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Is execution too easy?
By HENRY FREDERICK City Editor

How much is a condemned killer's life worth?
The vast majority of people would say not much.

Then there are the polar opposites - those for and those against execution.

Turn the other cheek or an eye for an eye.

So was the case of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the so-called man of peace who was executed early Wednesday for the gunshot execution slayings of four people in two robberies in Los Angeles in 1979.

The 51-year-old Williams, co-founder of the Crips gang, maintained his innocence until the very end, even though, as journalists covering the story wrote, acknowledging overwhelming evidence of guilt in the murders could have spared his life.

While some promised him a funeral "befitting a statesman" others worried about rioting in the streets by supporters of a killer who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for writing a series of books encouraging youth to stay out of gang life.

The riots never came and Williams lasted for some 15 minutes while the lethal injection procedure slowly sapped the life out of him.

I'm not going to debate the merits of the death penalty. Is it just punishment for the government to take the life of a killer? Is justice served by sparing a killer's life while his brutally murdered victim no longer has life?

I don't have the answers.

I witnessed the Oct. 9, 2002, execution of Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

Before she was put down by lethal injection, the sandpaper-faced woman said she was going to be with Jesus.

Her story was the basis for the motion picture "Monster" for which Charlize Theron won an Academy Award in the role of Wuornos.

I remember the execution like it was yesterday.

The procedure began at 9:32 a.m. after the 46-year-old Wuornos, strapped to a gurney, smiled briefly at the 28 witnesses through a glass window and said: "I'd just like to say I'm sailing with the Rock and I'll be back like "Independence Day" with Jesus - June 6 - like the movie - big mother ship and all. I'll be back."

The Rock is a Biblical reference to Jesus.

Wuornos took one breath after the lethal injection began. Two minutes later, her eyes closed and, at 9:36 a.m., she didn't appear to be breathing.

Ten minutes passed with the only noise coming from an air-conditioning unit on the wall.

Then, a doctor twice checked Wuornos' vital signs and nodded his head. She was gone at 9:47 a.m.

Relatives of some of the victims said the method was too easy for Wuornos.

"I think she should have suffered a little more," said one woman.

Even after death, another of her victims' relatives fumed: "It was too easy - one breath. It would have been enough for smoke to come out of her ears."

So it's a fair question to ask is justice really served after a killer is executed?

Henry Frederick is the city editor for the Taunton Daily Gazette. He can be reached at (508) 880-9000, ext. 33, and at hfrederick@tauntongazette.com


Why I go to executions
Reporter talks about what motivates him

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The questions started years before Tuesday morning, when Stanley Tookie Williams became the sixth prisoner I've witnessed since 1993 being executed in the San Quentin Prison death chamber:

Why in the world would you want to watch so many executions?

Do you actually want to watch them?

Are you some sort of sick ghoul?

The quick answer to the last query is no. Hell, no.

Answering the other two questions is a bit more involved. But it boils down to the reasons I do what I do for a living.

I got into journalism to stick my face deep into the front lines of life, to see and hear everything I could. And I know this sounds Boy Scout-ish, but I have always bought into the credo that reporters have a solemn duty to be the public's eyes and ears.

Given those motivations, why in the world would I not want to cover an execution?

Think about it: There are few more powerful issues than putting a person to death. In one brief event, you have overwhelming tragedy and resolution, hopelessness and rage, sorrow and compassion, failure and hope -- core elements of any deep exploration of the human condition. And from a pure storytelling perspective, the subjects always break themselves into easily definable, but absolutely compelling, forms.

The victims of the murderer being executed have suffered horribly and are gone. Their survivors will wrestle eternally with their grief. The murderer has a history that either explains how he came to his sad end, or raises disturbing questions about the randomness of horror. Killing the murderer draws out both sides of the Biblical maxims -- those who cry for forgiveness, and those who cry for an eye for an eye.

And there are the details, successes and failures of the actual lethal injection or gassing itself.

Don't you think, with those elements at hand, we all need a trained, interpretive mirror to reflect their realities as starkly and completely as possible?

If you're a reporter who likes be in on intense, meaningful stories, executions are actually easy to cover -- all you have to do is start interviewing, watching and writing. Your opinion about whether capital punishment is right or wrong doesn't mean a thing. The task is purely to dig hard and reflect what you find.

That's true whether the execution involves someone like the mostly anonymous and unmourned Donald Beardlslee, who I watched die last January, or the celebrated and reviled Tookie Williams. Beardslee's lethal injection didn't even draw a full complement of media witnesses -- we were four short -- and I got about a dozen letters from readers afterward. Williams' injection was a full-on media circus, and I got 500 letters from all over the world in just one day.

As human events, both were equally important in my mind.

Many people also ask if watching these events is disturbing to me. It is not. This gets back to the motivation of shoving my face into life -- doing so inevitably gets messy and gritty, but that just makes it more interesting.

I know I am not alone in this. Why else would reporters want to cover war? Poverty? Disasters? We want to be on the front lines of life, that's why.

I have watched people burn to death in car wrecks and die in the crushed Cypress Freeway during the 1989 earthquake. I have boated or stepped through body chunks at murder scenes and disasters, been shot at and chased. I have covered more killings, kidnappings and rapes than I can count. I've also gotten close to homeless people who I know are good souls -- and had to watch while they jammed dirty heroin needles into themselves and shiver in the street because they couldn't shake their demons.

Many of these things were more traumatic to me than watching five murderers sleep their way to eternity while attached to intravenous poison lines, or seeing quadruple killer David Mason in 1993 become the last prisoner to be gassed to death at San Quentin.

That's because the act of watching someone die quickly in a very controlled situation is actually fairly benign. What really troubles witnesses is what's going on in their heads -- anguished memories of the victims, frustration if they think putting this man to death is unjust. But a reporter is not there to feel those things. He or she is there to assess and reflect for the public.

Some readers understand this. Some don't. I got letters this week from readers as far away as Germany and Australia calling me everything from "courageous" to " -- wipe." Some praised me for being even-handed, others blasted me for being an obvious shill for the death penalty, and yet others blasted me for being an obvious shill against the death penalty.

If you do this job long enough, you have to develop a thick skin.

The important thing is to be honest, unafraid to look, and always willing to take on a story that matters. No matter what.

And that is why I cover executions.

E-mail Kevin Fagan at kfagan@sfchronicle.com.

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All information is Copyright 1997 - 2006 'Foreign Prisoner Support Service' unless stated otherwise - Click here for the legal stuff