Orlando Weekly editor Bob Whitby and I arrived in Starke, a town of fast-food joints whose economy is built almost entirely on the three state prisons in the immediate vicinity, a little after 3 p.m. The Florida Department of Corrections has set up a staging area for media covering the execution in a field across State Road 16 from the prison, in front of a lower- security facility.
The field is the designated protest area. It's divided in two parts by oak trees and a string of Florida Highway Patrol vehicles. To the south, there's a small roped-in area with a sign labeled "Opponents." On the other side, there's a spot for death-penalty supporters.
No one's sure how many protesters will show. In 1989, when the state executed famed serial killer Ted Bundy, the area was mobbed with people, including vendors selling "Bundy Burgers." For Aileen Wuornos, the female serial killer executed in 2002, a DOC officer says there were maybe 200 protesters. For the most recent execution, a more low-key affair in September, about 20 protesters showed up on each side.
By 4:30 p.m., the field is still empty, save for three people in the "Opponents" area. One is a documentary filmmaker from Chicago named Nancy who says she has a friend on Florida's death row. Another says that she's married to a death-row inmate. The third is Mark Elliott, executive director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a tall, thin man in a dark blue T-shirt that reads, "Don't kill for me." (About 30 people protested the execution; no death-penalty supporters showed.)
Elliott's group protests every execution. He argues that lethal injection is cruel because the three-drug cocktail relies on potassium chloride to shut down the condemned's organs and stop the heart. If the first drug, a sedative called sodium pentothal, wears off before the potassium chloride is injected, death would be excruciating, Elliott says, like being roasted at the stake, only from the inside. But if that happened, we'd never know it. The second drug in the cocktail, a paralytic called pancuronium bromide, prevents the inmate from moving or voicing pain. He could die in agony and no one would know the difference. The only people who know whether or not these inmates suffer are dead.
"And dead men tell no tales," Elliott says.
Back in the staging area, DOC spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger is briefing the press. No stays have been issued, she says. At noon, Tompkins received his last meal of fried chicken and banana split ice cream (that's a flavor, not an actual banana split). He spent a few hours this morning with his mother. He also met with the prison's chaplain, though not with an adviser from his personal religion, which the DOC describes as "Native American."
His demeanor, says Plessinger, is "poised."
At 5 p.m., a pair of white 15-passenger vans pulls up to the staging area to take the 11 media witnesses inside the prison. After DOC officials check our IDs and warn us not to take in any cameras, pens, key-chain bottle openers, Swiss Army knives, notepads or anything else, we pile into the vans. It's an odd assortment of grizzled veterans — reporters who have witnessed more executions than they can count — and newbies for whom watching someone die is a surreal experience.
"I don't mean to wish anybody a speedy death, but I've got a long drive," says the Gainesville Sun's Nathan Crabbe, who has seen many executions. The last one, he explains, was delayed for two hours by a stay while the witnesses waited in the viewing room without any clue of what was going on.
Ron Wood of the Associated Press, who has witnessed every Florida execution since the early 1990s, has this down to a science. His story is already written and ready to hit the wires, just as soon as he plugs in Tompkins' final statement, the time of death and a few quotes from the victim's family. He tells Crabbe about an argument he had with his editors after the 2007 execution of Angel Diaz, who took 34 minutes to die after the execution team incorrectly inserted the needle into his vein. They called it "botched." Wood objected. "I don't know what constitutes a ‘botch.'?"
There's a general agreement that lethal injection is much easier to watch than electrocution, which the state abandoned in 2000. John Koch, a reporter with the Florida Radio Network, says he recalls seeing inmates' heads catch on fire in the days of Old Sparky.
A few minutes later, the vans pull up to the prison's main gate. We're herded through the exterior chain-link fences, past a metal detector and into a waiting room adorned with laminated posters bearing the DOC's slogan: "We never walk alone." We're told to use the restrooms now — once inside the death chamber there are no bathroom breaks, no matter how long it takes.
We're each issued a manila packet containing a white legal notebook and two pencils. And we wait. There are no clocks on the wall and nothing to look at besides the walls' neutral-colored, crumbling paint. During nearly two hours inside the prison, Wayne Tompkins is the only prisoner we see.
The governor's office has issued a 15-minute stay, but no one's sure why.
As we wait, Koch wanders over to introduce himself. There's a protocol, he tells us, that we reporters are supposed to follow. If Tompkins gives a final statement, we all take down what we think he said, then huddle together and compare notes on what we heard and reach a consensus. So if some of us heard, "I'm good," and others heard, "No, warden," and still others heard, "I'm OK," and some couldn't hear anything over the loud rumble of the viewing room's air-conditioning wall unit, we'd discuss it among ourselves and reach a conclusion that would go out into the state's newspapers and wire services. "I'm good" was the consensus this time, confirmed by the DOC's Plessinger.
Tompkins' stay of execution proves short, however, and an unnamed DOC official tells us we're ready to go. We're herded down a long corridor and out a back door, where two more passenger vans await. We pile in and are slowly driven around the perimeter of the prison, past empty baseball fields and sand volleyball lots, past what look like exercise kennels made up of sturdy chain-link fencing.
The vans stop in front of a small, inconspicuous building on the prison's north side. We file inside and gather in a hallway with a staircase that leads upstairs, though it's not clear to what. A little after 6 p.m., a door opens to the death chamber's viewing room.
It's a nondescript room, with four rows of chairs facing a glass window covered in a faded maroon curtain. In the first two rows, 17 of Tompkins' victim's family members and law enforcement officials are seated, looking at their reflections in the glass window. There's no visible emotion, no one crying, just a palpable sense of waiting. Aside from the media's execution veterans, you get the sense no one's sure exactly how they'll react.
Wood, seated beside me, checks his watch every few moments. As time drags on, past 6:20 p.m., he seems a bit agitated. If there's been a stay, no one will tell us about it. We'll just sit, waiting for something to happen. He shows Crabbe his watch and shakes his head.
The only sound is the air conditioner.
At 6:23 p.m., the curtain rises. After Tompkins demurs on a final statement, the team warden announces that the execution has begun. Somewhere, in a hidden room abutting the death chamber, an unseen executioner presses a button that releases the first drug, a sedative, into Tompkins' veins. His breathing slows and his eyelids flutter closed. By 6:27 p.m., he's passed out like a surgery patient under anesthesia.
At 6:29 p.m., five minutes into the execution, the warden performs a "consciousness check" by leaning over Tompkins and opening his eyes, then grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him. Tompkins doesn't respond.
The second and third drugs are released. There's little movement on either side of the glass. In the viewing room, a man in the front row wraps his arm around the woman next to him. Another woman in a wheelchair leans forward and exhales loudly. Tompkins is still.
At 6:31 p.m., a man in a white hospital coat emerges through a curtain from a room behind the death chamber. He presses a stethoscope against Tompkins' chest, looks up and nods at the warden, who walks over to the telephone in the corner of the room and makes a brief phone call to the governor's office. Then he makes an announcement to the audience over the intercom: "The sentence of the state of Florida versus Wayne Tompkins has been carried out at 6:32 p.m."
The curtain goes firstname.lastname@example.org