Today is the tenth anniversary of the execution of Reggie Powell, an execution I witnessed at the state prison in Potosi, Missouri.
Reggie killed two men in a street fight, but he shouldn’t have been executed. For one thing, his attorney wasn’t very effective, mainly because she was sleeping with him during his trial. He was also mildly retarded, and he was sentenced to death by a judge, not a jury – both disqualifying factors for the death penalty today, but not in 1998. (Click here to listen to the story I did on the case for NPR back then.)
At his execution, I was one of six or seven witnesses, mostly reporters. Nobody from Reggie’s family attended. Nor did anyone from the victims' families. At midnight we were led into a small room. We sat in the kind of cheap molded plastic chairs you might buy for your patio. Before us was a window covered on both sides by Venetian blinds. I could hear the blinds on the other side being raised. A few moments later, after, apparently, the executioners had had time to leave the death chamber, a guard lifted the blinds on our side.
There was Reggie, lying flat on a gurney, covered to his neck with a white sheet. He was wearing eyeglasses, which surprised me for some reason. Reggie had grown up in North St. Louis. I’m sure he never had a pair of glasses until he went to prison. Imagine how they must have changed his life – just being able to watch TV, or recognize faces from across the room.
A voice announced that the first drug was being administered, then the second, then the third. Reggie seemed to cough loudly once or twice. Then he closed his eyes. Just like that, it was over. The “procedure,” the voice said, was complete. The guard lowered the blinds on our side of the window. It was all quite disturbing.
As we exited the room, we (the witnesses) were asked to sign a paper that said we’d witnessed the execution and that the condemned was, indeed, dead. It seemed a little absurd. I mean, how could we be sure he was dead? For all I knew he’d only been sedated. Besides, what happened if we refused to sign? Would his execution remain technically incomplete?
A few weeks later, my mom bought flowers in Reggie’s name for her church’s Easter service. Allyson and I did the same for several years at our church in Portland. I used to think of Reggie a lot, but as the years have passed, I think of him less frequently. That’s inevitable I guess. But I still wish he hadn’t been killed in my name.