I watched 10 men and one woman take their final breaths in a string of federal executions that span 7 months. It was my job to observe and report what I saw.
Of those who did speak, some were angry, some denied they committed the crimes and some seemed genuinely sorry for what they did.
One inmate, Alfred Bourgeois, spent a few of his final moments locking eyes with me. I found it odd he’d use that precious time trying to “mean mug” me through a glass partition. It seemed there were so many other things he could have been thinking about before he left this world forever.
But then again, should I be surprised by his actions? He is the same man the U.S. Department of Justice said killed his 2 ½ year-old daughter by beating her head against his semi’s dash and windshield after she accidentally tipped over her potty chair in the cab of his truck.
I intimately got to know Bourgeois’ crimes and the crimes committed by the others condemned to die by lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute. Some of those crimes are so horrendous, it was sometimes difficult to speak the details out loud. Such were the crimes of Orlando Hall.
Hall, 49, was a drug dealer. In 1994, he felt two brothers had botched a $5,000 marijuana deal. He and his accomplices went looking for the brothers. When they did not find them, they kidnapped the brothers’ sister Lisa Rene, 16. They repeatedly raped her and, according to the Justice Department, eventually hit her over the head with a shovel, doused her with gasoline and buried her alive.
After studying these cases, I came to the conclusion the inmates facing the death penalty fell into three categories. Some were just evil, some made horrific choices and some, like Hall, had an agenda and no regard for the pain their actions caused. Dustin Honken also falls into this last category.
Honken, 52, was a meth kingpin from Iowa. He killed two men, Terry DeGeus and Greg Nicholson, who were going to testify against him. He also killed the woman Nicholson lived with, Lori Duncan and Lori’s little girls Kandi, 10, and Amber, 6.
According to the Associated Press, the girls were found still in their bathing suits because the shooting occurred on a hot summer day.
While terribly misguided, Honken did seem to have a purpose for his crimes. I believe some of the others executed, like Keith Dwayne Nelson, were just evil.
Nelson, 45, kidnapped Pamela Butler in 1999 while the young girl was rollerblading in front of her home. He later raped the 10-year-old before strangling her with a wire. According to published reports, Nelson had previously told a co-worker he planned to kidnap, rape and murder a female because he figured he’d be going back for prison for other crimes he’d committed.
The last category of these inmates is the one who made a horrific choice. Brandon Bernard was 18 when he and four other teens took part in the abduction and robbery of Todd and Stacie Bagley. The couple was placed in the trunk of the car, while the teens drove around trying to use the Bagley’s ATM cards.
Eventually, one of the teens, Christopher Vialva, shot the Bagleys. Bernard set the car on fire. Bernard’s attorneys said Bernard thought the couple was already dead. While Todd Bagley died from the gunshot wound, a witness at the trial testified Stacie Bagley died from smoke inhalation due to the car fire.
Bernard’s case gained world-wide media attention. Anti death penalty advocates and others, including some of the jurors who heard his case and a prosecutor who helped try it, agreed he should be punished, but they felt the death penalty was too harsh. They instead asked for his sentence to be commuted to life without parole.
Bernard and his accomplice, Vialva, were the two most remorseful inmates I witness die. Bernard apologized to the victims’ families and his own.
Bernard’s final words were, “I’m sorry. That’s the only words that I can say that completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day.”
While I am not advocating for or against the death penalty, I do think we might want to look at the age of offender when considering the death penalty as their punishment. In a country where you can not buy a beer, gamble at casino or in some states, purchase cigarettes until your 21, should you be able to get the death penalty at age 18? I don’t know the answer, but I certainly have thought a lot about the question.
I also have thought a lot about the victims of those executed and their families. Todd and Stacie Bagley would have been about my age now. Would they have children in high school, perhaps one heading off to college or even one contemplating marriage? We’ll never know.
In a statement Todd’s mom Georgia read to the press, she said the Bagleys’ friends and family were “shattered” by the loss of Todd and Stacie and felt Bernard should “suffer the consequences of his actions.” But she also said Bernard’s and Vialva’s statements of remorse “helps heal my heart.” She said she has forgiven them.
I remember talking to Pamela Butler’s mom, Cherrie West both before and after the execution. She’s a brave woman who searched for her daughter and put up fliers when she went missing. When I think about the rape and murder of her little girl and how difficult the thought of that must be for West, it makes me mad at Keith Nelson all over again.
West said in the past, Nelson had cussed at her in court. When he was asked in the execution chamber, if he had any final statement, Nelson did not say a word, not even “no.” He appeared to be a jerk until the end.
Many of the executions I watched were delayed by several hours. Some the inmates’ attorneys argued before the Supreme Court that using the lethal injection drug pentobarbital was cruel and unusual punishment, but I did not see anyone who looked like they were in severe pain.
I did see some of the inmates chests raise and lower quickly and sometimes dramatically, but not all. Three inmates appeared to yawn, which appeared strange to me. I also saw a grimace on one face.
Sometimes people ask if watching 11 executions changed me. If anything, it’s made me grateful for the life I have and not to sweat the small stuff, there are so many bigger problems this world could bring.