Sister of Mercy

It was daylight when we came out, I remember that: a light-gray morning -- surprising, somehow, as if what we had just witnessed should have sucked the sun out of the sky. We were riding in the van past the barbed wire of the prison gates, and we were shaking, all of us, not just from the motion of the tires on the dirt road but from what had happened: flames and smoke and a man shuddering, seeming to gasp, nodding his head as the current slammed through his body. An electrocution, an execution, gone awry.

Some things change you. Already, everything I'd ever known seemed far away.
The van dumped us off across a tarmac road from death row into a field where the grass lay light green like a sea, a wet dawn sea, at our feet. The field had a wooden shack in it, a three-sided shanty with live telephones for us to use to call in our reports, and as the van pulled to a stop we spilled out into the heat of a new May day. They were there waiting for us -- Sister Helen Prejean and a little band of people holding signs against the death penalty, three, maybe four, not very many, because in Florida in 1990 capital punishment wasn't controversial, just something that happened. I took the prison-issued yellow legal note pad that I'd written on while I was watching what I'd just seen and made my way through the tall grass over to Sister Helen, this woman who was standing in a field by the side of the road opposite a prison in the middle of nowhere in Florida, beneath a continually brightening sky. She told me about the march she was going to start, how she was going to walk against the death penalty, how putting people to death was never right, no matter what they'd done. I listened, I took notes. And as she spoke, I started to cry.

She put her hand on my shoulder. The gesture startled me, for I felt like a sinner, in a way, culpable, unforgivable for having sat and watched a man die. The gesture was kind in a way I had not expected, and in that moment she became my confessor, someone who had the ability to offer absolution. I had had it all under control, you understand: Some people do things they forfeit their lives for. Now I knew nothing. I was nothing. I asked her: What do I do?

Her answer was simple, and direct. Tell them what you saw, Sister Helen told me. Bear witness to it.

So here it is, once again:
At 7 a.m. on the morning of May 4, 1990, the door in the back of the death chamber at Florida State Prison swung open and a man named Jesse Tafero was led in by two guards. He was struggling, a little bit, and looking back down the corridor, as if in its linoleum gorgeousness it represented every path he did not take that might have led him somewhere other than here, the room with the big chair in it. The guards forced him around, and when he looked at the chair he seemed to recognize it, as if he had seen it a million times before, in his dreams, in his nightmares. The guards led him in and sat him down in the chair, where he looked at us -- just feet away, sitting on folding chairs on the other side of a sheet of glass from the chamber itself -- and his brown eyes seemed to burn out of his prison-pale face. Even shaved bald and dressed in the light-blue shirt he would die in, Tafero -- convicted of the murder of two police officers -- was a handsome man, and he looked at each of us individually, locking eyes, as the guards strapped his hands and legs to the arms and legs of the chair. When the guards were done, Tafero spoke his last words ("The laws that go against me are the same laws that can go against you tomorrow") into a microphone and then they put the mask on him, a black leather hood that fitted over his eyes and mouth so we would not have to watch his face as he died. The hood was attached to a headpiece -- metal, round, like a steel crown of thorns -- and they screwed a black wire into the headpiece, a thick black cord that ran from his head into the back of the room, where the box with the electric current was. When they were done, they stepped back. The prison superintendent stood at the back of the room holding a phone in his hand, an open line to the governor. There was no reprieve. At six minutes past 7 o'clock, they turned the current on. Tafero slammed back against the chair as flames and smoke rose in an arc from his head. They turned the current off, and he sat, nodding, his chest heaving. Again, the current, the flames and smoke. Off, and he was still nodding, still heaving. One last time, more flames and smoke. At last, he was still. As we walked past him, this newly dead man, on our way out into the morning, I saw that ashes from his head had fallen onto his sleeve, staining the new dress shirt he would be buried in.

- Ellen McGarrahan

 
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