What are the right words for expressing one’s feelings at a time like this? How can I spell out the tears that roll down my cheeks, the tightness in my jaws, the lump in my throat? I’m lying here on my bunk in my cell listening to the radio and watching a T.V. program called “The Ultimate Debt.”
This morning I was awakened by the sound of shuffling feet outside my cell door. As l remember them there, I see the wardens, major, captain, and the goon squad made up of fifteen of the biggest prison guards wearing black jumpsuits, helmets with face shields and carrying long knight sticks. Each man is ready to take control of any trouble there may be. The lead man of the group is holding in front of him a 2′ x 4′ plexiglas eleetronic shield. I’ve heard it is charged with 10,000 volts and if hit with it a person will forget who he is for a while.
They are standing in front of my friend Chuck Coleman’s cell, talking to him. He is dressed in new prison blues and looks to he ready to go with them. This time they won’t handcuff him to move him outside of his cell. The warden decided to let him be a man today and not treat him like an animal when moving him. This is called “letting him keep his dignity.”
Chuck has made this same walk several times before, but this time he just looks different. There’s a sense of nervousness showing on his pale colored face. In his hand is a fairly large Bible. The door is opening now, and Chuck steps out with his arms raised. The warden pats him down, being sure to check every area of his outer body form.
A woman viewing this with a video camera is ready to get every detail. If there’s an incident, they’ll have it on tape as they restrain him with whatever force is necessary. The warden and Chuck exchange a few words about the property in his cell and then they move on down the run to the security gate. I watch them as they move as a group through the sally port doors and out into the rotunda where they disappear from my view. I lay my mirror down and feel an anger rise up in me. For a moment I seemed to he searching for a reasonable thought to give meaning to this experience.
The pretty black assistant warden has stayed behind and is standing here in front of my cell by Chuck’s door. After about fifteen minute, one of the other wardens from the group that led Chuck out comes back and joins her to pack up Chuck’s property. After a minute or two they are joined by the unit case manager.
I go back into the back of my cell and lie down. I wonder just what these people must be feeling as they handle Chuck’s personal things,putting them into boxes. This it the first time these prison heads have had to pack up a man’s property. Finally I drift off to sleep.
It’s about noon as I wake up. It had been a long night Chuck, my good brother Randle, and I had been talking most of the night about the sovereign will of God. Several time, I’d have to pull back from the conversation and dry my eyes. All three of us were having a hard time being strong.
After eating my lunch I go out on the yard to get out of this building. It is just too quiet all of a sudden. For once in over twenty years the men were facing a paper tiger coming alive and putting fear into the air. Other than an occasional shout of victory from one of the men who has just beat another handball game, no one seems to be willing to talk on the yard either. It’s a long hour of silent yard time.
Once back inside, I catch myself wanting to holler over at Chuck to past the time of day, only to see the empty cell peering at me. Every so often there isa news
special on T.V. giving an update on Chuck’s situation. I am hoping for good news sol can look for the goon squad to be bringing him back, this time in handcuff’s as they had done the previous time he took the long walk.
Nothing I try to do throughout this long, quiet day seems to be important enough to calm my racing thoughts of Chuck’s date. Now here it is 10:42 PM., and there’s this special program coming on that is called, “The Ultimate Debt”. The news cameras are set up out in front of the prison here. The news personality has just said that Chuck’s lawyers say they have given up filing any more pleas for his life. The program ends at 10:50.
It is heartwarming to hear that Chuck is holding up strongly. He had a hamburger, candy bar,and two cokes for lunch. He refused a last meal, because he said it wouldn’t be his last. His wife, kids, and grandkids were here to see him earlier in the day. They said everyone was smiling as he spoke with the kids about school and the crafts he’d been sending them. In forty-five minutes they’ll move him from his death watch cell into the death chamber. I’m sure his thinking is going from the joy of his family visits to what waits forhim in that other room. He has to be an emotional yo-yo.
The prison staff were shown on the T.V. with sad, almost hollow, expressions. None wants to see Chuck die. They have dealt with him personally for twelve years and have known the man with emotions. No longer is his mind clouded by drugs, alcohol, and a certain order of life’s events. His emotions surfaced and he now can feel pain and remorse. The Warden wouldn’t even face the camera.
I don’t think l’d want visitors when it’s my date with the executioner. I won’t play the tough guy. I love my family and friends. I’d feel my very heart being torn out to know I’d be leaving them behind. The reason I can wake up each new morning on Death Row, thanking God for another day of life, is because I can feel their love for me. But here l am thinking about me while my friend is going to die in about forty minutes.
I was talking to him last night, but tonight I can remember all the things I really wanted to say, and what I could have said but didn’t. I want to think he’s praying with his heart now. No time for “whatif’s?” – time for genuine prayer as honest as he can feel to pray.
Thirty-seven minutes now – about twenty minutes until they move him into the death chamber and strap him down to the deathbed. There’s al ive coverage show on the radio now. I can hear the people in the back-ground singing songs. The man says they have candles lit and are wearing T-shirts that say,”Don’t kill for me.”
Thirty two minutes now until midnight. The execution is scheduled for 12:01. If carried out, it will be Oklahoma’s first in over twenty-five years. I can think of many reprobates who are much more the candidates for execution than this repented man of God that I know who were given life or less for the same crime as Chuck’s. On paper he’s still the man who was sentenced to die, and that’s the man the courts who decide his appeal see.
It’s not easy to keep my mind on this pen and paper as I hear the mixed feelings of people being interviewed. Those who know Chuck speak of him as a friend. Those who only read the papers speak of him as an enemy. Which is he? Who would know best?
11:38 PM. – In five minutes he’ll be moved into the death chamber.
11:40 PM. I would think they are telling him to get ready, without really having to say for what he should be getting ready. These are novel events for all who are involved, so I’m sure nerves are on pins and needles. Even though the prison staff has rehearsed the killing of a man several times so they’ll be good at it when the time comes, it’s different now that it is actually happening for real.
l can only imagine what’s going on inside of Chuck’s mind. Is there still a feeling of hope inside this man as he sees everyone doing opposite of what would support his hope? Does every unannounced sound stir a nervous response within him as he hears the sound of a clock’s tick pounding inside his head? Can he even relax to think clearly enough to truly understand all that is going on around him? I wonder if the new prison blues he’s wearing will witness to the next man what energies have moved through them? Is the only hope now being kept alive in the heart of his wife as she stands, feeling her place as the “silent” prisoner? Does “please” mean anything now as he, we, wait for any change in events?
11:47 P.M. I feel that by now he has been moved and strapped down to the deathbed. Fourteen minutes until the plunger is pushed by the executioner. The twelve witnesses are sure to he watching his every movement, listening for whatever sounds a condemned man would make.
Seven minutes now. Time goes by so fast when it is most precious. What thoughts could he possibly be exersising to escape from such excruciating torment as so many work together to see him dead? Of course, “excruciating” comes from a word relating to the Cross.
There will be three drugs administered at once. I’m not sure how they work, but one is supposed to put him to sleep while the others collapse the heart and lung muscles. It takes about 10- l5 minutes to execute a man from start to finish. Fifteen minutes is a long time to be feeling the clutches of death pulling on you.
12:00 Midnight. He must know it’s over for him, because there’s a clock for him to see. Time is in slow motion; yet the clock is moving in fast gear. What can I say? It wasn’t God’s will for him to live?
12:01 AM. I’d presume the executioner has pushed the plunger, and Chuck can now taste the drugs and feel them burn away at his life. He must be scared and praying as intelligibly as he can. I know I would be.
12:02; 12:03; 12:04; 12:05; 12:06; 12:07; 12:08; 12:09. They are saying they’ll interview the twelve witnesses after it’s over.
12:10. I’ll say more as l hear something.
The phone just rang in the media center. False alarm. It was for a media personality.
12:17. The phone rings again. “The execution is running behind schedule,” says Mr. Massey. Something else for Chuck to wonder about as he watches those people stumble over each other in the process of taking what God gave him.
A few moments of tears for me.
12:39 AM. The phone rings again. Mr. Massey is nodding his head, “Yes.” Charles Troy Coleman was pronounced dead at 12:35 AM. They had trouble getting the needle in his right arm; so after several attempts they stuck it in his left arm. It took fourteen seconds to kill him once the drugs were administered. One witness said Charles’ body went limp about 14 to 15 seconds after the warden looked at the executioner and instructed him to let it begin.
Just shortly sfter midnight. during the execution process, Chuck asked the warden to read a Bible text to him. Then he asked the chaplain to do the same reading. Psalm 23, as he was dying. The warden asked him if he had any final words. Chuck said, “Just tell everybody I love them, and I have peace in my heart.” During the reading of the Bible text. Chuck would say, “Thank you, Jesus.” Once during the execution he looked at Mandy Welch, his lawyer. and smiled. He told her that he loved her.
At 12:28 he took a heavy breath, and gurgling sounds were coming from him as his chest stopped moving. One witness said he took two to three breaths, lost color in his face, and then stopped moving. They all say it was such a somber peaceful event. He just left the prison for the last time, and this empty cell is calling for its next body to store away until the date of “the long walk.”
The Death Row guard who works the Row just came tome with tears in his eyes. Every canteen day Chuck would buy an insane man some canteen items and put them in his cell as Chuck went to shower. Sonny would wake up and they’d be there for him. Sonny just woke up and didn’t find anything. He asked the guard to go check with Chuck and see if he had something for him.
Forgive me if I stop here and cry