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The Quietest Killing 

Silent night for Siripongs

Wednesday, Feb 10 1999
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Photo by Ted Soqui

"This is a terrible night," the driver of the San Quentin shuttle declared, landing hard on the "terr." He pulled the bus doors closed against the blowing rain and shook his head. He was talking about the weather, not the fast-approaching execution of convicted murderer Jaturun Siripongs, whose legal appeals and pleas for clemency were — after nearly 16 years — finally exhausted.

Inside the bus, the heater and the Muzak jazz were on full-blast. This was not a bus for prisoners, but a sharp odor of bleach and vomit had somehow crept in. Even so, it was better than being outside.

The driver nodded toward his co-workers stationed in the dark, relentless wet. "I’m usually out there with the rest," he said cheerfully. "No way on a night like this. I had to pull rank on ’em. Did it with the last execution too." His shift would end at 11, and he planned to be home and snug in bed well before midnight when the poison was injected into Siripongs’ veins, making him the sixth man executed by the state of California in seven years.

The three dozen reporters covering the execution filed into the prison’s In-Service Training Center, a barnlike building with stiff-backed chairs, plastic-coated conference tables and an American flag. In a display case at the back of the room, a plaque from the Blood Centers of the Pacific commended the employees of San Quentin for their "commitment to saving lives."

Reporters settled in, eating chocolate bars, talking on cell phones and pre-writing their stories on laptops.

With three hours to go before lethal-injection time, the 15 television, radio and newspaper journalists who had been granted permission to witness the execution were sent to a counseling session with a San Quentin "alienist," the archaic term the prison still uses for members of its mental- health staff. (Prison policy allows up to 17 media representatives to watch the actual execution, but the L.A. Weekly’s request to fill one of the two vacant slots was denied. So I spent the evening in the training center; the witnesses shared the details afterward.) The alienist read to the press from a Stanford study that found that some reporters who witness executions find them profoundly disturbing, while others are hardly affected at all.

At 11:30 p.m., after Siripongs had finished a last meal of canned peaches and iced tea, met with his spiritual adviser and changed into the new blue-denim shirt and jeans the prison provided, the media witnesses were called. They were not allowed to bring pens or papers into the witness room, let alone tape recorders or cameras, and were ordered to remove all jewelry. They piled their possessions in little heaps and left, and the rest of the reporters sat and waited.

Someone had brought a portable television, and a local news station was airing a lengthy segment about the Siripongs case. There was archival footage of the Pantai Market in Garden Grove, where Siripongs, a former Buddhist monk from Thailand who always maintained his innocence, is said to have strangled the owner and stabbed an employee in 1981, killing both, before stealing jewelry and cash.

There was a smiling Gray Davis, who made his support of the death penalty a platform of his gubernatorial campaign last fall and on Saturday denied clemency. There was the pope, whose eleventh-hour plea for Siripongs’ life was rejected. And there were the 300 demonstrators, all but a handful of them protesters, who, despite the rain, stationed themselves outside the prison chanting, "Gray Davis, you can’t hide. We charge you with homicide."

Just before midnight, the press waiting room got quiet. A cameraman aimed his lens at the large wall clock. The second hand, red and needlelike, moved steadily forward. At 12:04 a.m., the moment the execution began, Letterman inexplicably went black on television sets across the Bay Area, replaced by a male voice saying, "Shit, shit, shit, shit." Then silence and darkness. Then programming resumed.

At 12:25 a.m., the press witnesses returned to the training center to describe what they had seen. When they arrived at the execution chamber the rest of the witnesses were already there. Siripongs’ attorneys Linda Schilling and Michael Laurence sat on either side of the condemned man’s sister, who had tearfully pleaded for his life. The three of them held hands throughout the execution.

Another witness was Jim Tanizaki, the Orange County prosecutor who had been pushing for this day for more than a decade. He sat with Vitoon Harusadangkul, the son of slain shopkeeper Packovan Wattanaporn. Just a week earlier, Harusa-dangkul had requested that Siripongs be killed, even though his own stepfather — the slain woman’s husband — had pleaded for mercy because the death penalty went against his Buddhist beliefs.

By the time two prison guards, one of whom was pregnant, pulled back the curtain to reveal Siripongs in an adjacent room behind thick glass, he was already strapped onto a gurney, tubes inserted in his arms. His eyes were closed and never opened during his last 15 minutes of life. The large restraints dwarfed his slight frame, making the 43-year-old appear almost childlike. The only indication that he was alive was the slow rise and fall of his chest. When a guard announced that the execution had begun, a mixture of three lethal fluids — sodium pentothal, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride — flowed into his veins. Shortly after the process began, Siripongs opened his mouth wide, in a gasp or a yawn, and shook his head from side to side. Then the motion of his chest began to slow, until, finally, it stopped.

There were no tears, smiles or exclamations in the witness room. The three phones in the anteroom, one to the governor’s office, one to the state Supreme Court, and one to the warden, sat silent. The only sound came from the rain as it raged against the roof, and from the wind as it howled through the old, drafty chamber. Michelle Locke, an AP reporter who has witnessed all six recent California executions, said this was by far "the quietest."

Siripongs had no last words. At his request, his body will be cremated and his ashes scattered at sea.

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