”Snowball‘s Chance“ read the lead headline on the San Francisco Chronicle’s front page Tuesday, the day condemned inmate Stephen Wayne Anderson was executed at San Quentin. It referred to a freak Arctic storm that blanketed the Bay Area, but also could have described the odds faced by Anderson‘s attorneys as their 11th-hour efforts to save their client faded, and his death at the hands of the state became inevitable.
I was one of the 11 journalists who witnessed his death.
At about 11:45 p.m. Monday, we are shuttled to an employee lounge and assigned individual guards as escorts.
They conduct an all-body pat-down. They take our notebooks and pens and give us prison-issue loose-leaf paper and sharpened pencils. The female reporters are assigned to female guards. As I stand around with mine, waiting for the okay to head over to the execution chamber, she talks a little about her job. She changes assignments in the prison, never staying in one section long enough to form any kind of connection with the inmates. She has worked on death row, even on Anderson’s cellblock, but she does not remember him. ”Usually I don‘t recognize them unless I see them on TV,“ she says.
K.J. Williams was a guard when Anderson first came to death row and is now in charge of managing the day-to-day activities of the nearly 600 men on the row. He goes by the informal title ”condemned captain“ and said he spoke with Anderson a few hours earlier in the evening. He is well aware that Anderson, now 48, was convicted of the shooting death 20 years ago of retired piano teacher Elizabeth Lyman as he burglarized her home in San Bernardino County.
Anderson’s attorneys believe their client never meant to kill Lyman, that he regretted the act and repented. They point to the dozens of poems and stories he wrote while in prison as examples of his rehabilitation.
Williams said that he ”never read any of that stuff.“ And he would have none of the sympathy talk. ”If you let him out of here,“ he said, ”he‘ll do the same thing again.“
Just before midnight the group starts getting antsy. All of the reporters have been here for hours, and they are anxious to get on with the main event.
A guard glances at the clock. ”It’s kinda like, you shoulda been in there already,“ he says. Someone responds: ”Unless there was a last-minute stay.“
”Nah,“ the guard replies. ”He‘s gone. There’s no hope for this guy. He‘s a done deal.“ He pauses, then continues. ”It’s pretty scary though. Knowing you‘re gonna die. Weird stuff.“
Anderson spent his final days in quiet solitude. He gave away his television and cassette player to fellow inmates and refused all phone calls and visits from attorneys and spiritual advisers. The guards watching over him were his only company as he ate his last meal: grilled cheese sandwiches, cottage cheese, hominy, peach pie, chocolate-chip ice cream and radishes. His attorneys, meantime, launched a series of last-ditch appeals, arguing that Governor Gray Davis, who has never commuted a death sentence, is incapable of justly considering a clemency plea. The appeals, to the U.S. District Court, U.S. Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court, were rejected.
At 12:02, we are summoned. It’s a short, cold walk to the death house, a small, high-ceilinged chamber that opens directly to the outdoors. The centerpiece is an octagonal, sea-foam-green room — the gas chamber turned lethal-injection cell. It looks like a giant fish tank. Seven of the tank‘s sides are paned in thick Plexiglas secured with heavy, dungeonlike bolts.
The tank’s eighth side holds a curve-topped door. The observation area, set back from the tank by a white-painted iron rail, wraps around it on three sides. In front is a row of metal folding chairs where the victim‘s family members customarily sit. But for the first time in the 10 executions and 10 years since California reinstated state-sanctioned killing, no family members of the victims are here.
In late December Elizabeth Lyman’s son-in-law issued a signed statement saying the family did not ”want or need Stephen Anderson to pay with his life for the death of our beloved mother and grandmother.“ Their chairs are filled with representatives from the District Attorney‘s Office and other ”official“ witnesses who support Anderson’s death.
Behind the folding chairs is a narrow aisle, and behind that, lining the back walls, two wooden steps for additional witnesses to stand on. One wall is designated for the cluster of San Quentin and California Department of Corrections employees and friends. On another, the journalists. Along the final wall stands by far the smallest group: Anderson‘s supporters. There are only his attorneys, Margo Rocconi and Robert Horwitz, and a psychiatrist who testified at his trial.
The room is silent. We have been warned by the guards that talking is an ejectable offense. Anderson emerges through the curve-topped door at the back of the death tank, shackled at the wrists and waist and flanked by five guards. His brown hair is buzzed short.
He has a beard and mustache and is dressed in new jeans and a blue, short-sleeved prison shirt that reveals arms covered in faded tattoos. He wears white gym socks and no shoes.
Anderson heaves his 300-pound frame onto a pale-green gurney about 20 feet from where I stand. The guards begin to strap him down, starting with a thick, black airplane-style belt across his middle, attached to a similar pair of shoulder straps. His ankles and wrists are secured with wide leather strips. A tall, bald guard double-checks the belts and three guards leave.
Anderson coughs. Two other guards — a man and a woman– appear. They are carrying a plastic tray of medical supplies. Each dons latex gloves and sets to work on an arm, tying it off, tapping for a vein. According to death-house procedure, the poison is administered in only one arm, but both arms are prepared in case something goes wrong. Anderson clenches his fists helpfully. The woman finishes quickly, inserting the tube that will connect his left arm to the poison. The male guard appears to have a harder time, cleaning Anderson’s arm repeatedly and at one point removing a glove in frustration. After another minute, he finds a vein, finishes his work and leaves.
The remaining team rotates the gurney a quarter turn and hooks Anderson up to the IV lines, which extend out of the room. Finally, they wrap Anderson‘s hands in long, white bandages, then leave. Anderson is alone. He lifts his head and smiles at Horwitz and Rocconi. Horwitz nods. Rocconi smiles broadly and mouths the words ”I love you.“ Anderson responds with a silent ”Thank you.“ He lies back down.
At 12:16, a guard announces, ”The execution shall now proceed.“
During a counseling session for the media preceding the execution, prison psychologist Maurice Lyons did his best to reassure us that what we were about to witness would have no permanent damaging effect on us. ”Even if you’re for the death penalty, watching an execution can be a little disturbing,“ he said. ”The bottom line is, nothing is wrong with you. You go through a normal response.“ That response can include recurring sleeplessness, tunnel vision, a distorted sense of time, emotional numbness, withdrawal and what Lyons called ”intrusive recollections of the event — dreams, nightmares and other intrusive images.“
Anderson blinks and stares at the ceiling. His right foot twitches. His head begins swaying slightly from side to side. His eyes fall shut. His stomach begins to spasm. Contraction, pause. Contraction, pause. Contraction, pause. Minutes go by and the spasms continue. Contraction, pause. Contraction, pause.
At the counseling session, Lyons described the drugs, a lethal cocktail of sodium pentothal to sedate him, pancuronium bromide to stop his breathing and potassium chloride to stop his heart.
The room is deadly still except for unseen steam pipes that burble and hiss. Reporters scribble notes. Rocconi‘s face is twisted in anguish. The rest of the group looks impassive. A faint, multitoned whistle, like a gentle snoring, appears to be coming from the chamber. But Anderson has stopped moving. The sound is coming from monitors behind the closed door. The whistling continues. Anderson continues not breathing. Another five minutes go by with no movement. A slip of paper is passed to a guard, who reads it aloud. The prisoner is dead.