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the via terminus
a story of the end of the end
by michael w. beatty (@tamumike)

Truth be told, I don't remember how the last day of my life began. I knew, certainly, how it would end: Before the sun had fully risen, my sun would have set for eternity. I could even tell within the range of a very few minutes when the turning of the machinery of justice would hurtle me into that long, supposedly-good night.

I was condemned for a murder I knew I did not commit, but which twelve good, honest, upright, pious former fellow-citizens believed I had committed. And not just they were fellow-believers: The District Attorney had got the Spirit, as well. Good and fine fellow! - if my coffin raised him far enough above his challengers to continue his tenancy of the public trough, more power to him! Not to be spiteful, but after that last day, I certainly wasn't planning to vote for him.

A Death Row holding cell is a wonderful place for being totally alone in a crowd of people. They brought me in about midnight, some seven hours before my date with The Needle. I wore only an orange prison coverall and paper slippers - no jewelry; God forbid I should hang myself with a 14K rope! The worst was that I had to leave my books in my old cell - no risk of lethal paper cuts was allowed, either. And no TV, nor radio. I sat and listened to the hum of the fluorescent lights in the fixture above my head.

As to the crowd: there was a guard outside the largeish, ten-by-twelve-foot cell. Smietkowicz, "Smitty," was a decent fellow, did his job, not much to say. His great feature was that he didn't mock the cast of our little production of "Days and Nights of the Living Dead."

"There but for the grace of God go I," Smitty had told me more than once. I appreciated his understanding that vice and virtue are what you make of them, and that the line between guilt and innocence is only as broad as a prosecutor's ambition will allow.

I'd gotten to know Smitty pretty well during my years in Huntsville, and actually considered him a bit of a friend, as much as anyone on Death Row can be said to have a friend. But I was certain Smitty wouldn't let something like my fulfilling in my own flesh the demands of justice interfere with his breakfast, afterwards.

So Smitty stood his post outside, and I sat my post inside, smoking, trying to look calm, whiling away time. My calendar was clear, but I was occupied for every remaining moment, pending one final engagement at seven a.m.

My cell mates were Edwin Lieberman, a bright, young attorney, green as grass and scared shitless, fresh off the bar exam and making his first visit to a prison to handhold a condemned felon who was fresh out of options and up against the final wall. Poor Edwin, I thought, all that money for a law degree; if this doesn't drive him out of the biz, it'll be a miracle. Ed was seriously overweight; even with several weeks' serious dieting, he'd have been overweight. It was actually cool there in our cinderblock boudoir; at least, I felt cool, but Ed was sweating so much, you'd think the gurney was waiting for him, not me.

Ed had nothing to do but wait with his cell phone for a call that wouldn't come, from his boss announcing that the Supreme Court had granted me a stay. Very sensibly, having no news to report he kept his mouth shut, except occasionally to lick his perspiring lips.

My other cellmate was not quite so sphinxlike. Father Bruce, from one of the local Catholic parishes, was the prison's Catholic chaplain. I had asked him to wait with me these last few hours. He offered me the consolations of religion, but I think he talked as much for his own consolation as mine. It couldn't have been easy for him, poor man, to know he was here as part of the mechanism set up for the direct violation of one of the teachings of the Catholic church. I imagine he would have felt the same way as a chaplain in a whorehouse.

But enough of that sort of speculation. We were a company in that place for a purpose; it would be as well to address the cause of that solemn conclave. I had been convicted of the murder of my boyfriend. After a furious, screaming fight, which had so alarmed our neighbors that they called the police to settle the domestic disturbance (not, unfortunately, for the first time; the nine years with him were not peaceful) I had gone for a walk to cool off and sort through my thoughts.

While I was gone, a shot or shots were heard from within our apartment. The police were again called, but I had returned before the cops arrived to find me standing over my murdered lover.

The conclusion was obvious; sufficiently so for a modern jury to grasp. The angry, vengeful lover, having mulled over the perceived wrong done by the deceased, premeditated murder with malice aforethought. Having gone out to cool off, the aggrieved party returned and in cold blood carried out the evil deed. That, at least, was the prosecution's theory. Nitpicking details, like the fact that there was no gun in my possession when the police arrived, nor was any gun found either in the apartment or anywhere else in the neighborhood (despite a search of every henhouse, doghouse, and outhouse for blocks around) were ignored, suppressed, or explained away.

According to Mr. District Attorney, by some superhuman exertion I had gone out, premeditated the murder of my lover, calmed myself into a coldly-rational frame of mind, returned to our apartment, did the deed, disposed of the gun beyond what would become the police search perimeter, removed any trace of gunpowder residue from my hands and clothing, and returned, all within the space of the approximately five minutes between the sound of the shots and the arrival of the police.

It would have been quite an accomplishment, if I'd actually done it. But I hadn't done it. I was as ignorant of the circumstances of my lover's death as were the police. But they had a usable suspect, and there was no need to expend more effort on identifying any other suspect, even one against whom they could have made a stronger case.

So the D.A. went to the people with the story that the police had developed. And those good east Texas jurors, accustomed to doing what the prosecutor asks them to do, returned a verdict of guilt and a sentence of death. There's a reason why Texas prosecutors only hire guys who played first string in high schol and college. The starting lineup gets results.

My conviction was not only inevitable; it was surprisingly resilient. Time after time my attorneys appealed; time after time, appellate courts upheld the conviction, on both procedural and evidentiary grounds. Not a very impressive monument to leave behind oneself: a trail of depositions and briefs, leading to the dead end just down the hall from where I passed my last night of life.

About five-thirtyish, my last meal was brought to me; two eggs (powdered) scrambled, ham, toast, grits, coffee. It was the standard breakfast being served throughout the Maximum Security Unit. I didn't really feel like requesting anything special. I did surprise myself, though, by actually eating everything they gave me, and with a bit of an appetite. And Edwin showed a good grasp of prison etiquette by not casting too many covetous glances at my tray.

At about quarter to seven, the curtain rose up on my last act. The warden and four more guards apeared at the door to the cell. Smitty stood aside as the pass-through in the door flopped open and I was ordered to put my hands through to manacled. Once I was secured, the door opened, and a chain was passed from the handcuffs to the leg irons I'd been wearing since I was moved to the holding cell.

I was ordered out of the holding cell, and our little procession turned right and moved the few steps down the hall to the death chamber. I shuffled along, my steps restrained by the foot-long chain between my ankles; the free men paced along with noble, 30-inch strides.

We came to a yellow-painted door like you find in office buildings, the kind that opens onto the stairwell. One of the deputies pulled the door open with a scrape like a sound effect from a horror movie, when the evil being "whooshes" past the hero.

And there I was. I've never had much of an eye for interior design, but I could tell that the room opened up before me was just not done up in a style I could appreciate. Cold, bright, sterile, functionally utilitarian; everything a pea-soup green that had long since been abandoned by institutional medicine.The prison physician was there, to attach the EKG leads to my chest and supervise the insertion of the needles. I wondered if his hands had shook as the wrote the prescriptions for the lethal drugs, or if they were just routine orders for him. Given the pace at which Death Row was emptying in Texas, the writing of lethal-injection prescriptions must have become old-hat by the time I took my turn.

I marched up to the gurney and turned around; no easy thing with my feet manacled together. I got up on tiptoe and slid my butt onto the gurney; one of the deputies lifted my feet and swung them around, toppling me back onto the gurney. I lay back on the table and felt hands under my back, lifting and positioning me in the middle of the gurney.

My feet were strapped down, and leather restraints fastened around my wrists, which were still chained to the leg irons. The handcuffs and leg irons were removed, with their chain. Two wing-like arm rests were rotated out from the table, and the straps attached to the wrist restraints were pulled through their loops and buckled down.

I had experimented with bondage and restraint as part of my sexcapades in younger days, but this sort of leather ritual was really bizarre. As I lay there like a profane crucifix, the prison physician reached his hand down the neck of my jumpsuit and plastered the electrodes to my chest. His hands were warm, but the abruptness o fhis action was jarring. No bedside manner there.

The technician wrapped a rubber-tube tourniquet around my arm to make the veins stand up. It was almost like giving blood. She turned back to her work table and approached again, holding a large-bore needle. I turned my head to see the rubber tubing disappear through a hole in the wall behind my head.

The tech's hands were shaking; I felt my eyes widen. Death Row lore is full of stories of the executions of habitual drug users, where the needle tech has had to dig around in the condemned person's arm trying to find a vein. I'd never been a doper, but this dance the needle was doing made my blood run cold.

The tech gave me a tight, nervous smile. I just stared blankly back at her. She was nervous?! I wasn't exactly there for a pedicure and a facial! She swabbed the crook of my elbow with alcohol - no last-minute infections, please - and lowered the needle to poke against my skin.

I guess the being on the decision point helped calm her; maybe it was professional instinct, I don't know, but she slid the needle smoothly and almost painlessly into my arm. She went around the foot of the gurney and repeated the operation in my other elbow.

"Go ahead and start the saline," she said into the tense air in the death chamber. I supposed there was a microphone or something, and someone could hear her. I assumed, but couldn't tell, whether fluid began flowing through the tubes and needles into my bloodstream. The way my heart was pounding (imagine that!) I couldn't help but wonder whether my kidneys wouldn't filter all that excess water out, and I'd need to pee.

The warden stepped up to the side of the gurney. He held a file folder, from which he withdrew a single sheet of paper. He called me by name, advised me that pursuant to my conviction for the crime of first-degree murder in the Circuit Court of Harris County, Texas, and under the sentence of death imposed by the said Court, I was hereby ordered to be put to death by lethal injection in the Maximum Security Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections. There was no surprise there; I'd been aware of those facts for the past 11 years.

"Do you have any last words?," the warden asked.

"I'm sorry Paul's dead," I replied. "But I didn't do it."

"Open the blinds," the warden ordered, and the drapes were opened to reveal the witneses to my execution. A few of Paul's family, my mother and an aunt and Edwin Lieberman; no police, no investigators, no one from the prosecutor's office. I was "taking responsibility" for my actions, but no one from the D.A.'s team was there to acknowledge or accept responsibility for theirs.

My heart was pounding so hard I could feel my body shaking on the gurney. I felt the first tickle of pressure from my bladder.

"Proceed," the warden said, and my stomach tightened. The first thing I noticed was a great tiredness, as though I'd been out all night partying and was trying to get up in the morning after not-enough sleep to go to work. I tried to keep my eyes open as long as possible, willing the adrenaline to fight against the sedative, but my eyelids grew heavy. I could still hear the heart monitor beeping rapidly, but it really didn't make much difference to me anymore.

My chest tightened; it became more difficult to draw a breath. My brain was still lucid, if somewhat fogged; I thought dully that this was a hell of a time to have an asthma attack. I remember almost convulsively exhaling, and thinking it was taking an awful long time for me to draw my next breath. My chest began to burn from the lack of oxygen.

Come on, breathe!, I commanded to myself. But the air wouldn't come.

And then everything was still. My heart wasn't pounding any more, but the lack of oxygen to my brain made me dizzy and gave me a pounding headache, which turned into a fire that I'd never felt before.

Finally I was dead, and felt nothing.


Mike Beatty is a wanderer, a good Irish Catholic boy born in the heart of Mormon. His formation was in the Midwest, but he moved to the Deep South for college, returned to his Midwest roots, and is now mired in the heart of Texas. He has been a member of the South City Fiction Workshop in St. Louis, MO

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