re standing at the back of the room. At the front, standing close to the glass, are his witnesses and the witnesses for one of his victims. He looks at his family and smiles, then peers at the other witnesses, as though he’s enjoying the attention.
Terry Stewart, the Director of the Department of Corrections, comes into the room and stands near the foot of the gurney. He asks Poland if he has any last words.
Poland smiles at him. “I just want to know if you’re going to bring me lunch afterwards,” he tells Stewart. “I’m really hungry.” He looks at the witnesses and shrugs as much as the straps will let him. “I can’t think of anything else to say.”
Stewart makes no response. He turns and leaves the room. A warden comes in and reads Poland his death warrant. Poland smiles condescendingly. The warden leaves the room. The intercom is turned off. Poland looks again at Kent, Natalie and Marshall and they see him silently mouth, “I love you.”
As I watch Poland smile and talk, I don’t feel any emotion. No anxiety or nervousness. Nothing. But my heart is beating so hard I can see its pulse through the fabric of my shirt. Standing beside me is one of the prison pastors, a small thin man with an air of nervous friendliness. On the other side of him are some teenagers, the grandchildren of one of the victims. They must have been born after his death, so I can’t imagine why they want to be put through this.
Poland is so close to me that, were it not for the soundproofed glass, we would be able to hold a conversation without raising our voices.
All I can see is a man strapped to a gurney, with his neat hair and his glasses. But I know what is happening to him.
First, he is injected with sodium thiopental, an ultra-short-acting sedative. Then pancuronium, which paralyzes all the voluntary muscles. The purpose of this is to make death look peaceful - no matter how the inmate feels, even if he’s in intense pain, he won’t be able to show it. (One doctor who injected himself with a small dose described the effect as “feeling like a horse is sitting on your chest.”) Finally, he’s injected with potassium chloride, which stops the heart. In some states, it is illegal for veterinarians to use this method to euthanize animals.
Poland closes his eyes, and his smile fades. His chest swells, then his cheeks puff out and his lips move like someone blowing a “raspberry.”” The teenage girls are sobbing. The pastor turns his face away, looking at the floor. I have a sty on one of my eyelids. It hasn’t hurt since it appeared a few days ago, but now it throbs excruciatingly.
Poland seems to die quickly and without drama. He’s just lying there, looking no different than he did a few minutes ago, except that now he isn’t moving and there’s no sign of breath. He looks quite healthy. We all stand and stare at him for a few minutes longer. Nobody speaks. Then it’s announced that the execution has been carried out at fourteen minutes past three. The drape is drawn over the window, and the witnesses leave.
The last time I witnessed an execution, it took almost as long for witnesses to get out as to get in. We had to go through the same checkpoints, showing ID all over again. It’s different this time. They just let us walk out.
Dale Baich is standing in the sunlit dirt outside the prison. We ask each other if we’re all right, and answer each other with affectionate lies. Baich says he’s all right, but the truth is he feels like hell. I say I’m all right, but the truth is I haven’t a clue as to how I feel. Disbelief isn’t an emotion.
In a few hours it will be evening and Dale Baich and Ken Murray and Jason Hawkins and several others and I will gather in a bar in downtown Phoenix. The atmosphere will be that of a slightly depressed party, everyone laughing, trying to be good humored. There will be soft lights and comfortable chairs and jokes and bottles and glasses and drunken confidences and kindly bartenders late into the night. The lawyers will blame themselves - Murray will call himself a “fat stupid fuck” - wondering if the outcome might have been different had they tried something else, done it another way. And their friends will tell them that they did the best they could.
But that will be later. Now Baich sees Kent and Natalie Poland, walking out of the prison gates, clinging to each other. He has to talk to them, tell them he has Michael Poland’s property, and arrange for them to take possession of it. He won’t have to give Natalie the letter Michael Poland wrote to her eight days before she saw his breath stop. She already has that.
You can’t get away from the hate. Talk to a cop or a prosecutor, and they will tell you that the people on death row are vermin. Talk to a death row lawyer, and they will try to convince you that the finest human beings who ever graced this earth are all on death row - and that everyone is to blame for the killing except the killer. I once sat in a bar and got drunk with such a lawyer. His client had beaten a man to death and was now awaiting the needle. The lawyer told me that the victim had not been beaten to death, that he had died of a heart attack during the beating because he was overweight. Only that is not how the lawyer put it. “He was a fat fuck,” is what he said. He would not have tolerated anyone speaking so harshly of his client, but it was de rigeur to insult the man his client murdered. In the subculture of the execution industry, everything is absolute. The other side is the enemy. You’re for the killer or you’re for his victim, but you are not allowed to be for both. Pick a side, and start hating.
Lying goes with the territory, even among the most high-minded death row lawyers. The lawyer does the killer’s PR, along with trying to keep him alive. The spin is everything. While Dale Baich represented Michael Poland, he would tell me that the other inmates looked up to Poland, respecting his intelligence and his fondness for books. I told him that I heard the opposite, that the inmates disliked Poland for his arrogance and pretentiousness. Baich denied this, on and off the record, but the story changed after Poland’s death. When Poland’s brother Patrick was executed a short while later, Baich mentioned that, unlike Michael, “people really do like Patrick.”
“So,” I said. “It’s true that the other inmates couldn’t stand Michael?”
Baich smiled and shrugged.
In the killing zone, hate is easy and lies are easy and everybody is looking for revenge or just looking to do their job well and such quaint notions as “truth” or “justice” are irrelevant. Trapped between conflicting agendas, you learn that there will be no justice and that there is only one verifiable truth: for a myriad of reasons, people are killing other people.
Time has passed. Now, in April 2008, Michael Poland and Jose Ceja are scribbled words in old notebooks. Since they were turned to nothing, I have drunk, eaten, pissed and shat. I have read books and watched movies and fucked. Dale Baich has produced albums by a local blues singer. I have left Arizona for some years, and recently moved back to Phoenix. I left town with the woman who drove me to Poland’s execution, and I returned alone.
The world has turned, and will continue to turn
Last night I cooked a meal for myself – rainbow trout poached in a sauce of butter, parsley, tomatoes, onions and garlic, with polenta on the side. As I ate it, I drank merlot. Nothing about this is unusual. Neither is killing.
It is Thursday morning and I have not heard gunshots this week, but if I do not hear any before the week is over, that will be unusual. The state did not kill anyone this month, but only because there has been a voluntary moratorium on executions while the Supreme Court considered a claim by two prisoners in Kentucky that lethal injection is unconstitutional because of the intense pain it can inflict. The Court has now declared by a 7-2 that it is not cruel and unusual, so the killing will now resume – even though one member of the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens, calls the death penalty “State-sanctioned killing” that is “anachronistic,” and believes it should be abolished.
My windows have been open all night, but my door is closed and locked. It is dark outside, and it is after midnight, but the temperature is over seventy degrees. At this time of year, that is not unusual.
There is no wind. This house is in the center of a city that is in the heart of the Sonoran desert, which would kill me, and probably everyone else, were it not for the technological armor that protects us. This is what we do with anything that kills – we keep it at bay with the paraphernalia of civilization.
I know I do.
I am a man who has approached two other men and asked them for a formal invitation to come and watch them being killed. When I received the invitations in the mail, I responded with the enthusiasm of a social climber who has been invited to a society event. I showed up early, having been careful to wear the correct clothes, and I stood at my assigned place in the front and watched as each man’s breath stopped. And I called it work, and I called it bearing witness, and I was telling the truth, but, even so, I was lying. And if you think it is impossible to lie while telling the truth, you don’t understand anything I have told you.
Reporting is my work, and I do believe in its importance, and this belief would have been enough to persuade me to witness the killing of two men. But these were not the reasons, and I did not need persuading. I sought them out, and I know I will again soon, when the killing season resumes. I can feel the craving.
I do it not out of a sense of duty, and not a sense of morality. I am not certain that Jose Ceja deserved to be killed. I am certain that Michael Poland did. And I am certain that we should not have killed either of them, because, most of all, I am certain that the execution empowers the murderer, reduces us all to his or her level. Punishment of any kind has never, at any point in history, been shown to work. But I do not believe that the death penalty will be abolished in my lifetime, if it ever is abolished, and I do not flatter myself that I can do anything about that. When I witness executions and write about them, it is not for the condemned killer, or his family, or his victims, or their families, or for society, or for any cause. It is for myself, an act of pure solipsism.
I do it because I live in a society that kills people, and, whether I witness the killing or not, it is with me. On summer afternoons in this desert metropolis, when the temperature is well over a hundred degrees and I am sitting in an air-conditioned coffee house or walking around a bookstore, watching people talk, argue, laugh, worry, shake hands, kiss, live life, I cannot escape the fact that not far away a man is being taken into a room, strapped down and killed. And he may deserve it or he may not, but he is there not for the lives he took, but because he was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong fucking time. And I know that, and it terrifies me, and it will not leave me alone.
And the story is my armor.
It is how I keep the killing at bay. If I go and see it, and take notes, and make phone calls, and then sit for hours and days typing on a keyboard and making solid black words appear on a bright gray screen, then I can put a frame around it, pretend to make sense of it. The paraphernalia of civilization. The memory of a killing becomes the memory of the story of a killing. In the world of magazines, when the final edit of a story has been done, and all the facts have been checked and the story is ready for publication, we do not say that the story is “finished” or “ready.” We say it is “closed.” There is a reason for the choice of word.
I write the story in order to close it, at least for a little while. I write it and then it is published, and everything is safe and orderly and disgusting, and the craving is sated, and there is no reason to be frightened, no reason to be frightened while the killing, legal and illegal, continues unclosed.