Scenes From an Execution

With all its bureaucratic ritual and live, up-to-the-minute news bursts, Monday's execution of Gary Davis was a collective wallowing in death by media injection.

Not having carried out an execution in thirty years, officials at the Colorado Department of Corrections were determined to get it right. Not having covered one, local broadcast and print reporters struggled to strike the right tone of solemnity and high drama. The most enterprising TV outfits were so keen on capturing the moment that they sent their top talent to executions in Texas ahead of time, as a kind of dry run for the Davis kill--and overkill.

Although only five media observers were allowed to witness the execution, more than a hundred media representatives, including some from cable news and national radio networks, squeezed into a double-wide trailer across the road from the Colorado State Penitentiary to cover the deathwatch. The highlights and lowlights:

8:18 a.m.: KHOW talk radio has planned saturation coverage of the event, including on-the-scene programs by Peter Boyles and Jay Marvin. On Boyles's morning show, reporters schmooze and prison officials rehearse their jargon. DOC director Ari Zavaras, who's let the execution team practice inserting IVs into his arm, informs Boyles that what's going to take place tonight is "a statutorily mandated function."

2:30 p.m.: After a series of engrossing bulletins about what Davis had to eat for breakfast and lunch, the assembled newshounds get their first scrap of real drama. Pueblo priest Ben Bacino, Davis's spiritual advisor, informs the crowd that Davis became emotional during a visit with two of his daughters. Radio crews scramble to add a key detail to their latest reports: Davis "broke down" and cried.

3:30 p.m.: DOC spokeswoman Liz McDonough tells the press that Davis has ended all his family visits and is now talking to Bacino. Question from a minor-market television reporter: "Would you say his mood has become a little more serious?" McDonough replies that Davis is "relatively upbeat but thoughtful."

4:30 p.m.: Davis attorney Vicki Mandell-King has canceled a planned press briefing. A bored KUSA camerawoman tries to cajole a DOC official to the podium: "Can I get a light balance off your shirt?" The trailer has become a jungle of cables, camera tripods, lightstands, laptops and phone lines; reporters trip over equipment and one another on their way to and from the complimentary buffet. McDonough stumbles on her way to the podium to announce that Davis has invited Zavaras, CSP superintendent Donice Neal and other prison officials to share his last meal of ice cream.

Off to one side, Canon City Daily Record reporter John Lemons is puzzling over prison regulations that won't allow Davis a final cigarette but require him to take a last shower. "They're going to cremate him anyway," Lemons notes. "What's the reason for the shower?"

4:45 p.m.: Outside the trailer, television crews prepare for the five o'clock standups. Like escapees from an asylum, the wired-up reporters listen and talk back to voices no one else can hear. Braving the wind in a tasteful black pants suit, KMGH's Natalie Pujo struggles with her hair and her transmitter. The pending execution has been knocked off the top of the local news by the death of another notorious 53-year-old. "So, is John Denver leading?" a technician asks. People nod glumly.

A man in an MSNBC cap dictates a possible lead-in over a cell phone. "Nobody knows what Gary Davis is going through in his last hours better than his spiritual advisor, blah-blah-blah," he says.

5:02 p.m.: Half a dozen television cameras switch on at once, and the best of Colorado's broadcasters parrot virtually the same trivia, distinguished only by their degree of earnestness. KUSA's Adele Arakawa is particularly emphatic: "He has requested ice cream, Jim," she reports.

6:30 p.m.: McDonough informs the assembled faithful that after the execution, they will have little advance notice before Davis's body is removed in a county coroner's van. "You will have about five minutes to set up your shots," she cautions. "We would respectfully request that no one attempt to follow the hearse."

She adds that Davis has had his last meal with Neal and another CSP official.

"What kind of ice cream?" someone asks.
"Vanilla and chocolate, in little cups," McDonough replies. "He was allowed to have as much as he wanted."

"How did he sleep?"
"Very sparingly."
"What is his state of mind?"
"I don't know that."

Aspen Times columnist David Chamberlain closes his notebook. "That was illuminating," he mutters. "I think the ice cream is going to carry my whole story."

6:41 p.m.: Guy on cell phone, arranging key photo-op coverage: "Listen, here's the deal on the hearse. They're going to drive it by here real slow."

7:00 p.m.: Inquiring minds want to know: Will a grief counselor be available to Davis's ex-wife, Rebecca Fincham, who's doing life in a prison in Pueblo? McDonough supposes so.

7:10 p.m.: In a dark field just inside the gates of the prison complex, more than 200 death-penalty protesters try to shield their candles from the wind; a smaller group of death-penalty advocates and victims' advocates has gathered on the other side of the road. No foot traffic is permitted between the two camps, but the TV crews move easily from one group to the other in their four-wheelers and illuminate the ghostly scene with their blazing camera lights. Jim Sunderland of the Colorado Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty moves quietly through the glare, marveling at the size of the crowd.

"There are gobs of reporters," he notes. He carries a T-shirt he plans to don after the execution: "My Country Killed Today."

Two young women sitting on the ground singing hymns attract the attention of four photographers, who pop flashes at them from every side.

7:30 p.m.: Davis has had his shower, McDonough reports. "The protocol is proceeding as scheduled," she says, her voice not unlike that of an answering machine.

7:55 p.m.: There's a glitch in the protocol. Davis has not yet been moved from his holding cell to the execution room, and the media witnesses are cooling their heels in the lobby of the penitentiary, wondering what's going on. Tension is building in the media center--at least, that's the story the radio reporters are barking into their telephones.

8:18 p.m.: Davis has been strapped on the table, the IVs inserted, the death warrant read to him. Lights flicker on every floor of the penitentiary.

8:28 p.m.: Chewing gum and wrapped in a black trenchcoat, KWGN's Dave Young grimaces at the camera and taps his earphone. "I hear nothing but hum," he says.

8:34 p.m.: McDonough announces that Davis was pronounced dead at 8:33. The flickering lights, she explains, are the work of inmates covering their windows with blankets or fooling with the light switches. Cameras turn obligingly to the phenomenon while the trailer erupts with live radio reports.

8:50 p.m.: The media witnesses are escorted back to the trailer to brief their colleagues. They all seem a bit numbed by what they saw, although in some cases it's hard to tell.

"Everything was fairly peaceful, if that word is appropriate," says KWGN's Ernest Gurule. "He seemed to be resigned to it."

Davis made no last statement and, except for a brief glance at lawyer Mandell-King, kept his eyes on the ceiling. "There was not much to see," explains the Denver Post's Kevin Simpson, who seems particularly spooked by the experience.

KCNC's Brian Maass is so intent on peppering the witnesses with three-hankie questions--"What's it like to see somebody executed? Kevin, do you think the image of Gary Davis dying will stay with you?"--that witness Judy Kohler of the Associated Press can hardly get a word in.

Sporting the loudest tie in the room, Adams County District Attorney Bob Grant takes the podium, his somber speech about "justice delayed but justice nonetheless" scarcely concealing his good humor. "I saw a lot better people die a lot worse deaths in the fields of Vietnam," he harrumphs, adding that Colorado killers now know that they "will have the opportunity to look the devil in the eye, just as [Davis] is doing right now."

The hit of the evening, though, is witness Rod MacLennan, Ginny May's father, who provides an eloquent, understated defense of the death penalty and pleads for a speedier appeals process and tighter control of sex offenders. "I can see that this has drawn a lot of attention, and I'm glad it has," he says. "Some of you may say we were after revenge. You are wrong. We were just spectators...Compassion was given, justice was done. It's over. What more needs to be said?"

Not much, the press decides. By the time Colorado Attorney General Gail Norton gets to unload a few prepared remarks about the legal system, she finds herself addressing a half-empty room; many of the deadline-pressed reporters have gone off to conduct their own up-close-and-personal interviews with the eyewitnesses.

9:30 p.m.: A gray Ford Aerostar bearing the body of Gary Lee Davis heads slowly toward the prison gates. TV crews and photographers line up along the road to get the shot.

--Prendergast

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