Former Reprieve investigator Sophie Walker writes about the days leading to the execution of her client Mark Ströman.
Former Reprieve investigator Sophie Walker wrote this after the execution of her client Mark Ströman, on 20th July, 2011.
In my four years of working on death row, I had never met with a prisoner in the weeks and days leading up to his execution. I had never communicated with a prisoner on the day of his execution and I had never driven away from a prison knowing someone had died that night. Mark’s was my first.
I’m writing this in the hope that I can accept what happened, learn from the experience and move on. I also want to remember the fun I had working on this case.
For five weeks, I lived in a two bedroom flat in North Dallas with my colleagues Annie and Chris. We had one rule in the house – well, two, I suppose: Chris had to remember to leave the loo seat down and we had to eat lunch by 3pm. The first one was often ignored, but I was a stickler for the second. After waking and spending a few hours hunched over our laptops sitting around the kitchen table, we would start the daily search for witnesses. During the first weeks we met with almost all the jurors, the trial witnesses, the lawyers who had represented Mark over the years and his family and friends. We worked 15 hour days, seven days a week. You can see why lunch was often forgotten. There was a real sense of camaraderie as we worked together to find that one elusive witness and walk away with an affidavit. In the weeks leading up to Mark’s execution I would sometimes pause and smile at how lucky I felt to do work that I enjoyed so much.
Spending long days stuck in Dallas traffic – reportedly the worst in the US – in 100 degree heat, we quickly became hysterical. The joy of finding a witness at home faded when they shut the door in our face. Sometimes our British accents got us over the threshold, but people were then surprised that Mark was not already dead, and had no interest in helping us keep him alive.
The days just slipped away as each one brought us closer to 20th July. To feel the passage of time go unmarked and yet to be on this unrelenting countdown was oddly energizing, and even though I slept just a few hours each night, I got out of bed each day with real purpose. I barely contacted my parents, and emails from friends went answered.
I realise this isn’t sounding fun yet! So let me tell you about the day we met Jenifer. Jenifer served on the jury who unanimously voted to sentence Mark to death. We explained that we were working on his case, and we wanted to discuss her experiences as a juror. When we finally sat down on her couch, and had placated her large and terrifying-looking dog and talked about the weather, Jenifer told us that she deeply regretted her decision to sentence Mark to death. She became very emotional as she talked about how the other jurors had pressured her into imposing a death sentence. She felt misled by the prosecution and was shocked that she had not been told that the victims’ families did not support the death sentence. She wanted to do all she could to prevent Mark from being executed.
Finding Jenifer was the start of a more positive period of investigation. We found some helpful witnesses, persuaded Mark’s previous lawyers to sign affidavits explaining the mistakes they had made, and we developed a strong relationship with Rais Bhuiyan, who survived being shot in the face when Mark’s gun switched settings as he pulled it from his pocket.
To this day I don’t understand how Clive managed to write as many briefs as he did in those final ten days. He drafted a clemency petition that made Mark cry and then wrote the successive habeas petition. With one week to go, we filed Mark’s final appeal in state and federal court and we turned our attention to Rais.
Rais wanted to meet with Mark, but the prison would not let him. Clive found two lawyers to represent Rais and filed a civil suit suing Texas for failing to tell Rais of his right to victim mediation. The suit requested that the court delay Mark’s execution to allow time for mediation. We worked over the weekend to help prepare the witnesses and work with the lawyers ahead of a scheduled hearing on Monday morning in Austin.
With three days to go and counting, Chris, Annie and I piled into a car and drove to Austin. When we arrived, we learnt that the case had been dismissed from state court and moved to federal court. We rushed to re-file in federal court and spent the next 36 hours preparing for the hearing on Wednesday morning, the day scheduled for Mark’s execution.
An extraordinary combination of people camped out in Austin, fighting to get Mark a stay of execution: Khurrum, a private attorney from Florida; Paula Kurland, who took part in victim mediation with the man who murdered her daughter shortly before his execution; Jenifer, the juror who regretted sentencing Mark to death; Rais, the surviving victim; Mr Hasad, whose sister was killed by Mark; and Chris, Annie and me. At one point we were joined by a Japanese journalist who had taken a taxi for three hours from Dallas to Austin to interview Rais.
On Tuesday evening, Annie and I left Chris and the rest of the team at a motel and drove to Huntsville to see Mark. We were meant to meet him in the morning, but we ended up not going, to give him more time with his friends. Annie went alone to meet with Mark at 3:30pm. She was his last visitor.
Annie asked if we could go to Hospitality House to see Mark’s friends who were waiting to watch his execution. Hospitality House is a few blocks behind the prison and was set up by a church. It gives friends and family a place to stay as they wait for the hours to tick past ahead of executions. Mark was no longer close to his family so his witnesses were two childhood friends and three pen pals. Some of his pen pals were from the UK. There was also a correctional officer from the prison. The officer was a great mountain of a man and his face was crumpled on the edge of tears. He could barely speak. We sat around on sofas, telling stories of Mark.
After a while, the phone rang. It was Mark. We all stood around a table and put the phone on speaker. The conversation was stilted and heavy with emotion. At one point, one of Mark’s friends had managed to get through to Rais and he clumsily arranged the two phones so Mark and Rais could speak to each other. Then finally, they had the moment that Texas law had fought so hard to prevent. Mark said he loved Rais. And Rais said he loved Mark.
Mark rang off to speak to his children, and then rang back one final time. It was 4:30pm. Annie gestured for me to come over to her and showed me a message on her phone. I then asked Mark’s friend if she would hand me the phone. I took it off speaker and told Mark that the US Supreme Court had denied his final appeal. I heard a woman cry out and Mark say softly “it’s okay, it’s okay.” I told Mark that I was going to put the phone back on speaker and knelt on the floor beside Mark’s friend.
I can only describe what happened next as an exhalation of emotion. Americans have invented strange words to describe this – processing, closure. I don’t really understand either. But to my untrained mind, what happened felt healthy. We all told Mark how much we loved him, and we talked and even laughed a little.
After the phone call, Mark’s friends left Hospitality House for the prison to watch the execution, and Annie and I went for a coffee. At 5:45 we got a text from Chris in Austin to say that Rais’s lawyer had just walked into the judge’s chambers to request a stay. At 6:02, I called the prison to see if Mark was still alive. They confirmed the execution had not yet started. A few minutes later, Chris called to say that the judge had granted a brief stay, and had ordered a hearing for that same evening.
For the next 90 minutes, we scrambled to prepare for the hearing and to file another petition at the US Supreme Court. Annie and I sat in the car, furiously sending emails and making phone calls. At the 11th hour, we finally had our day in court, and Rais testified as to why he wanted to undergo victim mediation with Mark. At the end of the hearing, the judge denied relief. We had played our final card, and lost.
Annie and I called Mark one final time. He sounded calm, peaceful and thankful.
In the weeks leading up to his execution, Mark had joked with Annie and me that his last words would be that he was allergic to pentobarbital, the new execution drug. But in the end he went with this:
“Even though I lay on this gurney, seconds away from my death, I am at total peace. God bless America. God bless everyone,” then turned to the warden and said: “Let’s do this damn thing.”