Thursday, August 17, 2017

Dark Magic

By John Sexton

William Butler Yeats said that “…the world is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”  I doubt the Irish wordsmith was thinking about someone’s perception from Death Row “growing sharper” or the “magical things” being of the sinister and ominous.  But that line has invaded my consciousness today.  Using the languages of Death Row, I repeat the line that echoed down my wing from cell to cell, then shouted into the vents along the back walls of the cells so it could be spread to the condemned on other floors “they took Catfish.”

About two o’clock in the afternoon, two officers came to the front of my neighbor’s cell and muttered a few unintelligible words to him.  In a few minutes his hands were chained behind his back, his ankles shackled together and he was led away down the hall.  They weren’t the normal, unshaven, overweight, uninspired wing guards, clad in dirty gray-brown pseudo-military uniforms that I constantly see, but better postured, brighter-eyed officers in black pants with the shiny shoes, starched white shirts with epaulets, shiny baubles and even polished brass name tags wrapped them in an air of authority.

Usually I only see “white shirts” when some tour group comes to Death Row to see how excessively well Florida treats its morituri.  Yesterday they led away my friend.  The anchor on the five o’clock news confirmed what had been speculated. “Mark Asay was scheduled to be executed at Florida State Prison on August 22.  It will be the first execution in the State since January 2016, when the State’s death penalty, sentencing scheme was ruled unconstitutional.  It will be the 20th execution during Rick Scott’s term as governor.  And now, Melissia has the locations where you can see Independence Day fireworks tomorrow night…” without a chance of expression or inflection (that however, is the subject for a future essay).

Mark "Catfish" Asay

Getting back to Yeats, the dark magic that has been patiently waiting for my perception to be honed seems to be that real humans are being exterminated just down the hall from me. Since I have been at Florida State Prison, fourteen men have had poison injected into their bodies about 100 feet away from me, but until yesterday my perception of that fact had been lacking.  Executions were somewhat surreal. I have made a point to know the names of those killed by the Governor’s Death Squad since I came to Death Row.  While I have a general sense of humanity with regard to the names I have learned, they are still mostly just names.  More than just a collection of upper and lowercase letters. But I didn’t know them, so the connection was not unlike when I read the names from a war memorial.  I know they were human beings with thoughts and feelings, friends and families, but my reaction was more ephemeral than efficacious, often fading soon after moving away from the list.

I had been on Death Row but two weeks and everything was still new, foreign, and, if I admit it, a little frightening when, on January 7, 2014, the State murdered Thomas Knight. The day itself was tenebrous.  There is a set of atmospheric conditions that sometimes combine to create a great deal of condensation on the fifty year old concrete of this poorly ventilated, barely heated, building.  Coupled with the overcast sky, the dripping walls and puddled floors, the cells here seem cave-like.  That morning the overall mood was more subdued than the day before.  Inmates spoke in muted tones and there was none of the usual banter between them.  At the time, my cell was quite close to the area where the guards spend most of their time and their conversation was easily overheard.  The day before Thomas’s execution, I was taken aback when I heard the three wing guards laughing and boasting about how they could save the taxpayers a lot of money by using their hunting rifles to execute the condemned.  The next day when I first saw the same three guards, I was overcome by their hypocrisy.  They wore their dress uniforms with starched button-down collars (the usual uniform is faded and unshapely golf shirts) with a tie. Two of the guards wore gold tie tacks shaped like handcuffs, the third’s tie was pinned with a tiny M.K. assault rifle.  They stood straighter, but for the most part kept their eyes lowered and spoke in hushed tones instead of their normal screaming.

Thomas Knight

They maintained the masquerade until about 6:20 p.m. – the execution was at 6:00 – when the ties were cast off, collars opened and their usual demeanor returned.  Twice that day I asked guards for the name of the man they were killing.  I was never given his name.  But once a guard said, “Just someone who deserved it a long time ago. You know, someone like you.”

The execution pen of Governor Scott was busy that year as he used to end the lives of Carlos Chavez, Paul Howell, Robert Henry, Robert Hendrix, John Henry, Eddie Davis, Chadwick Banks, then in January of 2015, Johnny Kormondy.  After a ten-month legal battle over what was the constitutionally acceptable way to poison people, Jerry Correll was murdered in October. Oscar Bolin was the first, and only person, executed who I have met. Our conversation had been very limited, but for me, he was a real person, not just a name or a memorial.  Oscar was killed in January 2016.  The Death Chamber has remained unused since then.

Carlos Chavez

Paul Howell

Robert Henry

Robert Hendrix

John Henry

Eddie Davis

Chadwick Banks

Johnny Kormondy

Jerry Correll

Oscar Bolin

As for Mark “Catfish” Asay, I know him.  We talked a lot.  I know some of the things he likes and dislikes, know the music he listens to and sings along with – usually badly, but with enthusiasm.  I have held and been impressed by the extremely detailed automobile models he makes from paper using repurposed oatmeal as glue.

No, he has not yet been executed and there is still time for legal wrangling to obtain a stay of execution, but that is unlikely.  Mark has written to several judges to express his wishes that no more motions or appeals be filed on his behalf, so it is unlikely that I will see him again. They are going to kill my friend.

John Sexton #421898
Florida State Prison
P.O. Box 800
Raiford, Florida 32083


Anonymous said...

I pray Florida ends this vile practice. Love the Yeats quote too.

Anonymous said...

I am totally against the death penalty, but saying that never once do you show any remorse for life that has already been lost. The life of inocence. I am sure that life is hard for you. I take no pleasure in saying this but I'm sure that the life that you took did not wish for thrir life to end. They never had a choice! However, i do wish you a long life and hope that you make the most out of each and every day. Stay strong. JANE