Thursday, October 16, 2008

Finding God in the death chamber

I say up front here .. that this is my blog .. and not a product of my employer, WKYC, so any reaction you have to what I'm about to write should be directed solely at me.

My experience Tuesday in Lucasville at the execution of Richard Cooey was unique to say the least. I was being paid to witness another person purposely put to death. This is the way it always works with the death penalty in Ohio. Media witnesses are chosen as third-person observers to ensure the process runs as it is intended to run and also to be the eyes and ears of the general public.

That was my role.

After Cooey had been put to death, several reporters compared notes to get an accurate count of how many people were in the death chamber. Phil Trexler of the ABJ reported that there were about 25 and I believe that to be correct.

Still .. I think .. make that I know .. there was one more. God was there Tuesday. Here's how I know:

I had prayed Monday night and again early Tuesday morning that God would give me the strength to get through the event, but I didn't have any idea how I would feel once I got there. Once I opened my eyes and my heart, I can firmly report that God was indeed there.

The morning began with the media huddled in a sterile, drab holding area in a building adjacent to the death house. We got regular briefings on "the process" that was about to take place -- information delivered with as little emotion as possible. Clearly the tone was professional, deliberate, and anything but revealing as to anyone's feelings. Everyone was here to do a job.

As the last two hours passed by, the media chatted and jointly whined (me included) about a lack of Internet connection and a lack of available coffee. To be honest, most of it was just a way to stay busy and distract ourselves from what lied ahead: a man was going to be put to death right before our eyes.

The only color in the entire media holding area was found in a few toddler tables and chairs. There were some kids books there too. Clearly this must be the place where family visits take place. I wonder how many kids have cried their eyes out on their father's shoulder at this very spot. How many dads had cried right back wishing they'd made better decisions. I wonder how many deals with God had been made at these tiny tables that an inmate would change if God would just grant a second chance.

About 30 minutes before the execution, I was trying to channel my nerves and gather my thoughts when I noticed a few Bibles sitting next to the childrens tables.

As I picked up one of the Bibles, I noticed that it had certainly been used quite a bit. Others had opened this same book looking for guidance. On this day though, I was looking for reassurance.

I blindly opened it to a page and then pointed just as blindly to a verse ... just to see if there was a message waiting for me. Here's what I found:

Nehemiah 1:6
"Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open. That thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the Children of Israel, thy servants, and confess the sins of the Children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee, both I and my father's house have sinned."

Now ... again, that's blindly opening the Bible to a random page and then choosing a random verse.

I clearly felt that God spoke to me saying "pay attention Eric and open your eyes" .. and "hear the prayer of thy servant" ... that "others are praying for me now" .. and that "both I and my father's house have sinned."

I felt the Word speaking directly to me as both a journalist and a Christian.

"Pay attention Eric!" "Take a look around and you'll see my presence!"

The calm I felt at that moment was certainly reassuring.

Most importantly, I took away from that one verse that while Richard Cooey was being punished with his life, he wouldn't be the only sinner in the death chamber. Each of us was bringing our own sins and mistakes with us; ours just aren't always on display for the public.

Don't misunderstand me here .. this has nothing to do with whether the death penalty is right or wrong .. or whether Richard Cooey's despicable and horrible acts were deserving of lethal injection. That's not where my mind and heart went at all.

Instead, this message I received had everything to do with letting me know that God was there Tuesday morning. He was surrounding and embracing the tearful families, and He was hurting for the prison workers who had to carry out the sentence. He was opening his arms to the journalists and others surrounding the death house too. He was there.

As we were led to the death house, we saw the black hearse already parked in the prison grass. Creepy to say the least to have a hearse ready to haul away the body of someone who at that moment was still alive.

As I took each step and thought about Richard Cooey, my mind shifted to the Apostle Paul, who according to the New Testament, was a killer of Christians and was someone who looked to persecute them at every turn. Even as a murderer, Paul was converted to Christianity and became a messenger of the Good News, writing a great many of the books of the New Testament.

I thought, "If God could use Paul for good, wouldn't Richard Cooey still have some value?" It's not an original thought as others have compared the world's worst killers to Paul, but it honestly was the thought that was whispered into my ear as I took each step.

I quietly asked for God to open my eyes as I entered the death chamber and took my place standing in an area behind the family of Dawn McCreery. I asked to see whatever God would have me see.

While I sensed that Dawn's family and Cooey's attorneys were saying silent prayers, I can't say definitively one way or the other whether they did or not. Still, it seemed as though the strength most were drawing to "keep it together" in the death house was coming directly from a higher power.

As the video screen came on showing Cooey in the back room receiving the shunts in his arms that would soon deliver a lethal dose of chemicals, I looked intently at Cooey's face and body language. He seemed agitated and defiant.

As has been reported, he yelled for his attorney but when told it was too late for that, Cooey leaned his head back and mumbled something quietly to himself for a few seconds. I couldn't tell what it was. Maybe it was more defiance. Maybe it was a Bible verse. I couldn't tell. The more I think about it, the more I doubt it was a Bible verse because of the way Cooey said it. Still, he had access to a Bible in his final holding cell and prison leaders tell us he did use it.

I wondered if he'd blindly found a verse of comfort and hope as well.

Watching Cooey die, my human side felt nothing for Cooey. His evil final thoughts and lack of remorse offered nothing worthy of compassion. His behavior since being incarcerated 22 years ago offered nothing to indicate that he was remorseful or had developed a relationship with God, although his final hours were spent with his "spiritual advisor". So in that regard, Cooey probably gets the benefit of the doubt that he was spending time with a man of God in his final hours.

Still, regardless of Cooey's actions and demeanor, I very much sensed God in the room with Cooey and the warden.

The same God that had spoken to me so clearly 30 minutes earlier when I opened that prison Bible was still speaking loudly through the silence of the impending death. I'll never know if Cooey felt it too, or if he allowed God to penetrate his exterior in the final minutes between his vulgar remarks and his heart stopping. Still, I felt strongly that the presence was there if he was willing to open his heart to it.

My heart and prayers will forever go out to Dawn and Wendy's families .. and certainly to Richard's as well. All three families have been changed forever. Everyone associated with this case -- from the detectives to the journalists -- has been touched by the explosiveness of the attack.

Still, regardless of your faith, each of us is serving a death sentence right now .. but unlike Richard Cooey, we don't know what day we're set to die.

We can, however, prepare ourselves for that moment .. so that we might make better use of a final statement than Cooey did. That we might think, "what would I say if given time to make a final statement?" Could you do it?

Again .. all of this is my work .. and not a product of our newsroom.

Still, if my role Tuesday was to be an official "witness" .. then I owed it to everyone else to bear "witness" to everything I saw .. and that included the presence of God.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Eric. Now many can see from where the humanism in your reporting comes.


buck said...

Eric...I played your "pool report" video for my newswriting class today and we talked about what you went through. The students were very impressed at your professionalism and commented on the how respectful you were of the situation. There had to be a lot to keep track of and pay attention to. Good work.

Great post too. In times like these where we wonder how and why acts like Cooey's happen, we need God for reassurance.

Angela said...

I have always had immense respect for you as a journalist however; I never realized how much I had for you as a human being. Thank you for your commitment to your faith and sharing that powerful experience.

And of course...Thank you always for the support and love to our country..


Vince said...

Very nicely said...well done.

Anonymous said...


SallyB said...

"The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." - Mahatma Gandhi.

"An eye for an eye makes everyone blind." - Mahatma Gandhi

First off, I do not condone what Richard Cooey did. That he was unrepentant to the end, I am sure, made it very difficult for the McCreery and Offredo families to find some closure to their tragedies. The viciousness of the crimes committed against their daughters was horrible, and one might understand why they would want the murderer put to death, to suffer the same fate as those they lost.

Yes, some people are beyond any ability to rehabilitate in prison. Some people just can't be changed by it, and it sounds like Cooey was just one such example of an unrepentant prisoner. But I still don't see what is served by putting him - or anyone, for that matter - to death.

I was raised Roman Catholic (although I no longer practice my old Catholicism). Although a non-practicing Catholic (and I do go to church every Sunday, just not a Catholic one), it informs my sense of ethics, morals, right and wrong, of justice, mercy and compassion. Did not the Ten Commandments say, "Thou Shalt Not Kill?" Is the state excluded from that commandment?

Jesus supposedly brought us a new covenant, but even that included the idea that one should not kill, but rather, turn the other cheek and offer forgiveness to one's enemies. I remember being bullied a lot as a child and as a result, I have quite a bad temper on occasion, but I have learned that one must rein it in when there is the temptation to react in anger and violence, and instead, find a place of forgiveness in your heart. It takes great strength of character to do this, and yes, I fall short sometimes and get very, very angry at those who wrong me. It's so easy to blow up and vent at someone who ticks you off, but it takes all of my strength to keep it in and use that anger constructively to do something good with it instead.

Revenge ultimately hurts everyone involved. My mom always taught me that two wrongs don't make a right. And she's right about that. Nothing is served when someone tries to correct one wrong by committing another. You don't have to forget, but try forgiveness instead, because the greater justice is served when forgiveness is the answer.

SallyB said...

Another reason that I feel as I do regarding this topic. Read the words of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, words that continue to inspire me even today, 40 years after they were spoken in the wake of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination:

"Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily - whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence - whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded."


"We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of others. We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge."

So much truth and wisdom in these words. They are from a speech given in Cleveland on April 5, 1968, the day after MLK, Jr. was assassinated. It took great bravery for him to do this in the wake of riots tearing apart so many areas in the country after King was killed. But he knew that revenge would serve no purpose but to continue violence upon violence, unending.

Americans have, for too long now, lived by Cowboy justice. Time for that to stop and to find a better way. This isn't the Wild, Wild West. We are a more civil people than that.

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