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Witness to death: on murder, and execution, in Alabama

In June 2017, Robert Melson was executed in Alabama for murder. I was there.

Part 1: The clock and the condemned

I was not sure when the life left his body, and for that I am still ashamed. I stared at the clock and at him, and each time the second hand moved, it startled me. Looming death, I had thought, would freeze time. But it would not.

In 1994, during a robbery of a Gadsden Popeyes, Robert Melson murdered Tamika Collins, Nathaniel Baker and Darrell Collier. But now, more than two decades later, I sat in a small pentagonal room while the people of Alabama took their revenge.

In the two days leading up to his execution, Melson had been visited by his uncle, his brother, his cousin, his aunt and two lawyers. On the day itself, Melson refused both breakfast and a final meal and made no special requests of the government that would soon end his life.

Before the scheduled 6pm execution, the US Supreme Court issued a temporary stay, holding off the lethal injection while they considered Melson’s claim that the drugs that would soon run through his veins would torture him, burning him from the inside out. The State allowed Melson to move then, at least briefly, from his death bed, where it had already strapped him down. He would not be gone for long.

At about 9:10pm, the Supreme Court lifted its stay without comment, allowing the execution to move forward and condemning Melson to the tomb from which he had just arisen.

Around 9:30pm, the State moved myself and four other reporters by prison van from a media centre – an austere trailer – to a witness room abutting Holman Correctional Facility’s execution chamber. The room was lit by one salmon-coloured light, and after a few minutes, the brown-blue curtain concealing the chamber itself from the witness room was drawn back.

The State then revealed Melson strapped to a gurney with IVs entering the backs of both his hands. The execution chamber was small and barren, with 14 rows of exposed fluorescent bulbs lighting up the inmate below.

Moments later, at about 9:54pm, the prison’s warden read the death warrant and asked Melson for any last words. Melson shook his head “no,” and the warden and an assistant left the room, leaving only Melson, a prison guard, a chaplain, and a vengeful God.

At about 9:57pm, the chaplain knelt beside Melson momentarily, placing his hand over the condemned inmate’s and appearing to pray. As the chaplain moved away and the execution began about a minute later, Melson’s hands, chest and face visibly began shaking against the restraints. The shaking lasted until about 10:01pm.

At 10:03pm, the guard performed consciousness tests.

“Inmate Melson,” he said.

No response.

“Inmate Melson.” I wanted to see him move, to see him fight back against the State that was killing him, but I saw no more movement.

“Inmate Melson,” the guard said a third time.

The guard then pushed back Melson’s left eyelid three times and pinched the back of his left arm. Nothing.

By 10:07pm, Melson’s breathing had ceased completely and his lips had begun turning purple, but both his fists were still clenched with his thumbs inside.

The State then moved us, the members of the press, from the witness room, and we were told only on the ride out of the prison that Melson’s official time of death was 10:27pm.

They say that when it comes to executions, the time of death is simply the time a doctor verifies what everyone involved already knew. So, I don’t know when exactly Robert Melson died, even though it happened while I watched.

For that, I will always be ashamed.

Part 2: Fear and fast food

For nearly a quarter of a century Bryant Archer has feared what isn’t there, because one Thursday in April 1994, he had to fear what was. That night, in Gadsden, Alabama, at a Popeyes Chicken on East Meighan Boulevard where he worked, Archer became a survivor. In the years since, he’s struggled to stay one.

That Thursday was set to be Archer’s junior prom. He’d gotten the date and the tux, and though he wasn’t much for stuff like that, he had at least made some effort. It wouldn’t count for much. Archer’s date, whose name he remembers and laughs about, but won’t disclose, stood him up. To recoup at least part of the cash spent and dignity lost, Archer’s prom night turned into a work night.

At four o’ clock, Archer arrived at the Popeyes in a downpour that, before an hour had passed, had knocked out the lights. The power wouldn’t come back on until nine or so. “They wouldn’t let us leave, though,” Archer complains of Popeyes corporate managers. So for Archer and his colleagues, the night blew on.

After eleven, Archer went to take the trash out back, but didn’t make it. Two armed men entered, cleared the safe of $2,100, and put Archer and his three co-workers – Nathaniel Baker, Darrell Collier, and Tamika Collins in the building’s freezer. “I figured they were gonna run off,” Archer says. He sat on a crate. After about a minute, the freezer door opened, and the men began firing.

“I didn’t know [the others] were deceased,” Archer says. “They had fell out in front of me, and that’s when I started getting shot.” It wasn’t until over a week later in the hospital when Archer realised he was the only survivor of the murder – that his co-workers were already dead as he lay bleeding.

“Eighty-nine,” one officer had radioed in when the police arrived on scene, signalling a need to transport slain bodies. “Multiple.”

“Everybody’s dead?” An officer asked.

“We got my man here,” another officer responded, “he’s hanging on for us. Hang on, baby,” he told Archer, then asked his name.

“Bryant Archer,” the response came. “I need some blood. I don’t have none.”

“I know. Just hold on, baby. Hold on for me, baby. Hold on for me, buddy. Lay still for me, baby. Where all you shot at, Bryant?”

The response was more muffled. “I don’t even know.”

“Where do you go to school?” The officer asked.

“Gadsden High School.”

“You play ball or anything?”

Archer must have shaken his head.

“Oh, you one of the smart ones, okay. Us dumb guys played ball.”

Archer never did play ball, but he and Nathaniel Baker, now dead yards away from him, got kicked out of English class together and liked it. They hated the teacher. Sometimes, they were told “either you run laps, or we give you licks,” Archer says, and lists running, then, as his extracurricular activity when asked about his high school days. He ran track.

Years later, remembering that detail about his friend, or the fear of not remembering, haunts Archer as much as any real-life monster. “The people who died that night, it just seems like they just – over time they just faded away. And that’s not something that should’ve happened to start with. Their families went through hell.”

Archer’s hell hasn’t faded.

Years later, when he and his then wife, Lori, bought their first home in Gadsden, Archer wasn’t comfortable. “I loved the house,” Archer said of the three-bedroom, one-bath on Maryland Avenue, just a five-minute drive from the Popeyes that had been robbed, “but I kept going back and forth. Is that door open? Is it locked?”

Even after that house – and marriage – were gone, the fear wasn’t.

“I have a hard time dealing with things as far as I don’t like being confrontational,” Archer says. “I don’t like having things happen around me. I don’t cope well with things that don’t work. I just don’t like being around a bunch of trouble. I don’t cope well with things I can’t control. I like to know where I’m at and I don’t go anywhere at night.”

There’s more to Archer than the crime he suffered, too. Archer’s family moved to Gadsden when he was 13 from Gastonia, North Carolina, because “the rent was so damn high.” His mother had worked two jobs in the Tar Heel State, one of which was making what Archer calls “Christmas balls” – ornaments for the tree. She grabbed up the opportunity, though, for higher wages and lower rent when a position making hand grenades for the military popped up in Gadsden. She passed in 2012.

When Archer was five, his father left. “It was creeping – on and off,” Archer says of his relationship with his dad. “Basically, the only time I ever talked to him was when he was drunk calling me to cuss me out. I got used to hanging up on him.” His father passed in 2013, leaving Archer little but his name.

Today, Archer takes care of his family. He has two children from his first marriage, Rebecca and David, 21 and 17. He’s married to Hollie now, and has taken in the children, ranging age four to 12, of his late brother-in-law: Kira, Wade, Gage, and Adi.

Between carpool pickups and drop-offs, Archer runs a corpse removal service. “I actually like dead people,” he says of the job. “They don’t bother me. They get in the van, and they don’t say a whole lot, and I get paid to take them where they belong.”

Part 3: The stakes and the stats

Robert Melson wasn’t the first person the people of Alabama executed in 2017. In fact, he wasn’t even the first person executed that month. Just two weeks prior, Alabama executed another person, Thomas Arthur, for the 1982 murder of Troy Wicker.

So while the frequency of executions nationwide is decreasing, where the death penalty is carried out, typically in southern states, it happens often and without any seeming pause or remorse by the majority of state officials. Nationally, for example, the number of executions each year has steadily declined from 98 in 1999 to only 25 in 2018 according to the non-partisan Death Penalty Information Center. This year, that number so far stands at 11. All of these 11, though, have been in southern states: three each in Texas and Alabama, two each in Georgia and Tennessee, and one in Florida. 

This year – the day after Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed one of the nation’s most restrictive bans on abortions, proclaiming that “all life is sacred” – she presided over the execution of another man, Michael Samra. His life, it seems, wasn’t so sacred. 

Robert Melson’s execution also wasn’t the first – or last – botched execution in the state or around the country. 

In early 2018, Alabama was warned by organisations ranging from Amnesty International to the United Nations not to attempt the execution of Doyle Lee Hamm, a 61-year-old man who had been diagnosed with lymphoma, a type of cancer, years earlier. 

“We are seriously concerned that attempts to insert needles into Mr Hamm’s veins to carry out the lethal injection would inflict pain and suffering that may amount to torture,” two UN human rights experts said. “The planned method of execution, using Alabama’s three-drug protocol, may also have torturous effects, because the sedative used is incapable of keeping a convict unconscious in the presence of the excruciating pain likely to be induced by the other drugs.”

Alabama proceeded with the lethal injection anyway, and, as predicted, what followed can, as the UN foreshadowed, be accurately described only as torture. Once the US Supreme Court lifted its stay of execution to allow the procedure to move forward, officials strapped Hamm to a gurney, and their attempt to access a vein began. 

It would not be successful. Over and over again, prison officials punctured Hamm with needles in attempts to gain access to a stable vein in which to inject the execution drugs. They tried his feet and ankles (execution drugs are typically injected into the inmate’s hands) with no success. 

At some point during this process, two unidentified people in business attire, wearing only gloves as protective gear, entered to take over the attempted execution. One of them used an ultrasound to try and locate a vein in Hamm’s groin. During this attempt, Hamm’s femoral artery and bladder were both punctured, pooling vast amounts of blood, all while Hamm lay conscious, wishing he would simply die. 

Eventually, not for lack of trying, but out of fear that Hamm’s execution warrant would soon expire, the attempt to kill him was abandoned. When Hamm was unstrapped from the gurney, he immediately collapsed. He would urinate blood for days after the torture. Photos taken following the botched execution show severe bruising around Hamm’s feet, ankles, legs, and groin, and a total of eleven puncture wounds from the needles that would have otherwise delivered his death sentence. 

Afterwards, Alabama’s top prison official, Jefferson Dunn, rejected the label of torture, telling reporters that the execution attempt had not gone badly: the state had merely run out of time. “I wouldn’t necessarily characterise what we had tonight as a problem,” Dunn said. “The only indication I have is that in their medical judgment it was more of a time issue given the late hour.”

Botched executions like this aren’t as rare as you would think. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a non-profit that defends those at risk of execution, based in Montgomery, Alabama, has documented serious problems in at least five cases in addition to Hamm’s and Melson’s since 2014. In many cases, journalists, including myself, report that those being executed visibly shake against their restraints, gasp, and show other visible and audible signs of potential issues. 

This problem won’t go away any time soon, either.

While some stats on executions in the United State are headed in the right direction, the death penalty isn’t disappearing anytime soon. US Attorney-General Bill Barr, for example, America’s top law enforcement official, recently announced that the federal government, which has not executed an inmate in over 15 years, will reinstate the practice. The Trump administration has already asked the Bureau of Prisons to schedule execution date for five individuals on federal death row.

There is some hope on the horizon, however. Half of US states, either by legislative action, executive moratoria, or judicial ruling, have halted the practice of executing inmates. And as support for the death penalty wanes nationwide, it can be expected that this trend will continue.

On the federal level, as the 2020 presidential election nears, nearly every of the over 20 Democratic hopefuls for that office has said they oppose the death penalty because of lessening support but also because of the serious racial disparities apparent in the practice. 

The Supreme Court, for example, ruled in 1986 that despite statistical evidence proving that black defendants – and those that are accused of murdering white victims – are much more likely to be sentenced to death, capital punishment does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. 

Aside from policy, though, Americans have a moral choice to make. Will we allow this barbaric practice to continue while the rest of the world watches in awe, or will we decide that given the reality of who we kill and the finality of the sentence, that capital punishment should be a thing of the past?

Until then, death-row inmates will continue to live every day of their life waiting for the state to end them. Only with death will they get their freedom. 

Vernon Madison Sr., who was moved to death row in 1985, laid this reality bare in a poem called “Handcuffs in Heaven” that he wrote and provided to the EJI. In it, he describes an inmate headed to the execution chamber who asks: “Will there be any handcuffs in heaven & chains for my feets?”

“Some times in the wee hours of the night, when all is settle & quiet
I’ll lay & wonder if I dies before I awake, am I as sure of heaven
As he was that night, when he speak?
For he didn’t ask about Hell, for he knew he had that place beat……
He wanted to know about heaven & the handcuffs & shackle around his feets,
I’m sure as he entered the pearly gates he notices there wasn’t any locks;
And he was free for all eternity, not held bound by any stocks…
‘No SON, there will be no handcuffs in heaven or shackles on your feet;
You’ll have eternal freedom, as you walk down
                                                                Heaven’s
                                                                          Golden
                                                                                  Streets”

Part 4: A lack of closure

In 2017, I watched as Robert Melson, the gunman who shot Bryant Archer and his co-workers in 1994, when I was only a few months old, was executed by the State of Alabama. At the moment when I watched Melson’s execution from the witness-chamber at Holman Correctional Facility, Archer “ate a fat steak on a beach” in Panama City, his family in tow. 

He says he thinks Melson deserved to be held accountable for his actions, but also that the execution does not bring him full closure. It does, though, take away one unknown. “He’ll never do it again.” That, at least for Archer, is one less fear he must face.

For me, though, things don’t wrap up so clearly. While the story of Melson’s murder is harrowing – an experience Archer had to live through first-hand – so, too, is the story of Melson’s execution and others like it. 

Even further, when organisations including EJI have demonstrated that “for every nine people executed in this country, one innocent person has been exonerated,” it has become clear to me that despite tragedies like the one that occurred in that Popeyes in April 1994, our nation cannot afford the moral leap that executing potentially innocent people and torturing even guilty human beings must take. 

The day after I witnessed Melson’s execution, a veteran reporter – an acquaintance with whom I had never been particularly friendly – messaged me on social media. “Just checking on you,” she wrote. “You okay?”

I told her that yes, I was okay. 

I wasn’t. After I left Holman Correctional Facility, I’d had to pull over at a convenience store and cry. Even the next day – and even to this day – what I saw that night in June 2017 had changed me, just like that night at Popeyes changed Bryant Archer. In very different ways, but because of some of the same events, neither of us will ever be the same.

Lee Hedgepeth is a Ph.D. student in political science at Tulane University and an adjunct instructor in Delgado Community College’s Adult Education Program. Lee worked as a political journalist for more than five years, covering events ranging from impeachments to executions. You can follow Lee on Twitter @lee_hedgepeth.