Monday, February 25, 2008

Reggie Powell

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.
I hate “man on the street” interviews. Who cares what some random yahoo thinks about pressing issues? When I was a radio reporter, I despised collecting tape for MOS pieces (also known as “vox pop” – voice of the people). Invariably, the most thoughtful opinions were expressed by those who declined to be recorded. So I was always left with lots of tape from loudmouths who loved the sound of their own voice expressing half-baked opinions.

Given my disdain for the forum, on those rare occasions when the shoe has been on the other foot, and I have been asked to express my opinion for an MOS piece, I have always declined. Until recently.

I was passing through Richmond, Indiana. I was headed into the library to do some research for the book. Out front, standing in the cold, was a reporter from the local newspaper (the wonderfully named Palladium-Item). He couldn’t have been more than 24. He was shivering. He had been sent out to get some MOS on the government’s kooky tax-rebate scheme. He didn’t seem to be having much luck. I felt so sorry for him that, for the first time ever, I submitted to an MOS interview.

Here is the result.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Allyson and I finally arrived in Washington Monday evening after traveling more than 3,000 miles in a little more than two weeks, from Tennessee to Philadelphia to Maine to New York, Harrisburg, Columbus, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and various points in between. It was a good trip, but it left us a little run down.

The weather was OK (for the most part), and there are definite advantages to being off-season tourists. In Dayton, we were the only two visitors to the Air Force Museum’s presidential airplanes exhibit (where we got to walk through Harry Truman’s old plane, as well as an old Air Force One). That was pretty cool.

In Washington, Pa., we were driving by the campus of Washington and Jefferson College when eagle-eyed Allyson spotted the marker pictured above. I don’t know who Albert M. Algeo was, but I guess he had a lot of money.

Our furnished apartment in Washington (Rosslyn, actually) is very nice. It’s on the 13th floor, which I kind of like. We picked up the cats yesterday. They seem to be adjusting to their new home.

Finally, the procedure – I guess it technically wasn’t an operation – that my dad underwent last week went OK. He’s still in the hospital, but we hope he can go home this weekend.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Quick update: We hooked up with our friends Phil Johnston and Jill Cordes in New York last week. Had a great time. On Saturday we went to the Tenement Museum, which was pretty cool. Highly recommended next time you're in New York.

Spent the last two nights at the Waldorf=Astoria - nice place. Harry and Bess stayed there on their trip, though, unlike us, they stayed for free. (We did, however, get upgraded to the Waldorf Towers.) Didn't get to see the room they actually stayed in, though I did manage to sneak a peek at the door, which, I must report, was unremarkable.

Today we drove from New York to Washington - Washington, Pennsylvania, which is in the southwestern corner of the state. Tomorrow we hope to drive to Indianapolis, though there's supposed to be a big storm tonight, so we'll see how that goes.

In other news, my dad is having some health problems and is in the hospital. On Wednesday he's going to have an operation, so please keep him in your thoughts and prayers.

Otherwise all is well...

Friday, February 01, 2008

The trip home was blessedly uneventful. Even the cats didn’t seem to mind the trip too much. We drove down to Allyson’s parents in eastern Tennessee on Tuesday morning. Since then we’ve been busy running errands: haircut, dentist, etc. Tomorrow we drive up to see my parents in Pennsylvania. From there it’s on to Maine.