Looking back on a night of evil, and a reporter's weighty decision to witness, or not, an execution
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What I remember most about that day in the conference room of the Rapid City Journal newsroom was how heavy my right hand felt.
So heavy, in fact, that I couldn’t raise it when Editor Michael LeFort asked for volunteers — to witness the killing of a human being.
My hand seemed immovable as other hands went up among the reporters gathered around the conference-room table. And I was happy — if that is a word that can be used in this scenario — to see that Bill Harlan’s hand was one of them.
An exceptionally talented, experienced reporter, Harlan was one of the many old hands, including me, that the Journal still had on staff during the summer of 2006. He was also a former medic during the Vietnam War, with life-and-death experiences I never had and can’t clearly imagine.
“I think it should be Harlan. That seems pretty obvious,” I said at some point about the witnessing role as we discussed the formation of a coverage team for the first state-sanctioned execution in South Dakota in 59 years, and which roles different staffers would play.
It was obvious, too, that I didn’t want to take one of two spots reserved for media representatives to witness the execution by lethal injection of 24-year-old Elijah Page of Athens, Texas. Page was of three men found guilty of the horrific — a word that doesn't overstate reality here — March 12, 2000, torture and murder of a 19-year-old Chester Allan Poage of Spearfish.
It was a gruesome crime that began with a video game invitation by Poage to three young men he thought were friends. It turned into a robbery at his home and ended in a stream bed in the woods down in otherwise serene Higgin’s Gulch near Spearfish. Along the way, his attackers tried to poison Poage before beating, kicking, stabbing and pummeling him with stones, as they ignored his pleas for mercy.
The details are shocking, sickening, heart breaking. And the crime sent Page and Briley Piper to death row, following guilty pleas to first-degree murder charges. Their accomplice Darrell Hoadley stood trial and was convicted, and got life in prison without parole.
While Piper was fighting his death sentence — he still is on death row — Page gave up and asked to be executed.
In the preparations leading up to the Page execution, the Associated Press got one witness spot and the Journal got the other, through a drawning, as I recall. And I knew Harlan was the right Journal reporter for the unenviable job. He knew it, too.
“I volunteered because I thought it was an important story and I thought I was an experienced reporter who was qualified to do it,” Harlan said the other day in a telephone interview from his home in Columbus, Georgia. “I thought it should be done well.”
I did, too. And if I had been assigned the witness role, I would have done it, as well as I could. But I was glad it was Harlan, not me.
I was part of the Journal team being assembled that summer of 2006 by LeFort to cover the execution, scheduled for Aug. 29 at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. And our team offered coverage — first from Rapid City, then from Sioux Falls —for weeks leading up to the night of the execution.
On the day of the scheduled execution, it seemed awkward and tense around the prison, the ominous sort of feeling you have when a storm is coming. And that was more noticeable as the hours and minutes ticked off.
I was to be in the prison at the time of the execution, along with other reporters, in a room set up for reporters to file stories and nearby to meet with witnesses after Page was killed. But into the late afternoon I was still working on stories outside the walls. That’s where I saw Art and Sue Guettler of Spearfish and their daughter, Misty, who had dated Page, walk slowly out of the prison following their last visit to the condemned man.
The execution day was supposed to be reserved for immediate-family visits. But because of their close relationship with Page, the Guettlers got permission from Circuit Judge Warren Johnson — who had sentenced Page to death — for a last visit.
About 25 minutes after the Guettlers came out, Page’s sister, Desiree Page, and father, Kenneth Chapman, also left the prison, joining the Guettlers on a small lawn across the street from the prison. There they spoke in quiet tones and hugged.
None of them wanted to be interviewed at that time.
By that point, Harlan was back at his motel room, getting ready for the unenviable coverage chore he faced that evening. Or thought he faced. But just a few hours before the lethal injection, then-Gov. Mike Rounds postponed the execution, saying there was a conflict between the planned three-drug execution mixture and state law, which Rounds said limited the execution mix to no more than two drugs.
“I was in my motel room out by Interstate 90 tying my tie and getting ready to go to the prison when the call came in,” Harlan said. “I remember it exactly because I was so relieved. I was relieved even though I had volunteered to do it.”
Turns out, he would still do it, 11 months later. The 2007 state Legislature fixed the legal conflict that worried Rounds, and the new law took effect on July 1. The execution was rescheduled for the 11th.
The Journal team was reassembled. The preview stories were filed. We gathered in Sioux Falls. And Harlan joined Carson Walker of the Associated Press and other witnesses in a room outside the execution chamber on the evening of the 11th.
About 6 p.m., Page ate his last meal of steak with A-1 sauce, jalapeno poppers with cream, onion rings, tossed salad, lemon ice tea, coffee and ice cream. At 10:11 p.m. he was declared dead from the injection. Moments earlier, he declined an offer by Warden Doug Weber to make a last statement.
Harlan and Walker were in one of the witness rooms, watching the execution through a window. And once the curtain was opened just prior to the execution, they were just a few feet from where Page lay on a gurney in the tile-floored execution chamber.
“When they opened the curtain, it revealed the room, which was very spare,” Harlan said. “I heard a gasp for cry from some other room, some kind of cry.”
The execution itself didn’t take long and was handled in an efficient, matter-of-fact way, he said.
“My impressions haven’t changed in 11 years,” Harlan said. “The thing that really struck me was how mundane it all was, how routine it all seemed.”
Harlan and Walker later described the last moments of Page's life after the lethal injection.
"I guess we described the same scene in every execution that goes well," Harlan said. "There were a couple of deep, snoring sounds and one last rattling breath and that was about it."
But of course, however matter-of-fact the execution appeared, it was anything but routine in South Dakota. Harlan was witnessing the first execution in South Dakota since 1947, when 33-year-old George Sitts died in the electric chair in the South Dakota Penitentiary for the murder of two law-enforcement officers. Sitts was the only person executed in that chair.
There are places where executions really are routine, however, including Huntsville, Texas, where the son of a Rapid City woman was executed in 2010. My wife, Mary Garrigan, then also a reporter at the Rapid City Journal, was sent to Huntsville to cover the execution of 41-year-old Kevin Varga on May 12th, 2010.
Varga was on death row in the Huntsville State Prison, along with Billy Galloway, who was executed the day after Varga. Varga, Galloway and Deannee Ann Bayless, all of Sioux Falls, and Venus Anderson of Revillo were convicted of the beating death of David Logie of Fayetteville, N.C., during a robbery in Greenville, Texas.
Mary spent time in Huntsville during the days leading up to the execution, with interviews with Varga’s mother, Beth. A passionate opponent of the death penalty, Mary did her job in offering balanced coverage but refused a spot among witnesses of Varga’s execution.
“I just don’t think you can ever unring that bell. And I didn’t want that image in my head for the rest of my life,” she said the other day, as we talked about her trip to Huntsville and the exceptional reporting she did there. “Also, I just felt like being there would somehow make me complicit in it. I just couldn’t do it.”
Mary had that conversation with Michael LeFort before she left for Huntsville.
“He said that was fine, although he would have preferred to have a local byline on the execution story,” Mary said.
That was understandable. But Michael and Journal readers wouldn’t get that story first hand from Mary. That would have to come from other reporters. What they did get from Mary, however, was a meaningful examination of a state and community where executions are common. Her stories included interviews with residents of Huntsville and reporters who witness executions regularly and worked to prevent them from becoming mundane.
Journal readers also got an unusual look at the life of Varga family members leading up to the execution. Mary and Beth Varga made a connection down in Huntsville, one that isn’t forgotten when they happen to run into each other in Rapid City.
“I guess the last time I saw her was about a year ago at a second-hand store,” Mary said. “We had a nice talk. But it’s always a little weird, because we have that horrible connection.”
Beth Varga did witnesses the execution, and she heard her son’s final words as the lethal injection took his life: “Mom, I’m going.”
Imagine what it was like for a mother to hear those words come from her son, as his life ebbed and vanished. Whatever horrid things he did, it was still a moment where a mother heard her son speak his final words and take his last breath.
We should pause here, of course, to remember the horrors that Chester Allan Poage’s mother, Dottie Poage, faced in hearing and reading about the details of her son’s death, at the hands of Page and Piper and Hoadley. We can’t forget that mother's suffering. Ever. Or how her son suffered. And what his mom went through knowing of that suffering, as she grieved his death.
I know Mary didn’t forget that loss and that pain, even as she allowed herself to feel the anguish of another mother whose son took part in that horrid act, yet remained her son.
Mary is glad she wasn’t there in person to see and hear the end of Kevin Varga’s life. But she saw and heard enough in Huntsville. And emotions returned as she reviewed some of those stories recently.
“I got very sad and kind of nauseous reading through them and thinking about those people again,” she said. “My own opposition to the death penalty is what kept me out of the execution room. And the whole experience in Huntsville only reinforced my certainty that the death penalty doesn’t solve any of our crime problems.”
It also reinforced her sense of respect for the work she did for most of her adult life.
“Reading those stories also made me remember what a great and unusual privilege the job of being a reporter is, to be given that kind of access to people’s lives and their stories and pain,” she said. “I was always amazed when people granted me that gift, and I still am.”
A gift indeed, as difficult as it can sometimes be. None of us on the death-penalty coverage team had assignments quite so difficult as Harlan’s. Although 11 years later, he says he doesn’t feel scarred by the experience.
“I’ve been with good friends when they died, in a much more horrible way than Page. And that affected me,” Harlan said. “And the people we were fighting, we killed a number of those people. And that affected me. This? Who knows? Having experience with PTSD, I’m not too quick to say it didn’t bother me.”
Maybe more than witnessing the execution, covering the gruesome details of the murder case itself bothered Harlan, as it bothered any of us who wrote about it.
“In retrospect, I probably went into too much detail covering how that kid was murdered,” Harlan said. “It was horrific. It was ISIS like. I’m not even sure ISIS does anything quite so horrific. He was tortured. And I was not in favor of the death penalty and still am not. But if anyone deserved it, he (Page) did.”
Plus, Harlan said, Page wanted that end himself. Sought it. Finally got it.
Regardless of all that, Harland remains opposed to the death penalty. He considers the state-sanctioned execution of 1,472 people — and counting — in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. And he adds in shameful failings like Abu Ghraib and the rejection of certain immigrant groups, sometimes including kids, and wonders about our nation’s presumed spot on a moral high ground in the world.
“I don’t know how we square ourselves as the human-rights leader of the world,” he said.
Beyond the moral issues in the taking of a human life, Harlan considers other points of opposition to the death penalty.
“Think of the opportunities lost, the ones you might have had with life without parole,” he said. “First, you’d eliminate a lot of the appeals. Then you’d have decades to study these people and try to figure out what was going on. Maybe you couldn’t but maybe you would. You might learn something that could help in all this.”
Maybe even something that could help prevent such murders? Who knows? The argument isn't new, and it isn't finished.
U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the 1960s called into legal question death-penalty laws and practices in certain states, and along with a growing movement against the death penalty brought a decade-long moratorium on executions in the United States. By 1976, the high court had clarified what it considered constitutional and some states began re-writing their laws to accommodate the ruling, so they could resume executions.
On Jan. 17, 1977 those state-sanctioned killings resumed when convicted killer Gary Kilmore, 36, was executed in Utah by a firing squad. Last year there were 23 executions in the United States. And there have been seven so far this year, four of them in Texas. The last was on March 27 when Rosendo Rodriguez III was killed with an injection of Pentobarbitol.
The next execution is scheduled for April 19th in Alabama. And there are dozens more, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, on the schedule stretching into 2023.
So Elijah Page was just one of many before, since and yet to come. But he was also one who sticks with the people who cared for him, and for the people who lost an innocent loved one — Chester Allan Poage — to the deranged, murderous actions of Page and his two cohorts.
In a much-less personal way, Page is also the one who sticks with those of us who were part of that Rapid City coverage team, especially the team member who watched as Page took his last breath.
The team member I was relieved not to be.