Reporter's Notebook: Witness to an execution in the electric chair

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) - Editor’s note: NewsChannel 5's Jason Lamb was one of five official media representatives to witness the first electrocution execution in the United States in five years. 

“Let’s Rock.” 

Those last words spoken by Edmund Zagorski came from his mouth while strapped into Tennessee’s electric chair, the very device the U.S. Supreme Court just minutes earlier declined to stop the state from using. 

Read more: Edmund Zagorski executed by electric chair

It was one of the most surreal moments of my life, hearing him speak those words. He grinned and raised his eyebrows while he looked through the window towards us in the witness room, wearing a yellow shirt and white cotton trousers with a dark stripe down the side that said “TN DEPT OF CORRECTION.” 

We all knew what was about to happen: state-mandated execution of a kind that hadn't been carried out in Tennessee since 2007, and hadn't taken place in the United States since 2013. The time was 7:13 p.m. 

My day at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution began several hours earlier. I had known for weeks that I would be a state-required media witness for this execution. I applied back in September through the standard process set forth by the Tennessee Department of Correction, for what I figured would be an execution by lethal injection, and my name was drawn a week or so later.   

But then a sudden change: with the controversy surrounding the three chemicals Tennessee uses in its lethal injection protocol, Zagorski had decided he wanted to be executed by the electric chair instead. He had been convicted in 1984 for killing and slitting the throats of John Dale Dotson and Jimmy Porter during a bogus drug deal, and because Zagorski’s death sentence came down before 1999, he was given the right to choose how he would die. 

After doing a live shot for our 4 p.m. news, I walked into Riverbend’s front doors with the other media witnesses and Neysa Taylor, TDOC’s Director of Communications, and we passed through metal detectors and other screening devices. It was just after that when I noticed hanging near the security stand the framed picture of Tony Mays, the Riverbend prison warden who I knew would be giving the order in less than two hours to send 1,750 volts of electricity through Edmund Zagorski’s body, fulfilling the sentence that 12 jurors agreed to more than 30 years earlier. 

That’s also when we were given a large Ziploc bag containing a white legal pad and two sharpened Staples brand yellow pencils. These would be the only tools we could use to record Zagorski’s execution. No cell phones allowed. Not even watches allowed.  

You can read the 6 pages of notes I took throughout the evening, by clicking here (with apologies for my bad handwriting).

We were led out the main building through an outdoor passageway, passing through two locked chain link gates. We finally arrived at our first stop for the evening, through a door with a placard that read “Parole Board Room,” where the group sometimes meets to determine parole eligibility for inmates. The four other media witnesses, Neysa and our assigned guard escort sat down at the large conference boardroom-like wooden table in the center of the room with 10 red office chairs surrounding it. This room, with its bright fluorescent light and white-painted cinder block walls would be our home for the next hour or so. I noticed a red box similar to a fire alarm pull station along the wall in the room, only this had a large red PANIC button in the middle of it. “Makes sense,” I thought, inside the prison that houses the state’s most violent offenders. Our group talked about all kinds of things over the hour inside the room: work, our favorite podcasts. We did not, however, talk much about what we were about to see, beyond discovering that none of us had ever been to an execution before; this would be a first time for all of us. 

At one point, bottled water was brought in for us. We twice asked what time it was. 6:14. 6:41. We knew that the U.S. Supreme Court could still have issued a stay of execution, but no one in the room would ever know if it happened -- no phones, remember. Our only clue was what happened next. 

Shortly before 7 p.m., we were told it was time to head to the next room. 

We were escorted out of our holding room, through what appeared to be a common area for inmates during the day. I passed a sign that said “inmate restroom.” Our escort led us through a dual set of locked jail doors, into the room where we would view the execution. 

I thought I knew what the room would look like (I had seen video of it in our news archives, which we had aired in stories about Zagorski in the weeks prior), but I was surprised how small the room was when I was standing in it myself. By my estimation, it was only about 15 feet wide -- if that -- with 15 red chairs arranged in three rows of five. I sat in the first row, and looked ahead at the panel of four rectangular windows -- altogether probably 7 feet wide and 3-4 feet tall -- less than two feet in front of me. A large roll down blackout curtain was stretched over the entire window from the inside of the execution chamber. A jail door was to the left of the windows, leading directly into the execution chamber. At this point, our escort turned the lights off in the room, but she kept the door open just a crack to let in some light, which I used to write on my notepad. A centimeter-wide crack at the bottom of the light blue jail door also let in some light and sound from the execution chamber. 

To my left, I saw an office phone installed on the wall. This would be the phone that Zagorski’s attorney would use to contact the courts or other officials if she needed to before or during the execution. On the phone’s LCD screen, there were two pre-programed auto-dial buttons ready to go. They were labeled: “Death Watch Group” and “Central Control Emergency.” More useful to the media witnesses at the moment, however, was the timestamp in the upper left corner of the screen: 7:00PM. We used that phone timestamp to note when the next steps took place. 

At 7:05, according to that phone clock, I heard doors slamming in the distance, then a thud which seemed to come from inside the execution chamber. Then the sound of a door opening. Then was the sound of a faucet -- or water running through pipes. More doors closing. 

At 7:06, more doors opened outside our room. A man walked into the witness room and sat down in the back (I later learned this was a representative from the Attorney General’s office). Then more noise: what could be the clanging of shackles or chains -- the blinds are still closed. 

At 7:07, I hear a ratcheting sound of what I presume was handcuffs either going on or coming off. Throughout this whole time, I hear no voices from inside. More doors close outside our room. I still can’t hear voices inside the execution chamber, I can, however, hear the sound of the pencils belonging to the five media witnesses feverishly scratching on their notepads.   

At 7:10, I hear an indistinct voice. They talked for about two seconds, but I couldn't make it out. I hear a door inside the execution chamber close. More murmuring, then another door shuts. 

At 7:12, we hear something -- they seem to be testing the microphones inside the execution chamber. Zagorski’s attorney, Kelley Henry, who has been viewing more of the preparation process than we get to see, takes her seat to the right of me.

“Sound check,” I hear in the speakers overhead.

“Loud and clear,” says the guard in the room with us, communicating on her radio.

“Visitors in place,” I hear. 

Then, at 7:13, it happened. 

The blinds into the execution chamber were raised, and there he was. 

Edmund Zagorski was strapped into the electric chair. He looked different than his mug shots. All the hair from his head and face was freshly shaven clean, as is required in the 93-page TDOC electrocution execution protocol manual. Then I noticed what he was doing with his face.  

“Grinned,” I wrote down on my legal pad. “Nodded his head.” 

I noticed he kept raising his eyebrows as well, as he looked straight into the witness room through the window. Was he looking at us? Looking at me? We couldn't have been more than 20 feet from him. 

Then Tony Mays -- the prison warden whose picture I saw framed by the security stand, and who was still dressed in a full suit -- spoke:

“Mr. Zagorski do you have any last words at this time?” 

Then came his response that I’ll remember until my dying day: “Let’s rock.” 

I knew what the next steps would be from reading the protocol manual, but again, this played out differently when I saw it in person: the execution team began placing a giant, saltwater-soaked dark yellow natural sea sponge over his head (it's meant to help conduct electricity better), before placing the headpiece -- a copper-lined leather cap connected to a cord and power supply -- over his head. It was affixed with a chin strap that made the whole thing look somewhat like an old football helmet. Because the sponge -- larger than his head, much larger than I thought it would be -- was soaked in saltwater, much of the brine ran down his face as the execution team did their work. As a result, Zagorski, who continued to grin, began to grimace as well. He kept raising his eyebrows too, smiling. 

This was the point where I felt most uncomfortable. I truly began to realize that we were only minutes -- perhaps seconds -- away from seeing this man’s life end. I remember thinking this man wouldn't be alive in a matter of minutes. I thought, “Why did I ever agree to see this?”

That’s when I looked over to my right, where Zagorski’s attorney was sitting. I saw her smiling at her client, who had been smiling at her. She was nodding while she smiled, and she was patting her heart with her hand. 

The execution team wiped away the remaining saltwater from Zagorski’s face and began pinning a large square black shroud across the headpiece to cover Zagorski’s face. It looked to me to be made of some kind of rough cloth. It completely covered his face, well down past his chin. No one in the witness room would ever see his face again. 

Zagorski’s hands, resting on the armrests of the dark brown wooden electric chair appeared relaxed.   

By now we didn't need to rely on the phone clock to check the time; a giant silver rectangle-shaped LED clock with large black numbers was plainly visible inside the execution chamber. 

At 7:15, Zagorski, covered by the mask, lifted his left hand up as much as he could while restrained by the straps. It looked like he was waving.   

At 7:16, a member of the execution team plugged in a thick cord into the junction box at the bottom of the electric chair. Zagorski seemed to wave with his right hand. 

Then an exhaust fan turned on inside the room. This is part of the TDOC protocol. I knew that. I also knew what was coming next, after Warden Mays gave the signal: taking his hand and wiping it down across his face. 

The electrocution started. There was no loud noise, but I think fellow media witness Adam Tamburin with The Tennessean described it best when he said later it sounded like an elevator moving between floors. I saw Zagorski’s arms raise up suddenly. His whole body tensed and jumped up all at once -- his hands clenched into fists. But that was it. He made no sound. He didn't jostle or move around at all, from what I could tell. He just looked like every muscle in his body was flexed. 

Then the current was shut off. All by the book. Zagorski’s body slumped down. I didn't see any movement. 

15 seconds later came the second round of current. His fists were still clenched, but this time he appeared to rise up even higher than before. 15 seconds later and it was done. Zagorski’s body slumped back down again, with the little finger of his left hand coming to rest on the side of the armrest. 

Then came the five-minute waiting period -- again, all mandated in the protocol manual. Zagorski’s body didn't move. It was clear that the three men inside the chamber -- the warden and two high-ranking prison officials -- had practiced this several times. They were all dressed in suits -- two of them had pocket squares, and during the execution and the five minutes after, they didn't move -- they stood in the same place, either looking straight in their direction or toward the ground, with their hands clasped together in front of them. 

After the five minutes were up, the warden pulled down the black curtain and that was the last we saw from inside the room. We heard people still inside, talking quietly, and then at 7:26 came the announcement:

“That concludes the execution of inmate Edmund Zagorski. Time of death was 7:26 p.m. Please exit at this time.” 

From there it was quite a blur, we exited the room, I handed over my blue Riverbend visitors badge to a guard, and we all left to answer questions from the reporters waiting outside. 

I had done a lot of research before going into the witness room Thursday. I read accounts of botched electrocutions in other states where blood was seen spilling from an inmates mask or flames shot out from another’s head, along with legal filings saying Zagorski’s organs would be cooked and his skin would be burned from his skull. We have yet to learn what true effects the electrocution had on Zagorski’s body. We may never know whether he suffered. And the debate will continue about whether the electric chair is cruel and unusual punishment. But I was surprised that what I saw, in my opinion, didn't rise to the level of violence that I had expected with the electric chair. It all seemed very clinical.  

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions about the death penalty in general or the electric chair in particular. As a journalist, my opinions will remain with me. I signed up to view this execution because of the important duty that journalists had yesterday: in a state where the death penalty is the law of the land, five of us (and the countless other journalists who reported on the story) were there to act as eyes for the public, to ensure that the state carried out the execution in the manner they said they would. That is an important -- if at times uncomfortable -- role. 

As for me, as I write this early Friday morning, I’m ok. I’m sure I’ll be processing a lot of what I saw for days and months to come, maybe longer. I don’t know yet if I’d ever want to witness another execution again, but I’m grateful for the experience and the perspective that can come from a day that few will ever see. 

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