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Chris Conte: I watched a man die last night

Posted: 1:02 PM, Dec 07, 2018
Updated: 2018-12-07 22:57:34Z

Dark gray clouds hung heavy over Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville, even Mother Nature seemed to acknowledge the dreariness of the deed that was to be carried out. A man would die here tonight, his fate three decades in the making.

Until his execution at 7:25pm, David Earl Miller was the longest serving inmate on death row. The end of his life was so solitary that the only people who came to witness his last breath on this earth were seven reporters he'd never met and his court appointed defense attorney.

The way David Miller's life ended was in stark contrast to the end of Lee Standifer's, the woman whose life he took in a brutal, homicidal fit of rage. It was 1981 in Knoxville when he carried out a crime so horrific, that former Knoxville Police Chief Jim Winston told me by phone Wednesday that he had to refrain from looking at Standifer’s body because it was "so desecrated."

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"She was laying in the leaves, bludgeoned, stabbed, her left eye was out ... She had stab wounds to her breast and face. It was a horrific scene," Winston said, as his voice grew quiet.

“It was horrible having to tell her parents,” he added.

To this day, David Miller’s attorneys contend that he was mentally unstable. Physically, emotionally and sexually abused by nearly every person he trusted from the age of six.

“He had been living that street life, drugs, alcohol … at one point he had checked out a book from the Knoxville library about sex and told the clerk he’d been raped,” Winston recalled.

Although 23 at the time of her death, family members still describe Lee Standifer as a “bright light.” She was born with mild brain damage and was living at the YWCA in Knoxville the night of her murder. It was a sweltering May evening when David Miller beat her with a fire poker after going on a date with her.

Eight days after she was killed, Miller was arrested in Ohio. After decades of court hearings and being sentenced to death twice, there is still one thing that lingers with Jim Winston, “He never said ‘I’m sorry.’”

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Did David Miller think about Lee Standifer during his last day alive? We’ll never know.

The business of dying is a strange concept to comprehend, especially when it' so precisely scheduled down to the minute, as was the case with David Miller's electrocution.

Outside the prison, a bitter cold wind cut across the parking lot of the prison where we waited to be escorted inside to witness David Miller’s death. Shiny tips of metal barbed wire protruded off the tops of the chain link fence that surrounded the facility, ensuring none of its occupants could get out.

But for us the doors soon opened, and we were led inside.

Prison guards led us to the spot where we would witness the execution. A small room, painted white. Four rectangular windows with black blinds drawn. Only a sliver of light was allowed through a small crack in the door. All seven media witnesses were feverishly taking notes with their state issued pencil and pad of paper.

David Miller’s attorney walked in and sat down next to us.

We heard the unmistakable sound of chains dragging across a tile floor. The dripping of water could be heard. A door slammed. The blinds were raised, stale white fluorescent light poured into our room. Death was just feet away.

And there was David Miller.

There was a simplistic finality to it all. Miller, 61 years old, made no motion with his face, his eyes fixed firmly ahead. His arms and legs were bound to the electric chair with black leather straps resembling seat belts.

He was asked for his final words. “Beats being on death row,” he said. The process to end his life had already started. We are the last people he would ever see.

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The process goes as it has in the past: a prison guard takes out a massive sea sponge about a foot in diameter that looks like a piece of coral reef dripping wet with salt water. It is placed on the inmate’s head. Water cascades down his face, over his eyes and down his chest. The sponge is to keep the inmate from catching fire. A leather helmet is fastened to his head.  A cord delivers the fatal electric current. A black cloth is pulled over his head.

We will not see his face when he dies.

And then, at 7:16pm, the first jolt of electricity.

His body stiffened as 1,300 volts of electricity coursed through his veins. Was it instant? Did he suffer? Impossible questions to answer.

There was then a second jolt of electricity that pulsated through the body of David Miller. His entire body stiffened and almost seemed to stand up.  Twenty seconds went by and then his limp body slumped back into the chair that killed him.

Was he dead? We didn’t know.

I strained my eyes to search for any hint of life, his chest rising, a slight move in his fingers.

At 7:22pm the blinds were lowered. Darkness once again encompassed the room around us.

Was it instant? Did he feel anything? Questions we will never know the answer to.

A voice broke the silence, “This concludes the sentence of David Earl Miller. Time of death, 7:25pm. Exit at this time.”

And with that, David Miller’s life was over.

Chris Conte is a reporter for NewsChannel 5 in Nashville. He was a media witness to the execution of David Earl Miller.

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