Waiting for an execution 

The long road to Jackson, Ga., to watch a lethal injection

Georgia has executed 53 men since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1973. At the moment, 92 men, and one woman, sit on death row. That includes Warren Lee Hill, who has been convicted of two murders and has been in prison since the late 80s. If executed, Hill would be the 31st inmate in Georgia killed using lethal injection. But he remains alive more than two decades after landing on death row. After a bizarre journey through numerous appeals and several last-minute stays of execution, he's still waiting to die. This story, however, isn't about executions — it's about me waiting to witness executions.

Have you ever waited in an empty parking lot covered in pine needles while the smell of grilled cheeseburgers wafts into your nostrils, beckoning you like a pie on the windowsill?

I have, at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, 50 miles southeast of Atlanta. It's Georgia's largest penitentiary and where the state's death-row inmates are held and ultimately die.

Standing outside the penitentiary, where I'd been allowed to act as a media witness at an execution, I didn't realize I'd have to miss dinner. I was starving. The sentiment I felt, waiting to watch someone die as the Burger King across the street made my mouth water, fell somewhere between apropos and irony. I've traveled down to the Butts County prison twice to act as a witness; During both times, the execution has been halted for one reason or another.

I've had to stop telling my mother about when I go because she always tries to guilt-trip me into blowing it off. She asks if I have some sort of "morbid fascination" and questions my decision to go. I tell her that it's important. Life's measured by experiences you may never want to live through again. That's what makes you who you are.

I don't believe in the death penalty. It's not a deterrent and, in most cases, it costs more to kill someone than to incarcerate them for life. At first glance, it seems impossible that keeping someone alive in prison for the rest of their life is cheaper than killing them. But states such as Maryland, Illinois, Colorado, and California have already abolished the death penalty (or are considering it) to save millions in legal and incarceration fees.

Pretrial motions can tie death penalty cases up in court for years when that money could be put toward finding new ways to rehabilitate many other prisoners. It took two decades before the state executed Troy Davis. Throughout that time, his lawyers appealed his conviction on numerous grounds. Yet Davis was executed on Sept. 21, 2011, maintaining his innocence until his very last moment.

The first time I went down to Jackson was two years ago, to witness the execution of Nicholas Cody Tate. He was convicted of murdering Chrissie Williams and Katelyn, her 3-year-old daughter. Before killing them both, he, along with his brothers, stole drugs and money from Chrissie and sexually molested Katelyn. He eventually confessed and received a death sentence. He didn't appeal.

I was the first media witness to arrive for Tate's execution. As a member of the press, I was chosen to watch corrections officers prepare the execution chamber beforehand with a member of the prison's legal team and make sure nothing was wrong. Two other reporters showed up and we briefly chatted. They talked a lot. I sat there quietly, listening to the cars go by and thinking about what I was going to see. We were only allowed to bring one piece of paper and a pencil along with us when we entered the chamber. Everything else had to stay in the van.

Tate had declined to request a special last meal and was offered a traditional prison dinner: shepherd's pie, mashed potatoes, red beans, cabbage relish salad, collard greens, cornbread, cookies, and iced tea. At the last minute, Tate's lawyer filed a habeas corpus appeal on his behalf, which the state ultimately granted. For more than an hour, we were all waiting for his death before traveling back home.

Last July, I was once again selected as a media witness — this time to watch the execution of death-row inmate Warren Lee Hill. He landed on death row after beating fellow inmate Joseph Handspike to death in 1990. At the time, he had been already serving a life sentence for the 1986 murder of his girlfriend, Myra Wright. His weapon of choice was described by witnesses as a "2 x 6 that had been trimmed down to a leg." Inmates who witnessed the attack said Hill looked like someone who was "chopping wood with an ax."

During the trial, Hill's lawyers presented evidence that he was "mentally handicapped" with an IQ of 70. Prosecutors painted the inmate as a violent man fully capable of committing both murders. Given Georgia's laws, the defense had to prove Hill's mental capacity beyond a reasonable doubt, which many legal experts say was next to impossible. Hill fought the sentence and his case eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied his final appeal. After more than two decades behind bars, he was scheduled to die in February. But he received two stays of execution.

His death was rescheduled for July 15. Again, I made the trip down to Jackson. It's not a very scenic route, but the drive goes by fast if you think about the different scenarios that could happen during a lethal injection.

On my way, I learned Hill had been granted a last-minute appeal to argue the constitutionality of Georgia's new lethal injection secrecy law, which protects the identities of drug suppliers. Eventually, a Fulton County judge sided with him. His execution window expired July 20. The state then appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Sometime this month, if it hasn't already happened by the time you read this, the Georgia Supreme Court will have decided whether to allow the Fulton judge's ruling to stand. That ruling will mean life or death for Hill — for a while. The U.S. Supreme Court may rule on the case. Or it may not. But more waiting is all but certain.

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