Thursday, January 29, 2004

Watching a convict die in 1999

Tomorrow, if heaven does not intervene, two death convicts will go to the execution chamber. This would be the first in almost five years. In 1999, the second year of the Estrada administration, about half a dozen were sent to Kingdom Come.

In July 1999 I was sent to cover the execution of Convict A who was sentenced to death for raping his daughters. (In deference to his family, I will not mention his name.) I think he was the third to die that year. I did write a news story the following day plus a column piece.

I am resurrecting excerpts from that column--for whatever they are worth--to remind what it was like for me and for those who were there. Here:

It’s been several days since I watched a convicted rapist die by lethal injection and I have yet to have a fitful night, experience horrible nightmares or lose my appetite. I watched a man die, or more precisely, being killed, and I didn’t lose any sleep? I find this disturbing.

I kept thinking—not ruminating, by the way—about it, even rewinding and playing the scene over and over in my mind. Still no tears, goose bumps or knots in my guts. The thing to do is to just let go of it, I told myself.

I have coped well. You see, it all looked like something straight out of a movie. I better rephrase that. I now suspect something in me made it all look like it was something from a movie. That way I would be able to take it and not be a mess. We all try, consciously or unconsciously, to fashion a coping mechanism when we have to face something stressful or dreadful. Only later do we process things.

The props helped. The curtains that were drawn, the wide one-way mirrors through which we saw everything, the multi-level seating arrangement, the semi-darkness where we sat, the silence, the speakers on the wall. We could have had popcorn. Somewhere in front of me was a young couple holding each other tight. I could hear someone sobbing softly.

Everything seemed to fit together, making the place look like a small screening room. It was as if we were watching a movie scene of a hospital or from ``Dead Man Walking’’. To borrow a movie title, we had a view to a kill.

Convict A did not simply die, his life was being ended. And yet we could not see who was actually doing that. He was not being shot, mutilated or electrocuted. He sure looked like he was dying by himself, peacefully breathing his last.

I remember veteran journalist Amando Doronila telling us what it was like to watch a man fry in the electric chair many years ago. Even the floor on which the witnesses stood was insulated with rubber to protect them from the power surge. People who lived in the prison compound still remember how their lights at home would flicker at around 3 p.m. on execution days.

The process is different now. If you were watching you would not be traumatized. It was not a revolting sight.

That is the problem. They have made it look easy and mess-free. Dr. Jack ``Euthanizer’’ Kevorkian would have approved. I have watched an autopsy process a couple of times, and a Caesarian operation, and they were harder on the stomach.

But there was a heartrending part which we, the witnesses, weren’t allowed to see: Convict A making his last few steps to the death chamber, laying down on the gurney, then being fastened with 14 straps, after which the needles were inserted into his blood vessels and the phlebotomists got ready to release the lethal substance.

I could only imagine all that. I had studied the execution manual line by line and even carried it in my bag that day.

When the curtains opened Convict A was all set to go. The only sign that he had just come from somewhere was the pair of red slippers he left near the wall. This man was actually walking a few seconds ago. Now, there he was looking like he was going under the knife. It looked that way until prison superintendent Gregorio Agaloos, clad in embroidered dark barong and standing near the head of Convict A, asked with a firm voice if the convict had some last words to say.

I was seated near the speaker but I couldn’t get all of what the condemned man was saying. The sedative had taken effect. That was the eerie part. You knew that that voice would never again be heard. After that was a series of sighs and heavy breathing and a last ``Diyos ko.’’

My eyes were glued on Convict A’s face, watching it change. Every now and then I glanced at his daughter and son-in-law and also at the clock. My ears were cocked for every slight sound. I was taking down notes but I managed to pray a ``Hail Mary.’’

Convict A’s face fell to one side, away from us. A commotion was heard and a voice rang out: ``Hold! Hold!’’ (My notebook has the time and the jagged words.) At first I thought someone was signaling the phlebotomist to stop the flow of the lethal drugs. But why in such a loud voice? And why did Agaloos rush out? We knew something was wrong.

When two persons in white entered the chamber, I thought they would try to revive Convict A. That would have been the dramatic part. I thought, would Convict A live to tell us about his near-death, out-of-body experience? What was it like to hover near the ceiling and look down on himself?

The doctors examined Convict A’s limp body and one of them announced that he was dead. The time of death was 3:11 p.m. The curtains were drawn, the sound system was turned off and we all rushed out. Everybody was asking, what was ``Hold! Hold!’’ about?

Well, as everybody seems to have realized, Convict A might still be alive right now but he is not because…the phones didn’t work. Too late the call.