“I have watched while six of my clients died”

Graphic with a prisoner strapped to a chair with a quote about death sentence

By Clive Stafford Smith

13 November, 1996. A Wednesday, not a Friday, but still not so lucky for Larry Lonchar. He was electrocuted just after midnight, as I watched.

Larry’s bipolar rollercoaster had taken in several crests and troughs. When he was depressed, he would periodically drop his appeals and ask to die. Each time the good state of Georgia would cut off his antidepressants, keen that he should follow through. We had come within 40 minutes of his execution four times – once within 58 seconds – before we got a stay. Each time he had been terrified, as the electric chair loomed closer.

This was the fifth time. In the last year, Larry had become a Christian.

“It’s got no fear for me now, Clive,” he said. “You think about dying on the cross. Days of suffering, dying from thirst. At least it’ll be over in a few minutes. I can deal with it.” I almost believed him.

I had written up voluminous pleadings that we could file if only he would authorise it. Meanwhile I had to be at the prison by 6pm in case Larry changed his mind. Emily and I pulled into a truckstop on the way there. We got him on the phone. “How’re you doing, Larry?” I asked, the banal American greeting. “Why don’t you just go ahead and file that thing you’ve been working on, Clive,” he said. “You got my permission.”

I was elated to be fighting again. I quickly thanked him and passed the phone to Emily. I went to another phone to get the attorney general and Judge Camp on the line. Soon we were having an argument, and I was struggling for Larry’s life from a dimly lit bank of telephones in a petrol station, lowering my voice as truckers passed by on their way to the toilet.

When we drove on, Emily recited her conversation with Larry. “What’d Clive look like when I told him he could do it?” had been Larry’s first question. Emily had cautiously explained how happy I had been to ride into battle. “Good. That’s good.” She could see his smile at the other end of the telephone. “I planned it this way. I know it’s too late now, but it’s kinda like saying thank you, I guess.” He was right. I still had the law on Larry’s side, and had the better final argument, but Larry had vacillated once too often. In less than an hour, the 13 judges that stood between Larry and death did not pause in denying his final appeal.

I reached the prison in time to have a final conversation with Larry on the telephone. “Well, Clive, you have been a friend,” Larry said, his voice flat, but almost ethereally calm. I could feel him choosing his words, a final speech he wanted to make. “You know, you stuck by me. And I’m real grateful for it. I couldn’t have dealt with this last year, the year before. Back then, I was afraid. I’m not afraid now. Not at all. I’m ready for it. And that’s thanks to you. Even before I learned I was worth something, even before I learned that from Jesus, you let me know you thought so. Maybe it’s been frustrating for you, but you helped me till I was ready. I want you there tonight, if you can. ’Cos you’ve been my friend.”

He was through. My throat felt as if I was being strangled. I stared at the yellow prison wall in front of me. It was my turn to look up at the ceiling, the white tiles. “I’ll be there for you, Larry. I wouldn’t be anywhere else.” I couldn’t manage anything else. “See ya then,” said Larry. “Bye for now.”

An hour later I was in a witness chair when the guards brought Larry into the death chamber and set about strapping him in. He managed to wave to me with the fingers of his left hand. He was calm. I had feared his fear more than anything else. Warden Turpin asked Larry if he had any last words. It was Turpin’s first execution, and he was behaving like it was an exam. Larry hesitated. “Yes,” he said, with only a slight tremor in his voice. He looked up to the ceiling. “Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” There were 33 witnesses there with me. They seemed to look at their feet in unison.

Twelve minutes later, Larry was dead. I stopped watching when they pulled the leather mask over his face. My job was done. I closed my eyes in my hands, and waited for it to be over.

Larry had always been a gambler. He told me he’d fix the funding of our charity for good from heaven. I’d laughed at him, but a primordial moment made me play Larry’s numbers in the lottery the following week. Not even one came up.

I have watched while six of my clients died: two in the gas chamber, two in the electric chair, and two on the gurney. Each time, I have come out, looked up at the stars and wondered how such barbarism could ever make the world a safer or more civilised place.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in The Guardian.