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Cover story

Witness to an execution

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Oklahoma City

Last summer, Fr. Bryan Brooks, Tulsa priest and coordinator for the Office of Prison Ministry with the Tulsa diocese, witnessed the execution of George K. Wallace. He did so at the request of Wallace’s appellate attorney. An inmate is allowed seven witnesses, and Wallace had no family members to attend.

“It was,” said Brooks after a long silence, “a very difficult experience. There is nothing that I can compare it to. There was no question of his guilt, but the actual experience was very intense as well as disgusting.” Wallace had murdered two young men and was a prime suspect in three other homicides. “It was particularly difficult,” said Brooks, “because the men killed were the same age as my nephew.”

Brooks was required to be at the penitentiary an hour before the execution. He was taken to the H-unit and then to a witness chamber reserved for those observing on behalf of the inmate.

“The victims’ families were in a separate room,” he said.

After the blind was raised, a microphone was placed in front of the strapped-down Wallace, and he was asked if he had any statements to make. Wallace did not. It took him three minutes to die, Brooks said.

“I felt very numb,” said Brooks who, as a priest, has seen people die before. But the circumstances were different. “In hospital emergency rooms, I have seen people die while others are trying to keep them alive.”

“Sterile” is the word Alyson Carson uses to describe executions at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. As victim witness coordinator for the Attorney General’s Office, she has observed at least 11 executions. Her job is to guide family members of the victim through the appeals process right up to the execution.

“If we have a family that didn’t know the execution date, we do everything possible to let them know what is going on.”

For some families, Carson said, the time in the witness chamber is their first “reunion” since the murder, because family members often “stay away from one another” after a homicide. The execution brings “relief,” an assurance that they don’t have to hear the criminal’s name again, she said. “Every time they hear the person’s name it brings them back to the crime.”

Carson is impressed with the efficiency of the execution process at McAlester. “Once you’re there, everything is ready to go. The Corrections Department is very professional. They allow him or her to say a very few words and then go to sleep. That’s it.”

For appellate lawyer Janet Chesley, the execution of her client Charles Foster was “such a surreal thing.”

“There is a long narrow room. There is a venetian blind in front of you. You kind of file in. The press comes in. It was so hard for me to believe this was happening.”

Chesley doesn’t know if Foster was scared. “Charles had an IQ of 64 and a deep abiding faith,” she said. On the day he died, she spent the afternoon with him. He told her “ to watch for that feeling” after his execution. “My soul is going to fly by and wave to you.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001