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'We stood there silently looking at his lifeless body': A reporter's assignment to watch someone die

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Posted at 6:15 AM, Feb 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-23 19:40:23-05

Editor’s note: NewsChannel 5's Matthew Torres was one of seven official media representatives to witness the execution of Nicholas Sutton.

“Time of death ... 7:26.”

It was a short and simple sentence that put a stop to a seemingly endless waiting game to watch someone die. The media representatives picked to witness the seventh execution in Tennessee since 2018 waited less than two hours. I was one of them.

Nicholas Sutton chose to die by an electric chair, an archaic method given as an option to inmates who were convicted before 1999. Watching Sutton react to electricity pulsing throughout every inch of his body was surprisingly not as graphic as I feared. There was no steam or any of that nature unlike the previous electric chair execution. It felt methodical or even procedural, which likely reflected the quarterly simulations the execution team would conduct to assure everything went according to plan.

Sutton’s direct and piercing eye contact paired with his statement honoring God, his family and friends struck me the most.

“I want to uplift the name of Jesus Christ, my Lord of Lords and King of Kings,” he uttered just before he took his final breath.

The buildup to 7:26 was slow and unnerving and at times, upsetting. “Why am I here?” was a question that eventually crossed my mind.

It all began before 5:30 p.m. when the seven media witnesses, three of whom have already witnessed executions before, were escorted into the facility and through security. On the other end of the pat down was a wall with three pictures ready to greet you, which included Warden Tony Mays and Governor Bill Lee, who just one day earlier chose not to help stop Sutton’s death sentence.

We were sequestered in a room with turquoise walls surrounding us. The state only equipped us with a large Ziploc bag containing a legal pad and two sharpened pencils to record our experience. Nothing else allowed. No phones. No cameras. No laptops. Except for the coffee provided by staff because after all, this is a room full of journalists.

By that time, Sutton had already eaten his final meal of mashed potatoes, fried pork chop and a peach pie with vanilla ice cream. Sutton also took a communion with his spiritual adviser and the prison chaplain about 30 minutes earlier.

The 58-year-old didn’t want any of his family members there including his wife who he met through pen pal more than 20 years ago.

His attorney, Steve Ferrell, an assistant federal defender who is currently representing nine other death row inmates across the country, was there though. We introduced ourselves in the room after he had just finished a conversation with Sutton. We launched several questions but he never revealed what exactly they talked about.

Close to an hour later, the group was taken to a different building by walking through a passageway covered with barbed wire and chain-linked fences. I felt slightly numb and strange. It’s as if we were walking to a funeral but this funeral is for a person who doesn't want to die.

We entered a series of well-secured doors and rooms, including the parole board room where we sat for a few more minutes, before we finally landed in the witness room.

"Y'all ready to go?" asked one female correctional officer.

This was it. This was the moment we lay eyes on the man who killed four people including his own grandmother decades ago.

Sutton had already been in prison for three murders but it wasn’t until 1986 when he was sentenced to death for killing a fellow prisoner a year earlier. Up until his death watch, several correctional officers have supported granting Sutton clemency.

The room we stepped into was about 10 feet by 15 feet with a large door and window in front of you. A peculiar feeling struck as you carefully determined which of the red cushion seats in the three rows you should claim. You're practically trying to answer which seat would give you the best vantage point of the execution chamber.

The room eventually went dark. You saw the blue glow from the telephone attached to the wall and the sliver of light peeking underneath the door and side of the window where a dark curtain covered our view. Like my colleagues Jason Lamb and Chris Conte reported before, it was hard to take notes, so, the sound of pencils scribbling away was evident. So were the indistinct chatter and sound of doors closing from the other side of the window.

It was 6:56. I wrote on my notepad, "IDK if I'm ready." Even in the dark, I found myself ferociously drawing the door and window and the three witnesses who have already seen executions sitting in front of me. It's as if I was back in art class when you had to draw a portrait without ever looking down on your paper.

About 15 to 20 minutes passed by when we heard doors closing loudly twice. The chaplain walked in. So did an attorney general representative. Almost a dozen people were now in the room when we heard through the speaker above our heads, "sound check."

"Loud and clear," the officer in the room responded through her radio.

Sutton's attorney walked in before clanking echoed from the speakers and filled the room. Even though we couldn't see anything, you could paint a picture in your head as you heard the crisp sound of chains unraveling or dropping.

7:12, the curtain went up.

Sutton's eyes were the first thing you noticed. Those eyes. You can never forget that look. Under harsh lights, he looked directly at us and showed no emotion. Travis Dorman of Knoxville News Sentinel described him as having a frown. To me he looked sad and solemn.

Sutton clearly looked different from his mug shot and the pictures of him smiling in prison. He gained weight and was bald and clean shaven, as indicated would happen in the 99-page TDOC manual. In his off-white prison uniform with a blue stripe running along the leg, Sutton was buckled down to the electric chair. Six black straps restrained him and his ankles were strapped and wrapped with sea sponges. He was barefoot.

"Mr. Sutton, any last words?" the warden asked him.

Compared to other death row inmates who came before him, Sutton gave more than just a few final words. He gave an unexpectedly lengthy declaration that none of the witnesses were able to write down everything he said verbatim. But here was my best attempt.

"I want to thank my wife for being such a good witness to the Lord. I want to thank my family and friends for the love and support as they tried so hard to save my life," he said as all of us wrote feverishly on our notepad.

"Don't ever give up in the power of Jesus Christ to take impossible situations and correct them," Sutton continued in his soft voice. "I'm looking forward to being in his presence."

The same two officers who stood on each side of him would douse a large yellow sponge in a salt-water mixture in a tall, clear bucket. They squeezed the sponge underneath a leather head cap and encased it in by buckling the chin strap. Sutton finally broke away from his gaze as the liquid dribbled along his eyes and face and drenched the top of his outfit. The officers took two bottles with the same mixture and pressed them into the sponges around his ankles.

There were also two men standing on both ends of the room dressed in a suit and tie as they carefully watched each move. One of them took a cable snaked over an orange mat and connected it to a box attached to the leg of the electric chair. They covered Sutton's face with a black cloak and buttoned it around his head.

7:18, the exhaust fan turned on.

I couldn't see the warden's signal to turn on the electricity from my viewpoint but you immediately knew when the current swarmed Sutton's body. His chest turned up as his body ever so slightly lifted from the chair for 20 seconds. Sutton's fingers tensed up as they began curling toward him as if he was clenching. The current stopped for 15 seconds which allowed his body to rest back on the chair. Then 15 more seconds of pulsing electricity. His hands stayed curled but the tension was no longer there.

7:19, it's over.

Sutton's attorney stared at him as we all waited for several minutes. With his face still covered, we stood there silently looking at his lifeless body. I started noticing minute details during that moment like how his pants only went down to his knee, or the pink tie one of the execution team members was wearing, or how the digital clock behind him also showed the date, which so happened to be 02/20/20.

After the warden appeared in our view to close the curtain, the witnesses tried to compare notes but stopped when we heard yet another simple sentence from the speaker.

"Please exit at this time." Such simple words that would close the chapter to the arduous journey by Sutton's attorneys to save his life.

I told Natalie Allison of The Tennessean how glad I was that nothing violent happened even though numerous accounts from other executions already painted a well-planned system. I suppose that's what watching "The Green Mile" can do to you.

I've had people throughout the week ask me why I would sign up for this. In fact, I still felt indifferent up until I walked through the doors of the facility. It was a rare opportunity into a world so few people will ever get to experience, not solely to see someone's death. With controversies surrounding both execution methods and Tennessee leading the way, assuring the state conducts the proper protocol is another way journalists can hold institutions accountable.

Aside from his attorney, the chaplain and correctional officers, Sutton looked at complete strangers before he took his last breath. No loved ones. Not even the victims' family. All he had was his faith.

There's no denying what the witnesses watched was an unforgettable and unusual assignment.

Sutton is dead. And I'm here writing about it.