Execution of inmate numbing for advocate
The doctor wearing a white coat hunched over the body as he listened for any signs of a heartbeat with his stethoscope.
He moved the stethoscope slowly across the chest, listened again, then slowly rose, faced the warden and simply proclaimed, "Seven-twenty.
The warden gave a slight nod, then repeated the announcement.
With that, the door to the viewing room flung open precisely at 7:20 p.m. March 20, and those who witnessed the execution of Charles Nealy by the state of Texas were escorted out, including Nealy's sister, Debra Temple, her husband, James, and Spring Lake Township resident Doug Tjapkes.
As head of the Muskegon-based Innocent organization that provides assistance to the wrongly convicted, Tjapkes had been asked by Nealy to be his spiritual adviser for his execution. For two days, Tjapkes had been at Nealy's side, separated by a mesh barrier in a visitation room but sharing stories and prayer before witnessing an execution. For Tjapkes, it truly was a life-and-death experience.
Minutes earlier, Nealy, who would have turned 43 two days later, had been talking to those assembled to witness his death and specifically thanked Tjapkes "for coming from Michigan."
"I'm not mad or bitter, though," Nealy said in his last statement. "I'm sad that you are stuck here and have to go through all of this. I am going somewhere better. My time is up. Let me get ready to make my transition."
By 7:20 p.m., he was dead.
'Fragility of life'
For friends and family, Nealy had been murdered by Texas, which wrongfully convicted him of murder and robbery.
For prosecutors and the family of murder victim Jiten Bhakta, who was brutally shot to death with a shotgun as he dozed in his Dallas-area convenience store Aug. 20, 1997, justice had been served and the ultimate punishment -- death by injection -- had been served.
As Tjapkes and the others walked through a courtyard at the Huntsville Unit after Nealy had been declared dead, a loud steam whistle pierced the air with two long and loud blasts to signal an execution had occurred and a required lockdown of the prison was over. Nealy's brother-in-law, James Temple, turned to the group and said, "I'm going to hear that whistle in my dreams for the rest of my life."
Weeks later, Tjapkes continues to replay in his head that whistle and other sights and sounds associated with the execution. As a former broadcast journalist who had seen his share of death and injury, Tjapkes had hoped he could neatly file away the execution he witnessed and continue his work as an advocate for the wrongfully convicted.
"As a reporter, I have seen the kind of mayhem that can be done to the human body," he said. "You cover murders, killings, accidents. I figured the execution eventually would leave my mind like all of the other stuff I covered. And while am not struggling with the actual death, I cannot forget all of those scenes from that day. They just keep on replaying. I can clearly see inside the death house and all of the places I was taken."
Texas leads the nation in the number of executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Nealy became the ninth person to be executed in Texas this year and was the state's 388th prisoner to be executed since 1982. Since his death, two others have been executed and 10 others are schedule to die through Aug. 1. Michigan is among 12 states and the District of Columbia that does not have a death penalty statute.
"I have been opposed to capital punishment for a long time," Tjapkes said. "But my recent experience in Texas has given me more of an empathy to those people who are sitting there on death row. I heard all kinds of stories about how poorly they are treated. I think this helped strengthen my position on the sanctity and fragility of life."
A spiritual advisor
Tjapkes' relationship with Nealy began about five years ago when he was contacted by an anti-death penalty organization in England and told about Nealy's case. Nealy had been convicted of murdering a 25-year-old convenience store owner as he stole about $4,000. The store clerk also was gunned down by Nealy's nephew, Claude Nealy, who was 17 at the time and is serving life in prison for the killing.
But Nealy always insisted he was in Oklahoma at the time of the slaying. He said blurry security camera photos of the robbery showed the man with the shotgun wearing gold jewelry and that he was allergic to gold. Another witness identifying the two Nealys attempted to recant his testimony after he said he was pressured by prosecutors.
Prosecutors said they had a strong case against Nealy, who had three earlier convictions for aggravated robbery plus a juvenile record of extensive shoplifting.
Although Tjapkes did not get involved with Nealy's effort to prove his innocence, he periodically wrote Nealy for about five years as the death-row inmate slowly exhausted every legal remedy seeking a new trial. And when Nealy was scheduled to die last November before a stay was granted on a claim of prosecutorial misconduct, the prisoner asked Tjapkes to be his spiritual advisor as he prepared to die by lethal injection.
"If a friend asks you to be a spiritual advisor at the time of his death, I don't see where you have any options," Tjapkes said. "You say, "Yes."'
When Tjapkes and his wife boarded a flight to Dallas March 16, there was some hope an additional stay would be granted after the Texas Innocence Network filed appeals in two federal courts. But shortly after their arrival, the courts rejected the motions and the execution date was not changed.
Tjapkes first met with Nealy for about an hour the morning of March 19. The two shared stories and prayer. On March 20, the day of his execution, he saw Nealy for an hour before he was to be transferred from the Polunsky Unit in Livingston to "the death house" in Huntsville.
Several hours later, Tjapkes met for 30 minutes as Nealy's last visitor. He said the conversation was surprisingly light and Nealy even joked about his situation.
"I shared with him the favorite Bible passage from First Corinthians that I had used on the radio broadcast the previous evening: 'What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no human mind has conceived, these things God has prepared for them who love him,"' Tjapkes said. "We concluded by praying in the name of him who was wrongly convicted, given a death sentence and executed so that people like Anthony have life eternal."
Tjapkes said his visits with Nealy, particularly the one on Tuesday morning, were more emotionally draining than the execution. When it was time for Nealy to die, Tjapkes was emotionally drained.
"It was numbing," he said. "Here he was talking to me at 7 and by 7:20 they are hauling that body off to a morgue. It is not like going to a funeral home where everyone is concerned and there are expressions of sympathy. Or when someone is injured and even the doctors are empathetic.
"Here, everything was a matter of fact. All of a sudden, everyone lost Anthony Nealy; he was gone and we could go home."