Death Row
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On August 9, 2018, Steven Hale stood outside a Tennessee prison as a convicted murderer inside awaited a lethal dose of a three-drug cocktail. It was the first execution of a death row inmate in the state in nearly a decade.

Hale was one of seven reporters selected by a grim lottery to witness Billy Ray Irick’s execution at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. He’d written stories about Irick’s horrific rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl more than three decades earlier.

But nothing prepared him for that night in 2018.

Not far away, in an area reserved for death penalty supporters, a man blared AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” from a loudspeaker.

And as a chaperone led Hale and other journalists to the execution chamber, Hale saw another small group of people huddled in a field outside the prison. They were there to show their love for Irick.

One man told Hale he had called the prison earlier and pleaded with officials to let him sit in the death chamber so Irick would see a friendly face just before he died. The man sobbed when a prison official said no, Hale says.

That night, as Irick took his last breath in the execution chamber, the group held a vigil outside the prison, hoping to claim his body for a memorial. Their stories lingered with Hale long after the execution.

He soon became fascinated with the commitment shown by these supporters. They were not relatives of the prisoners, or death row groupies. Nor were they anti-death penalty activists — at least, not at the beginning.

They were strangers united in one mission: visiting, befriending and comforting death row inmates in what might be their final months.

“I didn’t know these people existed,” Hale told CNN. “I didn’t know anyone was going out there to just visit people on death row, not as attorneys, not even family members, just as regular folks.”

He began to join their weekly trips to Riverbend, where they sat with death row prisoners and talked about everything from football to their families.

For Tennesseeans on both sides of the death penalty issue, it was a turbulent time. In a span of less than two years after Irick was put to death, Tennessee held six more executions, a string unlike any other seen in the state since the 1940s.

Hale witnessed two of those executions, in addition to Irick’s. He chronicles his experiences in a new book, “Death Row Welcomes You: Visiting Hours in the Shadow of the Execution Chamber,” which explores the complexities of Tennessee’s capital punishment system and the unique friendships that develop between condemned murderers and the strangers who visit them.

The book documents the prisoners’ troubled pasts and examines their perspective after decades in prison, away from the public. Hale said he was struck by the normalcy of the conversations he and others had with prisoners during their many visits.

“These gatherings are so ordinary as to be extraordinary and so life-giving as to feel defiant,” Hale writes in the book. He told CNN that during one of his visits, a death row inmate learned he had gone to Auburn University and began needling him. “He was teasing me about Auburn and saying it was overrated that year … it almost felt like I could be in a bar somewhere.”

“In that visitation room, everything felt normal,” he said. “And then when we walked out, and there was a barbed wire and armed guard, you kind of remember, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m in a maximum-security prison.’ “

Hale, 36, is a reporter for the Nashville Banner. CNN talked to him about his personal encounters with death row prisoners and the unique community of visitors — in the tradition of “Dead Man Walking”‘s Sister Helen Prejean — who show them love in their final months. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.

How did you go from writing about death row inmates to immersing yourself into their world?

I was covering criminal justice in Tennessee and had an interest in the death penalty. But when I moved to Tennessee in 2010, there were no executions going on. It was that way until around 2014, when the state started scheduling some executions. I volunteered to witness one of those executions as a reporter, and was gearing up for that when it got called off because of litigation over lethal injection drugs.

And then in 2018, the state scheduled a number of executions after the lethal injection litigation was completed and I started covering those cases. I was trying to interview him (Irick) or any of the men on death row. And here in Tennessee, it’s very difficult to get access to incarcerated people as a as a reporter, particularly on death row. And during that process, I met a couple of people – just regular civilians – who went out to the prison to visit death row inmates. I was just so taken by this community. I started feeling like there was a bigger story there.

When was your first visit with the death row inmates and what was that like?

Not long after the first execution. I visited death row with this community of people and sat in that room with them. I was just so moved by that experience. It was unlike anything I’d ever been around. And that’s when I thought, I think I might have a book to write here. Just because there were all these people coming from different places who were together in this room. And it was so different than I had imagined.

What stood out to you about that first visit?

The visitors’ wide demographic. There are some young folks who go out there to visit, and then there are some older folks who go there either through a church or community organization. The first night I went out to death row for these visitations, I was sitting there … and there was an older woman next to me. I can’t say exactly how old she was, but she looked older than my parents. There was an older White woman sitting with a Black man on death row. So the ages and demographics are all kind of mixed up in there, and it was fascinating to see that. The people in this community are really not activists. Maybe they see themselves that way now. But when they got into this, they were not.

Why do these people visit death row and attend executions?

Many of the visitors I met and wrote about in the book started visiting death row through a church or because another visitor invited them. Their reasons vary. In many cases, I think they see it as an expression of their Christian faith. For others, what started out as a sort of personal journey turned into something else.

What do the death row inmates think about their visits?

I think the visits are very important to them because of the normal social needs we all have … these relationships represent an acceptance of who they are today. The courts and the prison and much of society have locked them in as the person they were 30 or 40 years ago, a person who did horrible things. But the friendships they’ve developed with regular visitors aren’t defined by that.

How did you reconcile death row inmates’ crimes with who they are now?

That’s a good question and something I asked some of those visitors myself. I asked them, how much research did you do on some of these guys? Did you feel that you need to know what they were on death row for before you met them? One of the visitors told me, ‘I didn’t. I don’t Google people when I meet them in regular life.’ And so I decided not to, because I knew the person that I would find online wasn’t gonna be the person that I would meet.

But there’s one … (inmate) … in the book in particular that I became quite close with. His name’s Terry Lynn King, and I did not look up a lot about his case. (King was convicted of first-degree murder and has been on Tennessee’s death row since 1985).

One thing I’ve always said, and that other visitors have said to me, is you know enough just by the fact that the person’s on death row. You know you only get there because you were convicted of killing someone, or more than one person. So for a lot of the visitors and for myself, that was kind of enough.

I knew as a journalist – and for the book – that I was gonna have to get very deep into their past and the crimes they’d committed. But as far as meeting them in the present, I wanted to just meet the person who was there then and take them on those terms.

What kind of preparation did you have to make for visits with death row inmates?

I tried not to think too much about it. The first time I went to Riverbend Maximum Security Institution for an execution, it felt very heavy psychologically. But the next time I went was to visit death row. So in some way, that was a much lighter evening because I knew I wasn’t there for an execution. I was there with people who had been there before, and they were excited to see their friends on death row. As a reporter, I just wanted to soak as much of it in as as I could. I was in this atmosphere and environment that most people never get to see.

How does the visitation process work?

Tennessee’s death row has a sort of unique setup in that it has a tiered system with levels. So when people first get there, they’re very much kind of locked down in the more traditional way, and then based on time and behavior, they can get more privileges (such as visits). They are out of their cells most of the day and are able to do arts and crafts and buy food from the commissary and that kind of thing. In the book, I mention how Terry came with a bag of microwave popcorn, and was like, “do you want some popcorn?” And went over to the corner and popped it. It’s such a surreal experience to go into the visitation gallery on death row.

How big is the community of people who visit these inmates?

It’s hard to say, because there are consistently regular visitors and then there are others like me. But the community I talk about in the book has probably a dozen people. The first time I went there, there were about 12 visitors from the outside and that many men on death row in the room. It’s a pretty small community. But one of the fascinating things about it is that the people have made it their mission to make it a bigger community by inviting more people to go out there. I was one of those people.

Has this experience changed your views on the death penalty?

I’ve grown up believing that grace and redemption were good things, and that killing people, even if they had killed other people, was wrong. And so I came into this as someone who was opposed to the death penalty. And the more I reported on it as a journalist, I became more aware of the way the death penalty system in America does not uphold its own standards.

It’s become arbitrary in the sense that there are some states where you can commit a crime, and you’ll get sentenced to death. And in another state, you could commit the same crime, and you wouldn’t. Even within states, there may be one county where you’ll get sentenced to death for a crime but not in other counties.

But the more I witnessed these executions, I became more convinced that the distance that we keep between ourselves as a society and this issue is a big part of what allows it (the death penalty) to persist. If more people spent time with people on death row, if they witnessed these executions, they may feel differently about them.

In the history of the death penalty, we’ve made a lot of changes in how we do it — you know … hanging people to electrocuting people to lethal injection. Now we’ve got states trying gas, and other ways. But in my experience, seeing lethal injection and two electrocutions, no matter how you do it — it looks very clearly like killing a person. Once you see it up close, it’s very obvious. In the book, I describe it as barbarism dressed as bureaucracy and armed with legal jargon.

There’s also a racial disparity in that the race of the victim has a very strong correlation with the sentence. People who kill white people have been more likely to be sentenced to death that people who kill black people. It’s just not a fair way to handle those crimes.

What executions did you witness, and did those inmates have any notable last words?

I witnessed the lethal injection of Billy Ray Irick and the electrocutions of David Earl Miller and Stephen West. Irick initially declined to make a final statement before suddenly saying he was sorry. Miller just said, “beats being on death row.” But the one that comes to my mind most often is West weeping in the electric chair. I don’t know and can’t really imagine everything that was going through his mind then. But I often see in my mind the image of him strapped in the electric chair with tears running down his face.

What do you hope people take away from your book?

I hope it challenges people’s preconceived notions about both the men on death row and the kind of visitors they get.

One thing that’s core to the theme of the book is the premise of the death penalty … that there are some people who are so terrible that they cannot come back from it. They cannot be rehabilitated or changed. And I have seen that is not true. Because I have met some of the people on Tennessee’s death row who I would let in my house with my children.

And that is not to diminish the crimes they committed. But it’s because they’re nothing like the person who committed that crime for a variety of reasons, whether it’s mental health, whether it’s substance abuse, whether it’s the childhood they had. Some of the people I met have been on death row longer than I have been alive. They are not the same people anymore.

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