The question echoes in legislatures and governor’s offices across the country: If we are going to have the death penalty, and that is a legitimate debate that is taking place in a number of states, is there a humane method to execute someone?
The horribly botched execution in Oklahoma of Clayton Lockett, a convicted murderer, was a Tuesday night horror show. And it could have been avoided if Gov. Mary Fallin had done then what she has done now, called off executions until an independent investigation is complete.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court tried to stop it until the state disclosed the origin of the lethal injection. But lawmakers warned that they would impeach the justices, and the governor moved ahead.
Sure, there are many on social media who are saying they wish Lockett could have suffered longer, that he got what he deserved for his repulsive crime. They don’t need any time to consider whether it was humane or not. Banish such thoughts.
But I can’t simply dismiss such thoughts, not since that moment many years ago when, as a teenager, I watched a young man die in the gas chamber.
After my dad died, my mom sold the family’s newspaper to a truly wonderful journalist and mentor, Stan Opotowsky, who was born and raised in New Orleans, and had left a job in New York to fulfill a dream to run a small town weekly. He would later go back to New York and make his mark again in big city journalism.
On this hot summer day in Mississippi, Stan sent me to Parchman Penitentiary to report on an execution. August “Boogie Woogie” LaFontaine was from my hometown, Bay St. Louis. He had been sent to Parchman, a prison that has appeared in some of John Grisham’s books, for breaking into a home. In prison he killed another inmate in a fight, probably justifiably. For that he was going to die.
He was in his early 20s, just a few years older than I, and I found myself, during the last hour of his life, in a face-to-face conversation. I didn’t know him before, but I did know some of his relatives.
There is a lot I don’t remember from that day more than a half-century ago, but I recall talking about the rediscovery of his Catholic religion, about what he wanted to say to family and friends, about what was just ahead, and about the fight in which he killed another man. I was nervous; he wasn’t.
He was a smoker, and he carefully tucked the pack of Camels under the sleeve of his white T-shirt, as young people did in that era. And as he did, he joked, “You never know if there will be cigarettes where I am going.”
The time came, and I walked down death row with the officials. It was a scene right out of a Jimmy Cagney or Humphrey Bogart movie. There were a number of men waiting for their execution date, all black but one, and as we approached August’s cell where he waited, they started singing the classic spiritual “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.”
At every cell, Boogie, as the other inmates called him, shook hands with each man. “Take it easy,” he said, “I will see you in a little while. Hold the place down.”
The gas chamber was not many steps away. There were small windows in the side for witnesses. The prison superintendent said, “I don’t cherish watching these executions.” The Highway Patrol colonel in attendance said, “I am here because the government ordered me here for security’s sake.”
Father Paul, who had accompanied us on the walk and had been with August almost every day for weeks, shared a few last words with him and administered the late rites.
August recited a private prayer, the chamber door was closed, the cyanide pellets dropped. He opened his mouth, took a deep breath. His head dropped, his body went limp, and then it started shaking. Twenty-one minutes later, after the gas had been blown out, August “Boogie Woogie” LaFontaine was declared dead.
The others prisoners sang again: “When the saints go marching in.”
Father Paul had given August a rosary to hold, and when they opened his hand afterward, the metal cross was crushed.
Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of the Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news for The McClatchy Co.