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Killing Time | The Nation

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Killing Time

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Witnessing

About the Author

Mary Mapes
Mary Mapes is an award-winning television producer and reporter based in Texas. In a twenty-eight-year career spent...

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The caucus was raucous and the rancor will continue for weeks. But if you're a Democrat in the Lone Star State, these are good times, baby.

As a first-time witness, I was an oddity at the prison that night. Everyone else in the witness room was a veteran. They'd seen dozens. One man, Michael Graczyk, had seen hundreds of men and women die.

An Associated Press reporter based in Houston, he sat quietly in the corner tapping out advance stories on Turner's death. Graczyk is believed to have witnessed more state-run executions than any warden, any executioner, any guard or anybody in the modern Western world. He serves as a kind of living memory bank for the people working at the prison and a guide for those of us who hadn't seen the death chamber in operation before.

While a string of sitcoms and a recap of the previous night's vote totals on Dancing With the Stars played loudly on the TV in our waiting area, Graczyk pointed out the time and warned that traditionally, the longer the wait, the worse it looked for the inmate.

I told him I had never seen an execution. He grumbled that there wasn't much to see. "It's very uneventful. Very, very uneventful," he said, "There's virtually no reaction. He may snort or gasp very briefly, snore and that's it. The doctor comes in, he pronounces him dead and we leave."

Graczyk told me he'd lost count of the number of executions he had seen when "it became an issue" for death penalty opponents who accused him of regarding executions "like notches on the belt." He says he attends because someone in the press has to. "If the state is going to take somebody's life, I would hate to see that happen without someone watching."

He's right, of course, but there are few takers.

A young reporter from another paper offered me a tip. "I try not to think of them as people. Or it would make it really hard when you went home. You know?"

We waited for hours. The phone in the room rang regularly. Unlike in the movies, it was never the governor's office on the line. Instead, the public information officer would bark into the phone "It hasn't happened yet" or "We're still waiting." She dismissed the callers as "death penalty groupies," people who phone constantly on execution nights to find out whether the inmate is dead. She said she's never figured out whether they are eager for the execution or praying for a reprieve.

More than four hours after the execution was scheduled to start, not long before the death warrant ran out, the Supreme Court stepped in and stopped the execution of Carlton Turner.

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