A few days before, someone described an execution in Texas as similar to a bunch of family members gathered around the death bed of someone with cancer, waiting for death to take him or her away. Only the execution process was more clinical.
As of Thursday, I can tell you that description is wrong. It's nowhere close to that, and whoever came up with that description was probably trying to just make sense of it all and find closure in the process. Closure, that's a silly word – a word we often tell ourselves simply for comfort, simply to help us move forward. It's a fine word, but after watching the execution of Ellis County's Kent Sprouse in Huntsville on Thursday and seeing and speaking to those who were there, it's hard to define what that word really means.
My editors at the Waxahachie Daily Light asked if I'd share what Thursday's experience was like from a reporter's perspective. This was my first execution to cover, and I have now joined a small group of reporters who have covered the process compared to the entire population. I thought about my boss' request all day when I came back from Huntsville – what would I say? Do I say anything at all? Do I even have the right to? What's the purpose of writing this column, truly?
The only answer I could come up with was to give insight into what those last 22 minutes of life were like for a man convicted of murder, and for the families connected to the case. It's the same answer I came up with when I volunteered to cover the situation to begin with – to tell the best story I could and give a voice to whatever was left of this man's and the families' story.
Let me preface these details of the 22 minutes with what I won't be answering, as well as the answers to the most common question I received from people afterward.
If you think I'll be talking about my stance on the death penalty before and after witnessing an execution, you've come to the wrong place and might as well stop reading now. I didn't have a stance beforehand, and after witnessing one, I can't give you a stance now. As a journalist, I'm supposed to remain unbiased, but I'm also human and if I ever lost sight of that or became numb to the situations I cover, I wouldn't be able to do my job.
The only thing I can do is present what I know. You'll have to make, hopefully, an informed decision on your own. I'm not here to say whether the death penalty is right or wrong, but maybe my insight can spark a healthy discussion.
“How was the execution?” That was the first question people constantly asked me, following the death. No one really wanted to know the true details. It's too hard to embrace for some and my knee-jerk reaction is to say, “A man died. It was hard to watch.” What else is there for me to say? I'm still processing it. No, I don't have any true connection to the case, other than the fact that I've covered developments on it for the past year, so try to keep in mind, I am an outsider.
The cliché is when you know a person has died in his or her sleep, or just kind of fades away, a person typically says, “Well, he went peacefully. There was no suffering.” Nothing about an execution is “peaceful,” because the biggest difference is the man wasn't just dying, he was being put to death. He was being put to death as punishment for killing a Ferris police officer, and another man in October 2002 after he consumed amphetamines, methamphetamines and cannabis within 48 hours of the double homicide.
At my hotel, two hours before his death, I changed clothes from jeans and a T-shirt to black slacks and a black cardigan, questioning what I was supposed to wear in this situation. The jeans were just for comfort on the ride down to Huntsville. The black clothing was the only option I could think of to wear to cover someone's death and to stay respectful of the families involved. I'm not sure if I was the only reporter who questioned their clothing choice and that sounds silly and offensive to say outloud.
At 4 p.m., I was brought into a small room in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice building. I was the second of four reporters expected to cover the situation. The first, a reporter for the Associated Press who was apparently a legend in the media world and was dressed in a pale, yellow, collared shirt and jeans, was already sitting down at a table with two chairs, typing away. He mentioned he had never seen me there before, and that he'd covered at least a couple hundred executions during the past 20-plus years. That's not all he covered, he made sure to add, only to follow that up with asking whether this was my first execution. I asked if he could tell, because my stomach had been in knots for the past two days leading up to the situation and I was dropping all of my stuff as I tried to get set up at the table, too. He said no, he couldn't and asked if I had been able to speak to any other reporters about what to expect beforehand. I hadn't.
I was grateful that he then took the time during the two hours beforehand to explain what to expect on the reporting level and discussed previous executions he had witnessed. I was even more grateful that the public relations representatives were providing us updates on whether Sprouse had any pending appeals and the likelihood someone would speak to media afterword, as well as whether Sprouse would give any last words. The public relations representatives wore black suits, and we were given media packets describing the crime Sprouse committed, the details of how he spent the last three days of his life, broken down by hour, and a witness list of who would be watching. One of those papers, the one of how Sprouse spent his last three days, was titled “Death Watch.”
At 6 p.m., we were escorted across the street from the administration building to the oldest prison unit in Huntsville, smack in the middle of downtown. We were cleared through security, and were first escorted behind heavy, sliding metal bars. We were told beforehand by the TDCJ spokesmen that we would be split up, two of us would be viewing from the victims' side and two of us would be viewing from the offender's side. The viewing part of the chamber was divided into two, small, rectangular rooms not much bigger than your average home bathroom. The victims' families and the offenders' family would never see each other. Yet, behind bars and a glass window, Sprouse would be able to see all of us.
A reporter from The Huntsville Item and I were assigned to the offender's side. We were escorted into a small office area, which is almost covered in solid wood flooring and walls, and asked to wait for Sprouse's family. We were told we'd be following behind them. When the family walked into the room, for about three minutes, no one really knew how to respond or knew if it was best to not say anything. I glanced at the family briefly. A couple had tissues, others stared at the ground. It was best I took cues from the TDCJ spokesperson escorting us. Someone tried to offer family members a chair if they wanted to sit down, but none did. The spokesperson made idle conversation with me and the other reporter, only long enough to fill the silence and ask me where I was from originally and how far I had traveled to get there.
Once we were given the signal that the victims' family was inside the chamber in one room, another door opened on the other side of the office and we were escorted down a small sidewalk between the office and the execution chamber, passing through a barbed-wire fence entrance. As we filed down a hallway, I scribbled on my notepad how Sprouse's family members held hands and rubbed each other's back gently. The TDCJ spokesperson said no phones were allowed in the chamber, for obvious reasons. Reporters were only allowed a notepad and pen.
On our side, about 12 people were in the room – his family, a few officers, an attorney or two, the TDCJ spokesperson, the Huntsville reporter and myself. The door was locked behind you once you entered, and you let the family gather at the front of the viewing window. Everyone else stood back, as a natural response, and the spokesperson motioned upward to a speaker above our heads.
Earlier, the AP reporter mentioned that's how we would hear his last words, his gurgles, his snoring, his time of death, what sounded like a generator pumping the lethal injection drug pentobarbital into his system, and ultimately his silence. The reporter said pay attention, because sometimes the last words, if any, are mumbled, or sometimes they're said in a foreign language, whether the language is native to the person or one he or she learned. Sometimes, the words are hard to decipher, he said.
But, Sprouse's words were crystal clear.
Sprouse, covered from his neck to his toes in a clean, white, sheet, could only turn his head to see anyone. A large microphone hung above him, and he was restrained from moving. As soon as everyone was in the chamber, he was asked for his last words – given two to three minutes, just like the AP reporter mentioned offenders typically had. Sprouse apologized to both families in that moment as well as his own for the trouble he caused. The “I guess that's it” at the end struck me in that moment, because, well, what else are you supposed to say in that situation? A chaplain stood by, clutching a black Bible with a golden cross on the cover.
After he spoke, his family members put their hands on the glass briefly, and one said, “We love you Kent,” as the drugs began to work in his system. He gurgled, and said something to the effect of, “You can begin to smell it... it's hitting me like that $10,000,” then started snoring. That was in a matter of less than two minutes. A little longer, and his breathing slowed to a bare minimum as family watched.
As journalists, the Huntsville reporter and I still had a job to do – capture the moment on what was one of the worst days of this family's life. The room was so quiet, you could hear a pen simply writing on paper. Those who worked for the TDCJ, and witnessed executions, knew the protocol. You stepped back, and let the family try to accept what's happening. The Huntsville reporter knew the same, and I followed the non-verbal cues. You either stared at your shoes, or stared at nothing in particular, but you didn't stare at the man lying in front of you unless it was briefly.
The family sniffled some more, crying never louder than that. They held each other close, resting their heads onto each other's shoulders. In that moment, the family was clearly struggling to let go of someone they still loved, despite his tragic actions. As we stood there and the minutes begin to feel like hours, wave after wave of the stages of grief played through their bodies time and time again. First, the family cried. Then, they became silent, as if some part was accepting the fate. Then, they'd look at each other, and someone would occasionally say something, never above a whisper, to whomever they were standing by. Then, they'd cry again and the process would start over.
Those 22 minutes felt like some of the longest minutes of my life, and there came a point where I couldn't write notes anymore about what I was observing and simply had to put the notepad away. I remember briefly thinking, as I glanced to see Sprouse's face go from a light pink skin pigment to almost blue as the color drained from his face, “Make it go faster. I just want it to end.” Not because I wanted him to die, but because the emotions in the room were too much. Just as that thought left my mind, the doctors in the chamber pulled out a stethoscope, and checked his pulse and heartbeat. Then, two minutes later, they called the time.
Those minutes were as if you were coming home after losing a relative, and walking through the house, expecting them to open a door, say something funny or talk to you, only to have it hit you that person was never going to do those things again. The moment was raw — it didn't matter what Sprouse had done, the family was losing a son, a brother, a life they were still so connected with that they remembered him as more than a killer. They couldn't hold his hand or put their arms around him, like family is supposed to do when someone is on his or her deathbed, and that is a concept I'm still trying to wrap my head around, though I know Sprouse visited with family in the two days before he died.
The sorrow of his execution will never excuse the actions he took, the pain he caused and the impact his actions had on everyone involved. The law is the law, and he was proven guilty in court. But after speaking to someone afterward, who stood on the victims' side and discussed how things unfolded in the other room, and witnessing how Sprouse's family reacted, it's hard to answer whether closure is ever something those involved with a death row situation can truly have.
“It's a scar. It's one of those things you never get over, but you remember the story of how you got it,” said Heath Crossland, a Lancaster policeman and close friend to the fallen Ferris officer, as he cried after the execution.
Crossland stood outside that Huntsville prison with other Ferris officers to show support for the victims' families.
“You remember it with pride, and tell it with a smile on your face, I guess,” Crossland said. “I want people to know that this is one of those crazy situations, where you can't be mad. Nobody wins. Absolutely nobody. Everybody gets affected.”
Three lives were lost in this situation, not just two. Everyone in those families, their lives were never the same when their loved ones were killed in 2002, and now their lives, once more, will never be the same again.
As the doors unlocked, and we were all escorted out of the chamber the same way we came in, Sprouse's family never said another word louder than a whisper and they didn't look back. A couple more interviews later, I drove back to the hotel. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but as I walked into the lobby, I was amazed at how in the death row capital of the nation, life was continuing as normal. This was just another news story to most, who would wake up to read the headline in the morning, barely a blip on the radar.
Would I cover another execution? Absolutely, if it meant providing that same voice or truth to whomever needed to say anything about what's left of this person's story, or how those involved were moving on or weren't moving on. All I can hope for as I walk away from this and move onto the next story in my career, is to continue to maintain my integrity as a journalist by remembering to be human as well. My words might not mean much, but most importantly, I'm truly sorry for the heartache and pain those directly connected to the situation have had to go through and I hope you will begin to find healing and hope for the future, if that journey hasn't started yet, because no matter your stance, no one wins on death row.