M I C HAEL
When inmates tried to kill themselves, they'd use the vent. They would string coaxial cables from their television sets through the louvers, wrap a noose around their necks, and step off the metal bunk. For this reason, one week before Shay's execution, he was transferred to an observation cell. There was a camera monitoring his every move; an officer was stationed outside the door. It was a suicide watch, so that a prisoner could not kill himself before the state had its turn.
Shay hated it-it was all he talked about as I sat with him for eight hours a day. I'd read from the Bible, and from the Gospel of
Thomas, and from Sports Illustrated. I'd tell him about the plans I'd made for the youth group to host a Fourth of July pie auction, a holiday that he would not be around to celebrate. He would act like he was listening, but then he'd address the officer standing outside.
"Don't you think I deserve some privacy?" he'd yell. "If you only had a week left, would you want someone watching you every time you cried? Ate? Took a piss?"
Sometimes he seemed resigned to the fact that he was going to die-he'd ask me if I really thought there was a heaven, if you could catch stripers or rainbows or salmon there, if fish even went to heaven in the first place, if fish souls were just as good eating as the real kind.
Other times he sobbed so hard that he made himself sick; he'd wipe his mouth on the sleeve of his jumpsuit and lie down on the bunk, staring up at the ceiling. The only thing that got him through those darker times was talking about Claire Nealon, whose mother had reclaimed
Shay's heart. He had a grainy newspaper photo of Claire, and by now. he'd run his hands over it so often that the girl's pale face had become a blank white oval, features left to the imagination.
The scaffold had been built; throughout the prison you could smell the sap of the pine, taste the fine sawdust in the air. Although there had indeed already been a trapdoor in the chaplain's office, it proved too costly to decimate the cafeteria below it, which accommodated the drop. Instead, a sturdy wooden structure went up beside the injection chamber that had already been built. But when editorials in the Concord
Monitor and the Union Leader criticized the barbarism of a public execution (they speculated that any paparazzi capable of crashing Madonna's wedding in a helicopter would also be able to get footage of the hanging), the warden scrambled to conceal the scaffold. On short order, their best arrangement was to purchase an old big-top tent from a family-run Vermont circus that was going out of business. The festive red and purple stripes took up most of the prison courtyard. You could see its spire from Route 93: Come one, come all. The greatest show on earth.
It was a strange thing, knowing that I was going to see Shay's death. Although I'd witnessed the passing of a dozen parishioners; although
I'd stood beside the bed while they took their last breaths-this was different. It wasn't God who was cutting the thread of this life, but a court order. I stopped wearing my watch and kept time by Shay's life instead. There were seventy-two hours left, forty-eight, and then twenty-four. I stopped sleeping, like Shay, choosing instead to stay up with him around the clock.
Grace continued to visit once a day. She would only tell me that what had separated them before was a secret-something that had apparently been resolved after she visited June Nealon-and that she was making up for the time she'd lost with her brother. They spent hours with their heads bent together, trading memories, but Shay was adamant that he didn't want Grace at the execution-he did not want that to be her last memory of him. Instead, Shay's designated witnesses would be me, Maggie, and Maggie's boss. When Grace came for her visit, I'd leave her alone with Shay. I would go to the staff cafeteria and grab a soda, or sit and read the newspaper. Sometimes I watched the news coverage of the upcoming execution-the American Medical Association had begun to protest outside the prison, with huge banners that read FIRST DO NO HARM. Those who still believed that Shay was, well, more than just a murderer began to light candles at night, thousands of them, spelling out a message that burned so brightly airplane pilots departing from Manchester could read it as they soared skyward: HAVE MERCY.
Mostly, I prayed. To God, to Shay, to anyone who was willing to listen, frankly. And I hoped-that God, at the last minute, would spare
Shay. It was hard enough ministering to a death row inmate when I'd believed him to be guilty, but it was far worse to minister to an innocent man who had resigned himself to death. At night, I dreamed of train wrecks. No matter how loud I shouted for someone to throw the switch to the rail, no one understood what I was saying.
On the day before Shay's execution, when Grace arrived, I excused myself and wandered into the courtyard between buildings, along the massive perimeter of the circus tent. This time, however, the officers who usually stood guard at the front entrance were missing, and the flap that was usually laced shut was pinned open instead. I could hear voices inside:
... don't want to get too close to the edge...
... thirty seconds from the rear entrance to the steps...
... two of you out in front, three in back.
I poked my head in, expecting to be yanked away by an officer-but the small group inside was far too busy to even notice me. Warden
Coyne stood on a wooden platform, along with six officers. One was slightly smaller than the rest, and wore handcuffs, ankle cuffs, and a waist chain. He was sagging backward, a deadweight in the other officers' hands.
The gallows itself was a massive metal upright with a crossbeam. set on a platform that had a set of double trapdoors. Below the trap was an open area where you'd be able to see the body drop. Off to both the left and right of the gallows were small rooms with a one-way mirror in the front, so that you could look out, but no one could look in.
There was a ramp behind the gallows, and two white curtains that ran the entire length of the tent-one above the gallows, one below it. As I watched, two of the officers dragged the smaller one onto the gallows platform in front of the open curtain.
Warden Coyne pushed a button on his stopwatch. "And... cut," he said. That's seven minutes, fifty-eight seconds. Nicely done."
The warden gestured to the wall. "Those red phones are direct hookups to the governor's office and the attorney general-the commissioner will call to make sure there's been no stay of execution, no last minute reprieve. If that's the case, then he'll come onto the platform and say so. When he exits, I come up and read the warrant of execution, blah blah blah, then I ask the inmate if he has any final words. As soon as he's finished, I walk off the platform. The minute I cross this taped yellow line, the upper curtain will close, and that's when you two secure the inmate. Now, I'm not going to close the curtains right now, but give it a try."
They placed a white hood over the smaller officer's head and fitted the noose around his neck. It was made of rough rope, wrapped with leather; the loop wasn't made from a hangman's knot, but instead passed through a brass eyelet.
"We've got a drop of seven feet seven inches," Warden Coyne explained as they finished up. "That's the standard for a hundred-and twenty- six-pound man. You can see the adjusting bracket above-that gold mark is where it should be lined up, at the eye bolt. During the actual event, you three-Hughes, Hutchins, and Greenwald-will be in the chamber to the right. You'll have been placed a few hours ahead of time, so that you aren't seen coming into the tent at all. You will each have a button in front of you. As soon as I enter the control chamber and close the door, you will push that button. Only one of the three actually electromagnetically releases the trapdoor of the gallows; the other two are dummies. Which of the three buttons connects will be determined randomly by computer."
One of the officers interrupted. "What if the inmate can't stand up?"
"We have a collapse board outside his cell-modeled after the one used at Walla Walla in '94. If he can't walk, he'll be strapped onto it and wheeled up by gurney."
They kept saying "the inmate" as if they did not know who they were executing in twenty-four hours. I knew, though, that the reason they would not say Shay's name was that none of them were brave enough. That would make them accountable for murder-the very same crime for which they were hanging a man.
Warden Coyne turned to the other booth. "How's that work for you?"
A door opened, and another man walked out. He put his hand on the mock prisoner's shoulder. "I beg your pardon," he said, and as soon as he spoke I recognized him. This was the British man who'd been at
Maggie's apartment when I barged in to tell her Shay was innocent-
Gallagher, that was his name. He took the noose and readjusted it around the smaller man's neck, but this time he tightened the knot directly below the left ear. "You see where I've snugged the rope? Make sure it's here, not at the base of the skull. The force of the drop, combined with the position of the knot, is what's meant to fracture the cervical vertebrae and separate the spinal cord."
Warden Coyne addressed the staff again. "The court's ordered us to assume brain death based on the measured drop and the fact that the inmate has stopped breathing. Once the doctor gives us the signal, the lower curtains will close as well, and the body gets cut down immediately.
It's important to remember that our job doesn't end with the drop." He turned to the doctor. "And then?"
"We'll intubate, to protect the heart and other organs. After that, I'll perform a brain perfusion scan to fully confirm brain death, and we'll remove the body from the premises."
"After the criminal investigation unit comes in and clears the execution, the body will go to the medical examiner's staff-they'll have an unmarked white van behind the tent," the warden said, "and the special operations unit will transport the body back to the hospital, along with them."
I noticed that the warden did not speak the doctor's name, either.
"The rest of the visitors will be exiting from the front of the tent,"
Warden Coyne said, pointing to the opened flaps of the doorway and spotting me for the first time.
Everyone on the gallows platform stared at me. I met Christian Gallagher's gaze and he nodded imperceptibly. Warden Coyne squinted, and as he recognized me, he sighed. "I can't let you in here. Father," he said, but before the officers could escort me out, I had already slipped from the tent and back into the building where Shay was even now waiting to die.
That night. Shay was moved to the death tent. They had built a single cell there, one that would be manned round the clock. At first, it was just like any other cell... but two hours into his stay there, the temperature began to plummet. Shay kept shivering, no matter how many blankets were piled upon him.
"The thermostat says it's sixty-six degrees," the officer said, smacking the bulb with his hand. "It's May, for chris sake."
"Well, does it feel like sixty-six degrees to you?" I asked. My toes were numb. There was an icicle hanging from the bottom rung of my stool. "Can we get a heater? Another blanket?"
The temperature continued to drop. I put on my coat and zipped it tight. Shay's entire body was racked with tremors; his lips had started to turn blue. Frost swirled on the metal door of the cell, like a white feathered fern.
"It's ten degrees warmer outside this building," the officer said. "I don't get it." He was blowing on his hands, a small exclamation of breath that hovered in the air. "I could call maintenance..."
"Let me into the cell," I ordered.
The officer blinked at me. "I can't."
"Why? I've been searched twice over. I'm not near any other inmates.
And you're here. It's no different than a meeting in an attorney client conference room, is it?"
"I could get fired for this..."
Til tell the warden it was my idea, and I'll be on my best behavior,"
I said. I'm a priest. Would I lie to you?"
He shook his head and unlocked the cell with an enormous Folger
Adam key. I heard the tumblers click into place as he secured me inside; as I entered Shay's six-by-six world. Shay glanced up at me, his teeth chattering.
"Move over," I said, and sat down on the bunk beside him. I draped a blanket over us and waited until the heat from my body conducted through the slight space between us.
"Why... is it so... cold?" Shay whispered.
I shook my head. "Try not to think about it."
Try not to think about the fact that it is subzero in this tiny cell. Try not to think about the fact that it backs up to a gallows from which you will swing tomorrow. Try not to think about the sea of faces you will see when you stand up there, about what you will say when you are asked to, about your heart pounding so fast with fear that you cannot hear the words you speak. Try not to think about that same heart being cut from your chest, minutes later, when you are gone.
Earlier, Alma the nurse had come to offer Shay Valium. He'd declined-but now I wished I'd taken her up on his behalf.
After a few minutes. Shay stopped shaking so violently-he was down to an occasional tremor. "I don't want to cry up there," he admitted.
"I don't want to look weak."
I turned to him. "You've been on death row for eleven years. You've fought-and won-the right to die on your own terms. Even if you had to crawl up there tomorrow, there's not a single person who'd think of you as weak."
"Are they all still out there?"
By they, he meant the crowds. And they were-and were still coming, blocking the exits off 93 to get into Concord. In the end, and this was the end, it did not matter whether or not Shay was truly messianic, or just a good showman. It mattered that all of those people had someone to believe in.
Shay turned to me. "I want you to do me a favor."
"I want you to watch over Grace."
I had already assumed he'd ask that; an execution bound people together much like any other massive emotional moment-a birth, an armed robbery, a marriage, a divorce. I would be linked to the parties involved forever. "I will."
"And I want you to have all my things."
I could not imagine what this entailed-his tools, maybe, from when he was a carpenter? Td like that." I pulled the blanket up a little higher. "Shay, about your funeral."
"It really doesn't matter."
I had tried to get him a spot in the St. Catherine's cemetery, but the committee in charge had vetoed it-they did not want the grave of a murderer resting beside their loved ones. Private plots and burials were thousands of dollars-thousands that neither Grace nor Maggie nor I had to spend. An inmate whose family did not make alternate plans would be buried in a tiny graveyard behind the prison, a headstone carved only with his correctional facility number, not his name.
"Three days," Shay said, yawning.
He smiled at me, and for the first time in hours, I actually felt warm to the core. "That's when I'm coming back."