DRESSED TO KILL
You are now free to discuss your observations," Mike Arra said. Arra is the prison official supervising the media members who witnessed the killing.
Arra is a onetime television personality turned prison public relations man. He once worked for Channel 10 but went into prison work when it became obvious television was not his real field.
Since joining the prison system, Arra has adopted the peculiar, roughhewn argot of the average prison guard.
I will allow you all to gather around the podium now to ask your questions," Arra ordered the reporters.
On a night of horror, it was a fitting touch to see that Arra had crossed so totally over the line and into the prison system. All he needed to complete his transformation was a club in one hand and a badge pinned to his shirt front.
I am always surprised when I see things like this happen. I shouldn't be. They happen all the time.
Did you ever notice how ordinary people seem awed by television news anchors? Put them on the street with Dan Rather and they immediately start reaching into their pockets for a pencil to get his autograph.
People have grown accustomed to sitting in their chairs and nodding while anchors read to them from scripts. This has gone on for so long that everyone now thinks news anchors really know something.
On the screen, reading from a TelePrompTer, they always seem to have their wits about them. They appear so witty, so wise. They are possessed of such magnificent understanding.
Take Cameron Harper, for example. Most ordinary mortals would become emotionally distraught if called to witness something so inhumane as Don Eugene Harding's obscene execution the other morning.
Not Harper, the man who chairs the five and ten o'clock news programs for Channel 3.
Harper adorned himself with the usual hair spray, plastered his cheeks and forehead with makeup and donned one of his ten-o'clock-news suits. He wore a freshly pressed shirt and a carefully chosen tie. He was, of course, the most elegantly dressed person in the death chamber.
He was even cool-minded enough to carry with him into the death chamber his very own stopwatch so he might record the exact number of seconds it took for Harding to suffocate and die.
And after it was over, Harper was clearly the most eager to expound upon the wondrous event he had just seen. None of the other eight media witnesses came close when it came to leaping forward to grab the microphone.
It's no wonder. News anchors seem to have been everyplace and seen everything. For Harper, this was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
In reality, people like Harper see little more during their careers than the inside of a studio. The only time the average viewer sees a news anchor on the street is when driving by one who happens to be adorning a billboard.
While Harper pressed forward to corner the microphone at the press conference after Harding's killing, the other members of the media remained decently numbed.
Let me just walk you through it as objectively as I can at this point," Harper began. He was almost giddy with excitement.
We walked into the death house and the blinds were drawn on the side where we were. We could see Don Harding in the chair.
Harding seemed to be talking to himself. At one point, he turned around and rolled his hands. He looked at the people operating the gas chamber on the other side of the door. It was as if to say, `Come on, let's get on with this thing.'" Cameron Harper seemed totally pleased with himself. It was as though he were giving an acceptance speech at an Emmy-awards banquet.
Harper continued: Harding looked over to his attorneys first and gave them a thumbs-up. Then he gave a thumbs-up to us.
When the gas started, it didn't appear to me that he tried to hold his breath. When the gas hit him, there were some violent spasms and he began shaking." Harper paused for dramatic effect. How else, after all, is a news anchor supposed to behave?
Harper added, ÔThen Harding shot a bird to the guard. And then, he turned beet-red and clenched tight against the straps restraining him to the chair. The muscle spasms were involuntary." Harper's eyes lighted up as though he were a precocious student in the fourth grade about to make significant points with the teacher.
I had a stopwatch on it. I timed 57 seconds of rapid muscle spasms. And then 6 minutes and 36 seconds later, his body convulsed...less frequently. So, it was a total of 6 minutes and 36 seconds before visible movement stopped. It was not clear to me how long after that when he actually died." A second member of the media then recalled prison director Sam Lewis coming into the chamber and saying:
Ladies and gentlemen, the execution is now complete. The blinds will now be lowered." Wonderful. After all the self-righteousness, this is what the first execution in nearly 30 years in this state came down to. As far as Lewis was concerned, it was a way to clear out a needed cell.
Another media member recalled how Harding had made a point of looking at Attorney General Grant Woods:
I was standing behind Harding. He was making hand gestures at Grant Woods. They looked like obscene gestures." There was one television anchor who made sense to me. This was Geoff Oldfather of KOLD-TV in Tucson. He had the decency to sound genuinely shaken by the gruesome experience.
It was violent," Oldfather said, but not as violent as I expected. It was quiet in there, somber. I saw people holding their breath. We heard a thud, then a louder noise.
The mood was very heavy. I was watching Grant Woods. He was sitting right next to the defense attorney. He pointedly watched the condemned man. He was very controlled with his lips pursed throughout the entire event." Harper could not contain himself. He felt it necessary to leap forward and talk again. News anchors must always have the final word before the show ends.
It was almost as though he had decided to give a closing editorial.
We put animals to death more humanely than we did this man," Harper said. That's not a statement about whether the death penalty should exist or not. But we put horses down more humanely than this guy went.
It seems to me that we've got options here. Can't we put somebody to sleep at least the way we put an animal to sleep?" And perhaps in many people's minds that's what Don Harding was-an animal. His victims may have suffered but if the point of execution is punishment, why make him endure that period of suffering?
If capital punishment is going to exist, it should be clean and as simple and as fast as it can be. This was not that." For Harper, it was an outrageous grandstanding performance. A man had just been put to death before his eyes and he was shamelessly leaping to capture all the attention for himself as if this were some TV game show.
I will always remember that the most significant thing that Harper was able to see in this event was that it was an opportunity to put his stopwatch into play.
One other prominent local media member was noteworthy by his absence.
E.J. Montini of the Arizona Republic campaigned valiantly against the death penalty for weeks leading up to this execution.
Invited to attend by Harding, Montini declined. My hat's off to him.
The death lovers have had their way. Now we can march all the rest of the condemned into that gas chamber in short order.
For Florence, it can be like a summer festival.
THE WIRE IS CUT... v4-08-92
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