Of the 44 or so people willfully killed by other people every day in the United States, very few know what’s about to hit them.
Not so for David Dawson. The triple-murderer executed by the state of Montana just after midnight on Friday, Aug. 11, anticipated his death for nearly 20 years, since the 1987 day he was sentenced to die for strangling a couple and their son in a Billings hotel room. Two years ago, Dawson even tried to hasten the inevitable by dropping his appeals and firing his attorneys.
Others, too, waited for his end. Protesters—some who had worked until his final hours to stay Dawson’s execution—gathered at the prison to hold candles against the windy night. Two relatives of Amy Rodstein, the only member of the kidnapped family to survive Dawson’s brutal attack, flew in from California to watch Dawson die, a moment for which Amy’s uncle William Rust later said he had longed.
Others waited for different reasons. About 40 members of the Montana media journeyed from around the state to Deer Lodge, where they found themselves directed by rifle-bearing guards toward a secluded white outpost of the Montana State Prison where they would wait long hours for the news, the execution, to happen. In some ways it was just another workday, albeit one marked by extra travel and unsavory subject matter. But it was also a rare responsibility, both personally and professionally. We were there as public proxies, assigned to an unpleasant chore and charged with relaying relevant details to the people who foot the bills, elect the officials and, consequently, bear some share of responsibility for the execution at hand.
Waiting around for the unfolding of an elaborate process that will end in someone’s planned death is at once weirdly mundane and momentous.
The building where we kill time is a prison training center, and we sit in a large, cement-floored room with weight-lifting equipment pushed against one wall. Six folding tables, each bearing a generic box of tissue, face a stage where four media witnesses and seven other witnesses will gather after the fact to describe Dawson’s death.
The first action arrives around 6 p.m., when camouflage-wearing guards carry in coolers and trays bearing our suppers. Bread, sliced roast beef, American cheese and mustard packets are complemented by oranges, cookies and brownies, causing a split-second, and utterly misplaced and inappropriate, envy of the final feast of two cheeseburgers, fries and a half-gallon of vanilla fudge ice cream that Dawson is eating right about now. It’s an awful moment, that first chomp into a sandwich spiced with some unnamable guilt and a bewildering sense of how impossible it is, from this vantage, to comprehend Dawson’s fate.
But besides eating, there’s not much else to do. Repeated strolls around the corner of the building reveal the prison, a quarter-mile or so away, glowing orange under sodium lights as night comes on. Eye-catching blooms of flashing police cars mark two roadside checkpoints that can be seen, and two officials wait in a stubble field nearby for protesters to appear.
Journalists mill around in groups, talking about work generally and this job in particular. The mood is tentatively jovial, with the uncomfortable realities of the situation offset by the fact that we’re accustomed to turning human drama into 10-inch news stories, 30-second TV clips.
“It’s hard to say an execution is good, but you know—I just keep using the word ‘interesting’ over and over,” says one broadcast reporter standing outside.
“This will get me Monday off,” says another, waiting to hook her computer into the center’s dial-up Internet connection.
One of the officials on site is Department of Corrections (DOC) spokesman Bob Anez, a former reporter who’s in a peculiar situation. In 1995, for the Associated Press, he was a media witness for Duncan McKenzie’s execution, which marked Montana’s first lethal injection and the first state-sponsored killing since 1943, back when prisoners were hanged. In 1998 Anez was present to report on, but not witness, the execution of Terry Langford. This time around Anez is on the inside, one piece of an ornate plan to make sure everything goes smoothly. He didn’t realize then, he says now, how many backups to backup plans are in place on a night like tonight. About 80 people have volunteered to work extra hours to “carry out the order of the court,” which is how DOC defines its duty this evening.
The refrain offered by prison officials and journalists alike in regard to their feelings about being here is that this is a professional obligation without which they couldn’t imagine their involvement.
Anez, too, says the professional aspect of his experience watching McKenzie die is what carried him through that night.
The eeriest part, Anez says, wasn’t being inside the execution trailer but rather the long walk to the trailer door beneath the prison’s orange glow, knowing that someone was about to die. What he remembers most is the sound of Marty Robbins’ music floating from McKenzie’s headphones through the otherwise silent room, and the way it kept playing after McKenzie pulled his last breath: “As we all filed out all you could hear was the music with no one left to hear it,” he says.
At 9 p.m. the reporters become restless, partly because protesters are slated to arrive and partly because the lightning storm rolling in has charged the air. Light leaks out of the sky faster now, and the wind picks up.
Eric Taber, Missoula’s KPAX news reporter and one of four media witnesses randomly selected to watch the execution, says the night looks like “a cross between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Shawshank Redemption, with a little bit of Sodom and Gomorrah thrown in.”
We wait and watch the lightning until 10 p.m., when about 30 protesters arrive down the road and prison officials load us into a prisoner van and ferry us to the staging site.
In the middle of a dark field, a crowd of reporters that threatens to outnumber the reportable descends on protesters holding candles covered in clipped plastic bottles to block the wind. Camera flashes and floodlights light up the faces of those here to bear witness following the unsuccessful attempt by the Montana American Civil Liberties Union and other parties to stay Dawson’s execution on the basis that Montana’s lethal injection protocol risks subjecting the condemned to severe pain. Until the afternoon of Dawson’s death, they had sought to convince Montana state and federal courts of their cause, and though District Judge Don Molloy noted that lethal injection raised significant questions, all agreed the parties had no legal standings on which to pursue answers.
This is a sad night for Three Forks’ Marietta Jaeger-Lane, whose face sparkles with candlelit tears as she talks.
“This execution is being done in my name and with my tax dollars and I’m here to protest that,” she says.
But her opposition to the death penalty is rooted deeper than dollars. More than 30 years ago, her 7-year-old daughter Susie was kidnapped from a Montana campground, and on the one-year anniversary of her abduction, the man who later proved to be Susie’s killer called Jaeger-Lane to taunt her. The phone call led to his arrest and he confessed to killing Susie and four other children before hanging himself in jail. Since then, Jaeger-Lane has traveled the world protesting the death penalty. She says the violent cycle in which we engage by killing killers perpetuates the saddest, sickest facets of our society.
“We’re going to do the same thing [Dawson] did,” she says. “We’re going to chain him up so he’s defenseless and kill him.”
For the first time that night, reporters are faced with people who aren’t here for professional reasons. A short 30 minutes later, we leave the protesters standing in a circle in the darkness, praying and murmuring and crying together.
Back at our brightly lit compound, the night suddenly picks up speed as another van arrives to drive the media witnesses to the execution.
By now, 11 p.m., the night has turned inescapably eerie. A nearly full moon glows orange above us, matching the hue of the prison lights. The wind blows in fierce gusts now and has kicked up a massive dust cloud that covers the sky in a dull haze. Most everyone waits inside; some talk, others read murder mysteries.
Shortly before midnight, the moon disappears and remains hidden until 12:25 a.m., the instant the media witnesses return in the van.
The debriefing on the execution, following so many hours of buildup, is both anticlimactic and a relief. Four media witnesses join Warden Mike Mahoney to relay the basic details of how Dawson had been tied to a gurney when they entered, how he refused to issue any final words, and how he died minutes later before their eyes. Taber says he heard a large sigh and then nothing more from Dawson, whom the coroner declared dead at 12:06 a.m. The room was quiet and without emotion, they say, and the only sounds were the wind and Dawson’s breathing, until it stopped. The reporters who witnessed Dawson’s death resist, more than once, more personal questions from the rest of the press about how watching made them feel and whether it changed their opinions of the procedure. It’s clear they want to do their duty by relaying details few others can offer up, but they also know, better than most, what can happen when you bare your personal feelings in front of the press.
When the other witnesses, including representatives of the Rodstein family and officials involved in Dawson’s investigation and prosecution, appear to answer questions, the media turn gentler, more sensitive, with their inquiries. Yellowstone County Attorney Dennis Paxinos reads a statement from Amy Rodstein, now a mother herself and living in California, thanking those who helped her survive, recover and grow into someone who’s “chosen not to live [her] life as a victim.” Paxinos adds that Dawson’s death was overdue and reflects a system that takes too long to mete out justice. Rodstein’s on-site relatives are brief but passionate in their comments, and her uncle William Rust, asked about the protests and last-ditch appeals, says, “I think some of the activists should mind their own business.”
And then, just before 2 a.m., it’s over. The drive home under a full moon feels brief and a little lonely for anyone still trying to understand what we were just a part of, still working to mesh the apparent uneventfulness of the carefully planned evening with the reality that a man had just been killed and that all Montana citizens—through their money, votes, or professional duties—have participated in his killing. The details of Dawson’s death and the witnesses’ comments appeared in the next day’s news cycle and faded just as quickly. The larger questions, of the roles we all play in state-sponsored executions and what this means to us as individuals, employees and citizens, never hit the streets. Those answers just aren’t as easy to find.