- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 12, 2009

This was my first execution.

I was one of four news media witnesses to attend John Allen Muhammad’s execution Tuesday night.

The 48-year-old convict was condemned to die for killing Dean Harold Meyers, the civil engineer who was one of 10 killed during Muhammad’s 2002 shooting rampage.

The day had gone from gorgeous to dark, with sudden downpours.

I and the three other reporters authorized to see the execution walked away from the media armada that assembled at the Greensville Correctional Center for the death of the man who engineered the D.C. sniper attacks.

At 7 p.m., we presented our credentials and were issued yellow identification badges. We were promptly told to return all notepads, pencils and watches to our cars. I left with my pads and pencils and returned with only my driver’s license and the yellow card they had issued to me.

A white van was to take us to another building where David Bass, the Virginia Department of Corrections regional manager for the eastern region, would explain the evening to us and the six official state witnesses.

We filed out, piled in the van and were driven across the prison campus - falling in line behind the van carrying the six witnesses. They were driven to and from the prison from a remote location to protect their privacy.

At our destination, the vans backed in through a secure metal gate and we were ferried inside a minimum security building.

We sat among vending machines and shelves in a room lined with books. It was 7:25 p.m. according to a clock on the wall, and the execution wasn’t scheduled until 9 p.m. We sat around four tables.

Mr. Bass explained to us what to anticipate, where we would go and the responsibilities of state witnesses. He told the six volunteers that while state code mandates their number and existence, it didn’t specify what they do.

“I guess your job is to be there and be present,” he said.

He told us we’d be ferried at 8:30 p.m. to the far side of the facility. The vans would drop us off at the L Unit, the maximum security area where those who aren’t trusted among the general prison population are housed. The death house is part of the building.

The description lasted about 25 minutes, and then he took questions. There weren’t many. Small talk ensued. One man was asked how long he’d been with the border patrol. The chatter eventually returned to death.

Dena Potter of the Associated Press and Frank Green of the Richmond Times-Dispatch had witnessed multiple executions at Greenville. Television reporter Jon Burkett of WTVR CBS 6 in Richmond had seen an inmate die in the electric chair.

We were searched. Two other women and I went to the restroom one at a time with a female corrections officer. We removed everything from our pockets and were patted down. We took off our shoes while standing on a white sheet folded and placed incongruously on the floor.

Officials wore red badges; media, yellow; and state witnesses, green. The man who checked us for recording devices wore orange.

We went to the vehicles. The corrections officers helped us in, held open doors.

Mr. Bass’ description of what was to come proved accurate. We drove across the compound, between the media encampment and the well-lit spires of security fencing around the buildings, passing through yet another gate and into another compound.

Swept by handheld metal detectors, we entered the brightly lit death chamber. We proceeded to an inner room with large plate glass windows and chairs lined up on risers.

Mr. Bass hadn’t told us that the death room would feel claustrophobic. It was hot and stuffy. The inner room was occupied by people I later learned were members of the prosecution team. We’d entered through a door near the rear of the chamber. The only other door led to the cell where Muhammad was waiting.

On the far side of another plate glass window was an unlit room where about 20 family members of Muhammad’s victims waited. Muhammad would not be able to see in. The room seemed like an afterthought. Virginia Gov. George Allen introduced the practice of inviting victims and their family members to view executions in 1994.

State witnesses sat in the front row of the room I was in. News media witnesses were in the second row. I counted 25 people. Muhammad’s two lawyers entered later.

At the back of the death room was a dark blue curtain. In between us, 10 people milled around a gurney. Beneath the curtain to the left of the gurney, the dark wooden base of the electric chair was visible. Also behind the curtain were the medical personnel who would monitor Muhammad’s heart function and administer the fatal doses through intravenous tubes that snaked out of holes in the curtain.

It was 8:51 p.m., according to a gray digital clock above the door where Muhammad would enter.

The cluster of corrections officials stood around the edges, leaving the gurney to swallow up the center of the room. The corrections workers - one woman among them - were part of a volunteer execution team made up of corrections officers. They wore uniforms devoid of any name tags or ranks.

On our left, a man stood holding a digital recorder in one hand and a beige telephone that he pressed to his ear in the other hand. Mr. Bass said the man was on the phone with prison administration.

Another man stood with a red phone in his hand. The phone was linked to the governor’s office. The man holding the red phone to his ear peered through blinds at the door behind which Muhammad was housed. A few minutes later the door was suddenly thrown open and the prisoner entered.

I wrote in the notepad that prison officials had given me. The time he entered: 8:58 p.m. Muhammad seemed to sway unsteadily, looking about the room but mostly at the floor.

He wore dark blue jeans and a light blue short-sleeved shirt. The uniformed execution team descended on him. They overtook him, and before I knew it he was placed atop the gurney and they had strapped him in. One officer checked each of the leather straps around his chest, his legs and his arms. Muhammad rotated his right hand repeatedly in a recognizable motion of discomfort.

It was 9 p.m. when an officer announced that Muhammad was secured. A blue curtain was pulled back, barring our view. In the quiet, I could hear someone’s stomach growl.

The thick blue plastic curtain swayed toward us a few times as someone we could not see brushed against it. I heard indistinct sounds.

The curtain flew back - the sound reminding me of the whirl of a hospital privacy screen. They’d affixed the two intravenous lines - one in each of Muhammad’s arms. They had wrapped his hands to the boards of the gurney with bandages.

It was 9:06 p.m. A prison official said sharply, “Mr. Muhammad do you have any last words?”

Corrections officials moved forward with recorders. He stared up at the ceiling - unmoving.

We heard nothing but the sound of his rhythmic breathing. His chest moved up and down peacefully. Mr. Bass had told us to watch the IV tubes. The first dose would put him to sleep. The one leading to his right arm began to sway and then jerk gently. Muhammad blinked several times and took seven deep, full breaths. The red and green wires leading to the electrodes monitoring his heart moved up and down.

It was 9:07 p.m. Muhammad blinked his eyes a few times and wiggled his left foot. He breathed heavily.

By 9:08 p.m. his breathing had slowed, I couldn’t see any movement other than the IV twitching back and forth. I had previously been told that if I heard anything it would be snoring, and several times I thought I heard raspy breathing, but with so many people listening so intently I couldn’t be sure it came from Muhammad.

At 9:11 p.m. a man emerged from behind the curtain and said Muhammad was dead. He didn’t look very different than he had in the minutes earlier. He was just motionless.

The curtains closed. The state witnesses left our room. The news media witnesses followed.

We walked outside into the artificial light of a dozen television camera crews. We briefed our colleagues.

I called my editor and dictated my story in the rain before leaving the prison alone.

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