JARRATT, Aug 19 – Behind a blue curtain, the electric chair patiently waits its turn to take a life, but on this night in a chamber of a Virginia prison, murder convict Jerry Jackson dies by the needle.
“Fifteen days prior to execution, the inmate is asked which execution method he chooses,” explains David Bass at the Greensville Correctional Center.
“He may choose between the electric chair and the lethal injection.” For the most part, Bass says, “they prefer the injection.”
The man in the dark suit and speaking in a soft southern twang is all too aware that most of America’s death row inmates pick the poison over the pulse of electrocution.
Of the various execution methods currently in use in the United States — electricity, firing squad, hanging, lethal injection and lethal gas — injection has become the standard.
As an employee of the Virginia Department of Corrections, Bass is responsible for “guiding” about a dozen people attending Thursday night’s execution — volunteers and journalists, including an AFP correspondent — through the facility about 160 miles (260 kilometers) south of Washington.
They are here to witness the death of Jackson, a strapping, 31-year-old African-American man whose crimes a decade ago sent his life on course to the events of this final night.
On an August evening in 2001, Jackson raped Ruth Phillips, an 88-year-old widow in Williamsburg, Virginia, and then suffocated her with a pillow.
Nearly 10 years and several legal challenges later, Jackson’s fate came down to an appeal to Governor Bob McDonnell for clemency. Appeal denied.
Hours after the US Supreme Court declined to stop the execution, Jackson walks through a side door and into the death chamber. It is 8:50 pm.
Behind a two-way mirror, journalists, prison staff and volunteers are wedged in their plastic seats, searching the prisoner’s face and body language in search of emotion.
He is wearing jeans, a blue shirt and sandals. His upper lip quivers.
Taylor Roesch, a “citizen witness” in his 20s, squirms in his seat.
“It’s something that should be experienced,” Roesch, who is studying the death penalty, says about bearing witness to the execution.
“I want to be able to make a case,” Roesch says about capital punishment, which remains a deeply divisive issue among Americans.
Jackson lies on a raised gurney fitted with leather straps. Six prison staffers methodically strap him down.
The curtain closes abruptly, and the employees, unseen, insert catheters into each of Jackson’s arms.
Five minutes pass, and the audience is silent. A cough escapes from behind the curtain.
After 10 minutes, the fabric is drawn open, and Jackson is still conscious, his arms crossed over his chest.
The catheters, barely visible, will carry the lethal cocktail of three drugs — an anesthetic, then a muscle paralyzer, and finally potassium chloride to stop respiration — to Jackson’s body.
Jackson’s execution is the first in Virginia this year, and the first in the state to use the anesthetic pentobarbital, which is normally used to euthanize animals.
Several states switched to the drug this year instead of sodium thiopental for their lethal injections after the sole US supplier ceased production.
Jackson’s face is largely hidden by the bulk of his body, but his chest can be seen rising and falling. His toes twitch.
Prison warden George Hinkle looks at Jackson. “Do you have any last words?”
Jackson appears to say “no,” but no one is really sure.
Hinkle steps away, and the injections begin. A clock above the door marks the time: 9:08 pm.
A minute passes, and Jackson’s toes stop twitching. To the witnesses, Jackson looks completely inert.
At 9:14, an official declares, to no one in particular, “the order of the court was carried out.”
Jerry Jackson is dead. The curtain is drawn once again, and the witnesses — some of them shaken — stand up. No relatives of the murder victim are in attendance.
Outside the chamber, in a dark parking lot of the prison, a pickup truck waits to take delivery of Jackson’s body.