The Execution of Stephen West

Stephen West wept.

The curtains in the execution chamber opened at 7:15 p.m. on Aug. 15, 2019 — one year, six days and four condemned men since Tennessee revived its death penalty. West’s was to be the fifth name on a list representing a run of executions the likes of which has not been seen in this state since the 1940s. And there he sat, flanked by prison guards, weeping in the electric chair. 

A moment earlier, as the other media witnesses and I sat in the dark witness gallery, we could hear West's attorney Justyna Scalpone in the chamber with him, trying to comfort him as she prepared to leave him for the last time. 

“We all love you,” said Scalpone, sniffling. 

Now she was sitting two seats to my left in the front row, looking through four rectangular vertical window frames into the brightly lit death chamber. In between us was one of West’s relatives. We never learned her name; the communications staff at the prison said she had been admitted at the last minute, and they weren’t sure of her exact connection to West. 

Scanning the gallery, West looked at his attorney, and she mouthed something to him. 

Tony Mays is the warden at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. He has donned a black suit and entered the execution chamber for two lethal injections and three electrocutions since August 2018. On Thursday night, he stood in a corner to West’s left and asked him if he had any last words.

“Yes sir,” West said, apparently holding back tears that would ultimately overcome him as he gave his final statement. “In the beginning, God created man. And Jesus wept. That’s all.”

As West wept, he seemed to be the only person present responding to this moment in a way that made any sense. Still, it was impossible for us to know what was behind his tears. Was it fear? Remorse? The sign of a psyche the state itself had acknowledged was unstable, cracking under immense stress? West, after all, had been diagnosed with a host of mental illnesses and was being treated with powerful antipsychotic drugs that one psychiatrist described in a court filing as “chemical straitjackets.” 

The guards at his sides began to fasten onto his shaved head a helmet that contained a natural sea sponge soaked in saline solution. The liquid, which would help conduct the electricity that would soon be sent into his body, gushed down his face, mixing with his tears and soaking his beige Tennessee Department of Correction shirt. The guards removed West's glasses, wiped his face and attached a dark-gray shroud to the helmet. This last step was for our benefit, to prevent the witnesses from having to see West's face as two cycles of 1,750 volts passed through the helmet on his head.

The guards soaked the sponges that were strapped to each of West's ankles with the same saline solution, gathered some of their materials and left the chamber. With that, a facility maintenance staffer picked up a large cable and plugged it into the chair. 

At 7:19 p.m. an exhaust fan kicked on, a low hum, the only warning we got that the first wave of electricity was coming soon. I wondered later if West was familiar with the electrocution protocol; if he knew this was the last sound he would hear in his life.

Then his body stiffened, rising off the chair. The fingers on his right hand, which had been spread out around the arm rest, slowly snapped back into a fist, leaving only his pinkie sticking out from his hand. He fell back to the chair after 20 seconds. A brief pause. Then West's body jolted up again for another cycle. 

The haunting details of an electrocution, aside from the obvious visual horror, belong to separate categories. 

There are the things you know, like the fact that the prisoner’s head is shaved, in part, to prevent him from catching fire. Or the fact that it is possible for a prisoner to survive the electrocution, only to die in the moments afterward because their vital organs are slowly cooked. Or the knowledge that the chair is said to still contain some wood from the state’s original gallows. 

Then there are the sounds. From the witness room, as we sat in the dark before the curtains were opened, we could hear the sound of a handle bouncing off of a bucket containing the saline solution. Seconds later, a voice came through the speakers: “Sound check.” Then there’s the exhaust fan. 

But there are also the silences, like the one we sat in for about five minutes after the electrocution was done, staring at a seemingly dead man strapped into an electric chair, leaning forward and focusing to be sure we could not see any signs that he was still breathing.

That was not the only silence on witnesses' minds Thursday night, of course. There is the gut-wrenching 33-year silence of Wanda and Sheila Romines, the 51-year-old woman and her 15-year-old daughter who were kidnapped and murdered in 1986 near Knoxville. Along with then-17-year-old Ronnie Martin, a then-23-year-old Stephen West, himself a victim of childhood abuse and already suffering from mental illness, took Wanda and her child and brutalized them. West admitted that he raped the teen, but he maintained that it was Martin who stabbed Wanda and Sheila to death. 

There is the silence of Jack Romines — husband to Wanda and father to Sheila — who died of a heart attack in 2008. After the execution, TDOC spokesperson Dorinda Carter read a statement from Jack’s nephew, who spoke on behalf of the remaining members of the Romines family and offered grace and sympathy to the members of West’s family as well. 

But there is also the silence of the state officials who sign off on these retributive killings, carried out by people well below them in the state’s power structure. There's the silence of Attorney General Herbert Slatery, who sends a deputy to witness these executions in his stead. There's the silence of Gov. Bill Lee, who has still not responded to an invitation from death row prisoners to come pray with them, and who offered only a one-sentence written statement when he announced that he would not stop the execution of a man his own prison system has been treating for severe mental illness for years. Lee had nothing to say after the execution. 

Stephen West is silent now too. But the sound of his weeping will echo for some time in the minds of those who watched him die.  

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