Curtains for Ceja

This is what Jose Jesus Ceja did to Linda and Randy Leon. I wasn't there.
On June 30, 1974, 18-year-old Ceja went to the Leons' home, planning to steal 70 pounds of pot. He didn't think they'd be at home. When he got there, he found Linda, 22, alone. They struggled in the living room, and he used a .22 handgun to shoot her twice in the chest. Then he dragged her into a bedroom and shot her four times in the head, using a pillow to muffle the gunshots.

Ceja's gun was empty when he heard Randy Leon, 24, pull up to the house in his car. Knowing that Randy kept a gun in his den, Ceja went and found it. When Randy entered the house, Ceja shot him once in the chest, once in the back, once in the shoulder and once in the arm.

Ceja was arrested by Eloy Ysasi, a Phoenix homicide detective. Ysasi had some sympathy for Ceja. The detective had worked on nearly 180 homicides--when he retired the following year, his total would be 181--and had come to recognize the signs that differentiate premeditated murders from random, lethal explosions of violence. And, he believed, "The murders of Randy and Linda Leon were the result of a panicked act by a young, immature person."

This was probably a fair description of Ceja. Three years too young to drink alcohol legally, he was drinking beer, smoking pot and sniffing paint. He came from a background of severe poverty. His education had stopped at eighth grade. As a child, he had been abused by his stepfather. He had been depressed since his wife had suffered a miscarriage three months before he killed Linda and Randy Leon.

He had no prior history of violence, and in fact, his record showed only one juvenile referral--for joy-riding.

Of the many murders Ysasi had dealt with, this one didn't stand out. Ysasi believed Ceja should be charged with second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He wasn't. He was charged with and convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to death. But--though no one could have known it at the time--before his death sentence, he would serve a life sentence.

Contrary to popular belief, you don't get the death sentence just for murdering someone. The murder has to be "especially heinous, cruel or depraved."

The sentencing court decided that Ceja's crime met these criteria because it was found that he had kicked Randy Leon in the face after killing him. This "finding" seems to have been based on the sole fact that Randy Leon's face was marked, and that Eloy Ysasi recalled Ceja saying that he had kicked him. Ysasi hadn't recorded it in his notes, and had just mentioned it at the preliminary hearing. Ceja denied ever having said it. No evidence to support it was presented in testimony either during the trial or the sentencing hearing. Dr. Heinz Karnitschnig, the county medical examiner who performed autopsies on Ceja's victims, stated that there was no postmortem abuse of either body. He also opined that the abrasions on Randy Leon's face were "consistent with a fall to the floor."

As I prepare to watch him die, I imagine being Jose Ceja.
It's not hard to imagine. 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 bone-chilling 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.

I haven't told many people this story. When I do tell people, they always say they'd never do such a thing. I ask them if they've ever been desperate, and they always say no.

I imagine being Jose Ceja.

Ceja grew up on death row. He never had an adult life outside of prison. He was a kid of 19 when they sentenced him, and a man of 43 when they killed him.

Death row isn't like the rest of the prison system. Because of its nature, restrictions are more numerous and more severe than in regular prison life. It's hardly the most conducive environment for personal development.

Even so, in 1981, Ceja got a high school GED. After that, he took classes at college level. Through Arizona Central College, he studied a wide range of subjects, including business, government, crime and justice, sociology and moral choices. He was an excellent student, consistently scoring A or B grades and earning a place on the college's honor roll in spring 1983. In the prison library, he helped other inmates with research.

While educating himself, Ceja also worked throughout his 23 years on death row. He started as a porter in the death-row building. After that, he was allowed to join the maintenance crew, which painted the death-row cellblock in 1989. This job gave him access to power tools that could be put to unpleasant use, an indication of the trust his supervisors had in him.

Then Ceja joined the staff of the prison library, where he worked from 1990 until 1993. An incident involving the removal of materials from a filing cabinet caused him to lose the job for a period, but he returned in 1995 and held the job until the prison transferred all death-row inmates from the main complex at Florence to the Special Management Unit II at the Eyman complex in August 1997.

By the end of 1997, Ceja's appeals had run their course. His death sentence had twice been quashed, and each time had been reinstated when he was sent for resentencing. His execution date was set for January 21, 1998.

Last year, I called Mike Arra, public affairs director for the Arizona Department of Corrections, and asked to be put on the media waiting list to witness an execution. Every journalist supposedly has this right. Arra told me pointblank that no New Times writer would ever be invited. I asked him why, and he referred to a parody of the execution checklist that the paper had recently printed.

"You made jokes about it," he said.
"Yeah, I know. What's wrong with that?"
"We don't think a person's death is any laughing matter."

"Neither do we. But then we don't kill people. If it's making you feel so bad, maybe you should stop."

Arra wasn't amused. Neither was I. I was anxious to see an execution. In a civilized society, the only way you can witness a murder is by accident, by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because, in a civilized society, murder is covert and random. Murderers don't announce the time and place of the next murder. But, finding myself living in a society where murderers do just that, because murder is committed by the society itself, I felt bound to go and look at it, see how it operates.

Jose Ceja solved my access problem by inviting me to his execution. I would be there not as a media witness invited by the state, but as an "inmate's witness" invited by the condemned man.

I received a registered letter from the DOC telling me that I was on the list of witnesses and giving me some instructions.

Did you know you can't wear blue jeans to an execution?

Although the date of the execution was Wednesday, January 21, this is misleading. The killing really happened Tuesday night, but it was just after midnight, technically Wednesday morning.

There's a reason they do this. The warrant for a person's execution is dated for only one day, so they like to kill you right at the start of that day, a few minutes after midnight. Because the longer they leave it, the more chance that if your lawyer gets a stay for a few hours, the day will be over and they'll have to apply for a warrant for another day. But if they start trying to kill you right away, it means your lawyer has to find ways to stall for an entire 24 hours.

On January 20, Ceja's clemency hearing is held in the morning. This is just a mandatory part of the pre-execution ritual, and no one has high hopes for it. The Board of Clemency has never granted a commutation since Arizona resumed killing people in 1992.

But if there was ever a case for clemency, it's Ceja's. Not only does Eloy Ysasi speak on his behalf, but so does A. Melvin McDonald, the judge who sentenced Ceja to death.

McDonald testifies that he made a mistake when he passed that sentence. He praises Ceja's successful efforts to educate himself. He says it is cruel and unusual to incarcerate a prisoner on death row for 23 years and then to execute him. He now believes the imposition of the death sentence on Ceja would be morally wrong.

Ceja's wife, Kristie, who married him in prison in 1993, testifies that Ceja talked about his crime without remorse, and threatened to kill her if she repeated what he said. Her friend Nancy Goodman, the girlfriend of another prisoner who introduced her to Ceja, tells the same story. No evidence is produced to support their claims. A couple of days later, Kristie Ceja will threaten to kill anti-death-penalty campaigners Donna and James Hamm.

Meanwhile, the Governor's Office has received a letter from the Vatican pleading for Ceja's life.

Clemency Board chairman Edward Leyva votes for commutation. The four other board members--Duane Belcher, Kathryn Brown, Donna Flanigan and Howard Jarrett--all vote to kill Ceja.

This is what the Arizona Department of Corrections did to Jose Jesus Ceja. I was there.

It took them 23 years, but they finally had him helpless. They couldn't do anything to the barely literate, dysfunctional teenager who'd committed the murders, so they did it to the educated, responsible and productive middle-aged man he'd become.

They led him to a gurney in the execution chamber and strapped him down. Then they put catheters into the veins of his arms. They may or may not have had to dissect an arm--with the inmate fully conscious--in order to find the correct veins. When this is necessary, they call it "cutting down." They left him lying like that for about a half-hour, and then, when they knew there had been no last-minute reprieve, they gave the order to open the curtain that hid him from the view of the witnesses--the inmate's witnesses, state's witnesses and journalists. No "victim's witnesses"--members of the Leons' family--attended.

When the curtain opens, Ceja looks like a man tucked cozily in bed. It's a cosmetic maneuver worthy of an advertising agency. Witnesses weren't allowed to see him being strapped down, or his arms being pierced by needles. Because of the sheet that's tucked around him, and the strategic positioning of the gurney, there's no indication that he has needles in his arms. There's no sign of any tubes or catheters.

I have the best--or worst--view a witness can have. Because I was invited by Ceja, I'm standing right down at the front. Beside me stands one of his attorneys, Charles Van Cott, a solidly built young man with a sandy mustache. Van Cott looks dumfounded. Standing next to him is the Reverend John Fife of Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church. Ceja had invited the Catholic Bishop of Tucson, Manuel Moreno, but he didn't come. Pastor Fife did. Ceja also invited the Bishop of Phoenix, Thomas J. O'Brien, who didn't show, either. Ceja didn't invite the clergymen for his own spiritual reasons, but because he hoped that seeing what was done to him would encourage the church to take a more active part in opposing the death penalty.

When the order comes to open the curtain, and a guard does it, I almost recoil. I'd imagined there would be some distance, that it would all be far away. But I'm standing so close to Ceja that, if it weren't for the soundproof window, we could hold a conversation without having to raise our voices.

When I see him, I want to walk out of there. I've seen people die before, of cancer and AIDS, but they were so sick that their deaths made sense and in some way were even a relief. Ceja isn't sick. He's a big, robust-looking man, his hair thinning and going gray, quite unlike the sullen, black-haired kid in the press photos. Because he looks so healthy, he has the air of a man lying in bed on a Saturday morning, waiting for someone to bring him a cup of coffee.

When he realizes the curtain has been removed, he raises his head and looks at the witnesses. He smiles and winks at Van Cott, though it's obviously forced. Van Cott does the same in return. I catch Ceja's eye, smile and nod, in a pitiful attempt to offer him some comfort.

Terry Stewart, the DOC's director, enters the death room and stands beside Ceja. An intercom system is turned on, and we hear Stewart ask Ceja if he has anything he wants to say.

"No," Ceja answers, his voice tinged with a Mexican accent.
Stewart asks him if he's waiving his right to say anything.
"That's right," Ceja answers. His manner is calm, his tone of voice flat but not hostile.

Stewart exits. Then Meg Savage, warden of Florence prison, comes in and reads Ceja his death warrant. He lies there impassively as she does. Then she leaves, and Ceja is killed.

We can't see it happen, but he's injected with Pentothal, an ultra-short-acting sedative. Then pancuronium, which paralyzes every voluntary muscle in the body. The purpose of this is to make death look peaceful--even if the inmate is in intense pain, he won't be able to show it. Finally, they inject him with potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

Nothing changes in the death room, except for Ceja. He closes his eyes, and his breathing gets quicker. His face goes into spasm, as though there's an explosion going on just under his skin. His upper lip trembles and then billows out from his face, like a rag flapping in a strong wind. Pastor Fife puts an arm around Charles Van Cott's shoulders. I have an almost uncontrollable urge to shit. After a minute or so--or maybe longer, I don't know--Ceja is just lying there. I look for signs of breathing and don't see any. Then the order comes to close the curtain, and the guard does. There's no announcement that Ceja is dead, just the order to close the curtain.

It takes a while to get out of the prison. On the way in, we had to show identification at what seemed like a multitude of checkpoints, some only about three feet apart. And we have to go through it all again on the way outside. As we walk, Pastor Fife tells Van Cott not to blame himself, that he did everything he could.

This is the first execution the pastor has seen, and he seems to be taking it well.

But it's all front, for other people's sake. I know. I seem to be taking it well, too, and I'm not.

A friend drove me to Florence because he heard me say I didn't think I'd be stable enough to drive myself back to Phoenix. My friend is not allowed to park at the prison, so he's waiting for me down the road, near a candlelight vigil of about 40 or 50 people. While he waits, he gets talking to a man who's also waiting. The man tells my friend he's driven Fife up from Tucson, because he didn't think the clergyman would be in good enough shape to drive himself.

Van Cott offers to drive me to where my friend is waiting. But first he has to make a phone call. I stand outside and watch other witnesses coming out. One of them is Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, chatting with officials and laughing all over his face. Perhaps this is how he likes to spend his evenings.

"I guess this whole process must be hard on you guys," I remark to a prison official, a man in his 50s.

"Yeah," is all he says.

A shuttle bus comes up to where Van Cott and I are standing.
"Taxi?!" the driver says with fake brightness.
"That's what we need," I say with equal falseness. He gives us a ride to the parking lot, where Van Cott left his car. Van Cott had planned to take me the quarter-mile or so to where my friend is parked, but my friend has found his way to the prison parking lot and is waiting for me.

My friend and I stop at a Circle K. Pastor Fife is there with his designated driver, looking a lot less hearty than he did earlier.

"We're all diminished by it," he says. "It's barbaric."
Before he leaves, he tells me I have to take care of myself for a while.
"This won't go away quickly," he says, and I already know he's right.

On the drive home to Phoenix, my friend and I talk about everything except the execution. The only real discussion we have about it is when I tell him that I felt a desperate urge to do something to save Ceja. I would have felt the same if I'd been in the Leons' house that night nearly 24 years ago. And I'd have been killed, too.

It's two in the morning when I get home.
Two hours ago, Jose Ceja was alive and healthy, stomach full of food, a universe inside his head. And now he's nothing. Randy Leon. Linda Leon. Jose Jesus Ceja.

I wake with a raging fever. I have a debilitating virus, and am bedridden for the next few days. The Arizona Republic publishes a special "tough guy" section, stories detailing how its reporters don't mind watching executions. The least stupid piece is by the reporter who watched Ceja die, Christina Leonard, a kid of 22 who had no clue about what she was seeing, who saw only the cosmetic surface gloss. She saw a man undramatically falling asleep, and seemed to miss his facial convulsion as he suffocated.

The day that article appears, I get a letter from another death-row inmate, who didn't know I was one of Ceja's witnesses.

"Last night they executed Joe Ceja, who has been on the row for 23 years," he writes. "It is just such a cruel scenario, to torture us for so long. And the Clemency Board will NEVER give a recommendation to commute. Nor will the governor commit political suicide by granting a commutation."

Ceja's lawyer releases his client's final statement. It ends with the words, "To the superior court judges, the prosecutors and all of the state and federal appellate court judges who reviewed my case and voted to affirm the sentence, I say that to err is human and to forgive divine! I'll be seeing you all sooner or later!"

Contact Barry Graham at his online address:


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