Until I got an email asking if I wanted to witness an execution, I’d never considered the question: Could I watch a man be put to death?
Ultimately, I decided the answer was yes because it was a part of my job.
The five media witnesses gathered in the lobby of Greensville Correctional Center at about 7 p.m. Wednesday. The execution of Ricky Gray wouldn’t start for another two hours, but before that we were taken by bus to another building, where we were given a briefing and searched. We were joined by representatives from the Richmond police and fire departments who handled Gray’s case.
After the briefing, the reporters made small talk. Jon Burkett from WTVR in Richmond said the last time he attended an execution, he kept getting text messages from his dad about how he had helped build the prison.
Maynard “Buddy” Burkett III owned a concrete company. None of his employees would work on the area around the electric chair.
“He said they were all superstitious,” Burkett said. “He had to do it himself.”
About 8 p.m., the van took us deep into the heart of the prison – a vast complex of concrete buildings, rolls of barbed wire and watchtowers. Prisoners peered out of their cell windows, watching us pass. They were on lockdown for the night because of the execution.
The witness room inside the execution chamber is equal parts prison cell, hospital room and theater. It’s cinder block walls and harsh lighting. Curtains hang in front and in back of the main floor space, with seats neatly arranged.
And, of course, there’s the gurney, front and center.
On it sat neatly arranged medical lines – IV tubes, maybe – that strung to holes in the back curtain. Behind that curtain, the executioners would push the three-drug cocktail into Ricky Gray’s veins. Their identity was shielded from us.
Beside me sat Frank Green of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He couldn’t remember how many executions he’s seen, between a dozen and two dozen. Today, he served as my unofficial guide, the guy who would know if things were proceeding normally or not.
The gurney was less than 12 feet in front of me. Officials stood on each side of the chamber. I felt as though I was caught up in someone else’s disturbing routine.
On the right of the chamber: a door with a window. The window’s blinds were closed. Behind that, I was told, was Ricky Gray.
A red phone was on the wall beside the door – a direct line to Gov. Terry McAuliffe. An official picked up the receiver and the witness room fell silent.
If the execution was to be stopped, the announcement would come from that phone. Minutes ticked by. We’re all watching a clock on the wall.
The phone call ended at 8:51 p.m., and Gray entered the room – a large man surrounded by other large men. He was wearing a blue-gray, button-up prison shirt, rolled-up blue jeans and sandals. His hands were cuffed in front of him. The faces in the room were expressionless.
Everyone appeared numb, and I felt numb.
Gray staggered or wobbled. Was it the sight of the gurney? Or maybe he was sedated. Eight corrections officers quickly walked him to the gurney. They enveloped him. One stood at his head, one at his feet and three to each side, securing him to the gurney with leather straps.
The thick, blue vinyl curtain in front of the witnesses closed at 8:54 p.m.
The IVs were being inserted. From what I’d read, this was supposed to take around 10 minutes. We waited in silence, staring at each rustle of the curtain.
By 9:18 p.m., I was getting concerned. It had been too long. I asked Green if what was happening was normal.
“No,” he said.
I steeled myself for what I might see when that curtain opened.
Finally, at 9:27 p.m., it was pulled back. Gray’s arms were outstretched, his hands wrapped tightly in bandages. He moved his feet, wiggled his toes. His sandals sat on top of one another between his legs.
Gray was asked if he had any last words. He didn’t.
Then the execution truly began. The IV started to twitch. The first drug – a sedative — was coursing into his body. Gray raised his head. It slowly fell back.
Things were moving fast now. By 9:29 p.m., Gray’s breathing seemed to become labored. His legs still moved. He started snoring loudly – as if he had simply fallen asleep. After he was tested for consciousness, the deadly drugs start flowing. I watched Gray’s chest – rising, falling, rising, falling. I was watching for that to stop. To be done with it, for everyone’s sake.
His chest went still. A physician opened Gray’s shirt and used a stethoscope.
I could read his lips: “He is dead.”
This story originally appeared on PilotOnline.com.