I Watched People Die on Death Row

I Watched People Die on Death Row

By Justin Norton


In the U.S., in general, it’s still the law of the land.

By Justin Norton

One of the most unsettling parts of watching someone die in prison was the short stroll from the state van into the death chamber.

As you started to walk in, one of the inmates in maximum security would inevitably yell something like, “I’m going to fuck you in the ass!” An inmate could fit a staggering variety of details into 10 seconds of screaming. You would recoil because a dangerous person was threatening your life and dignity, then immediately recognize there was a safe distance. Your prison guide would also remind you that whoever was threatening you would be quickly disciplined and possibly moved to a much less accommodating prison.

My memories of death row at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia, are memories of bad smells and strange courtesies and everyday routines that took on a funeral pallor. There was the press trailer parked in front of the prison, which smelled like it was last cleaned when The Brady Bunch was filmed. There was the offer, during every execution, of baked goods prepared by inmates looking to transition back into everyday life. Who can eat sugar cookies before they watch someone get injected with lethal chemicals?

I volunteered for death row work. I told myself it was about journalistic duty when the reality was I was also morbidly curious.

There was the blue suit of the Department of Corrections spokesman, starched and pressed like an old funeral home attendant. There was the persistent smell of cigarettes and institutional body odor and, during winter executions, smoke bellowing from vehicle tailpipes.

Finally, there was the man with red hair and a salesman’s mustache who lived in a nearby county who simply volunteered to watch people die when he was afforded the opportunity. He said he found it interesting, and asked me what I did for a workout routine. There was slight electricity and excitement when he talked. Driving home, I always wondered what he did when he wasn’t at the prison. 


In the late ’90s, a small part of my professional life was watching people die. I worked for the Associated Press in Richmond, Virginia, and there were so many executions — sometimes close to 30 annually — they decided numerous staffers should share the duty. Some of the people I watched die seemed to have earned a date with inevitability: the man who beat two older women to death with a hammer and the man who abducted a 10-year-old named Charity Powers from a roller rink, then raped and killed her. I felt remarkably little moral ambiguity about seeing these men die.

But then there were the condemned who seemed to be the victims of colossal misjudgment and desperation and bad luck. All of them faced the same end. 

Despite being the youngest person on the staff, I volunteered for death row work. I told myself it was about journalistic duty when the reality was I was also morbidly curious. Before I could attend an execution solo I needed to be the staffer reporting from outside of the prison during especially newsworthy cases. My guide was a senior reporter with decades of experience who liked to leave the bureau early to ensure he could get paid mileage if the state postponed the execution. There was the obligatory but quiet stop at a Burger King that felt like a waiting room in Purgatory for chicken sandwiches and onion rings and a Coke. There was silence and the sound of the road.

While the death row reporter was the official witness and earned the byline, the outside staffer would call in the time of death as the inside reporter returned from the execution. The first execution I assisted with was Lem Tuggle, a murderer who once escaped from prison. Tuggle had grown enormous in jail. Before the execution there were jokes about how he wouldn’t fit on the gurney and resembled Santa Claus. As it turned out, special accommodations were needed to accommodate his girth and he left the world with two words: “Merry Christmas.” 

Some ramble at the moment of their deaths, and others face death with cold stoicism.

I eventually earned my way inside. The first person I watched die was a 25-year-old African-American named Lance Chandler, who killed a convenience store clerk who wouldn’t open a cash register. The night is full of memories and yet strangely absent certain details. I remember the look on the gate attendant’s face; what was in the front seat of my car.

I can remember words in the death chamber: “He can see you,” our guide said. Every execution I attended proceeded with the same macabre efficiency: the insertion of the IV; the chest heaving and flowing; then silence and the movement of the gurney. There are few memories of the condemned in their last moments. In each case they seem like a cipher. I can remember the small talk in the van and the layout of the death chamber, but the looks on the faces still escape me. 

Then someone dies, and you get back in the van and circle through a maze of gates and return to the outside world.  

After the execution, you don’t think about the strange man with the salesman’s mustache or the prison cookies. You think about the deadline. There’s a job to do: Call the office with the official time of death and the prisoner’s last words, if there were any.

Some ramble at the moment of their deaths and others face death with cold stoicism. If it is winter, you open your car windows slightly for the trip down Interstate 95 to get the smells out of your head. You might stop for coffee. If it’s summer in southern Virginia, you close the windows and turn up the air conditioning.

Within weeks, there will be the same cycle; Sister Helen Prejean might visit if it’s a newsworthy case; there is a flurry of paperwork; the wire service will prepare the urgent series to go out at the time of execution; the office will decide which staffer will cover the execution. When you get back to the office, before writing a story for the remaining morning newspapers, you will learn which night shift staffer won the pool for guessing the correct time of death. How much was won? This is, strangely or maybe not so, hard to remember.