Near-Death Experience

Midnight. A blues song plays, scratching the air with the romance of desolation. A few people are still here. My feet rest on the table. I'm drinking Jack Daniel's from a glass. On the other side of the table, Dale Baich has a glass of his own.

Baich is a close friend. As recently as two years ago, I had never heard of him. Now, I can't conceive of not knowing him, and the time when I didn't know him seems unreal.

Since we became friends, we've closed many a blues show in the late or early hours, sitting at the bar with the musicians as the crowd dwindled.

But tonight we're not in a bar. We're in Baich's office. The blues song is coming from the stereo. And, though there is Jack Daniel's in my glass, the glass he drinks from contains only water.

At 3 o'clock tomorrow afternoon, Michael Poland will be killed as I watch. I know this. I do not think it or suspect it or opine it or intuit it. I know it.

Baich has filed a motion arguing that Poland belongs to the feds and not the state, and that he has to serve a 100-year federal sentence before the state can kill him. The feds have responded by saying they don't mind if the state kills Poland. Baich has alleged juror misconduct. The Arizona Supreme Court has refused to consider the allegation, saying it is too late. Baich is now trying to argue that Poland is insane, and therefore, under the law, is incompetent to be executed. This morning, during Poland's clemency hearing, the psychologist who originally found Poland to be competent declared that he is now incompetent. The Board of Clemency voted four to one to kill him anyway.

So he's going to be killed tomorrow, and I know it. Everyone involved knows it, except for two people.

Poland doesn't know it, because he's crazy and thinks he's indestructible. He believes he can control his environment with the power of his mind, and that the state can only kill him if he allows it.

And Baich doesn't know it, though I can tell that on some level he knows it only too well. But it's my job as a writer to believe what the facts tell me, to bear witness and report what happens. Baich is a death-row lawyer, and his job is to keep Michael Poland alive.

Dale Baich is 42 years old. He's an angular man with short, thinning hair and brown eyes. He came to Phoenix from Cleveland, Ohio, less than two years ago.

His life in Phoenix is streamlined. He works long hours, watches baseball, hangs out with his friends and goes to blues gigs. He's written a couple of profiles of bluesmen for New Times. Outside of his work, there is very little he takes seriously.

He has an air about him of complete calm. When he gets angry, only those of us who know him well can see the signs. In the time I have known him, I don't believe I have ever heard him raise his voice. Even to his close friends, he's often inscrutable, and there is no one better at keeping a confidence. Various friends, when bringing gossip to him, have had the following dialogue:

"Hey, Dale, you're not going to believe this. I just found out that X has . . . "

"Oh, yeah. I know."
"How the hell do you know?"
"He told me."
"When?"
"Couple of weeks ago."
"How come you never said?"
"He asked me not to."

The past few days, Baich has been anything but inscrutable. Michael Poland is the first of his clients to have an execution date set since he came to Arizona, and Baich is so different from his usual self that I barely recognize him. He's not mean, but he's uptight and crabby.

When talking on the phone with him about Poland, I can feel his defensiveness, and it's as if I were dealing with just another lawyer who's trying to protect his client from unfavorable media.

I understand why. Baich has been here before. In July 1996, he watched one of his clients die in the electric chair in Nebraska. Baich had known John Joubert for six years. It's something you don't get over.

Last January, as I was preparing to witness an execution here in Arizona, I asked Baich if he was still haunted by Joubert.

"Every fucking day," he answered, his usual humor vanishing. "I'll be in the shower, and I'll just see him dying."

Tomorrow, Baich will not be just Poland's attorney. Like me, he has been invited by Poland to witness his death.

The Federal Public Defender's Office is on the eighth floor of a building on Central Avenue. Go inside and take the elevator to the eighth floor, and you find yourself in a dark reception area, your way barred by more locked doors. But, tonight, the darkness and silence are deceptive.

Inside the office, people are working with focused desperation. Investigators have assembled every shred of evidence that conceivably could be used in an argument for a stay of execution. Now Baich and his assistants are relentlessly writing motions and filing them. One of his assistants came from Ohio to help him. She's been at it since 7 o'clock this morning. Normally a vibrant, healthy-looking woman, she now looks haggard; a rash is breaking out on her face.

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