The Execution

By CD Mitchell

t1he confession hadn’t made the investigation any easier. The deputies took Sonny Howell out to the bottoms to try to find the body. Sheriff Wilson Underwood had been under subpoena that day in federal court in Jonesboro and did not arrive until late in the afternoon. When he got to the Hatchie Coon Bottoms, Sonny still hadn’t shown the deputies where he’d hid the body.

Leading the deputies around in circles and laughing at them every time they thought they’d found the right spot, Sonny refused to reveal where he hid the girl. Herman Bishop, the Criminal Investigator with the sheriff’s office, and Dean Witt, the Arkansas State Police investigator, had given up and called for a cadaver dog.

Wilson talked with the officers to figure out what was going on, then he walked over to the county patrol unit.

“Come on with me, Sonny. We gonna walk out here and see what we can find,” Wilson said.

“Sure Hoss. I’ll show you all over them bottoms. You just tell me where you wanna go.”

“He can’t find it. His brain is so fried right now he has no idea where it’s at,” Witt said.

“I don’t believe that. These dopers can remember where they hid a quarter of meth a year ago. He knows where she’s at. Y’all stay up here and wait for the dog,” Wilson said to Witt and Bishop. “We may be just a bit. Hey, Herman, you still got that sharp knife? Let me have it if ya do.”

Herman pulled out a long-bladed folding pocketknife and handed it to Wilson. “Watch that blade,” he said. “Me and Daddy been using it to cut pigs with. I keep it with a razor-edge.”

“C’mon, Sonny. Hey, you still got that rubbing alcohol in your first-aid kit? Get it out for me if ya do.”

Bishop chuckled and looked right at Sonny Howell before he opened the trunk of his patrol car and brought Wilson the opaque bottle of isopropyl alcohol. Sonny had settled down now and no longer laughed. His hands were still cuffed behind his back. Wilson grabbed him by the back of the neck and nearly lifted him off the ground. Sonny was a big, solid man, standing six feet tall in his socks. Although the meth had whittled away a lot of his girth, he still weighed over 275 pounds. But Wilson towered over his prisoner and carried him by the nape of the neck like a truant ten-year-old. Floating on his toes, Sonny made an effort to walk along with the sheriff.

They walked for about thirty minutes, deep into the woods and far back along a big, slow bend in the Big Slough.

“Your deputies lied to me. I been off the shit now long enough to realize you haven’t been watching me, or you’d know where that body is. My confession was coerced.”

Wilson kept dragging him along, refusing to respond. After easing into the woods they walked fast and straight for a half-mile, then Wilson cut back east and headed for the Big Slough Ditch, an old Corps of Engineers drainage built so long ago the trees along its banks now towered nearly as high as the forest they walked through.

“She’s not back this far, Sheriff,” Sonny said. The prisoner snickered.

Wilson released Sonny’s neck with his right hand. With an open palm that could grasp and hold a twenty-pound watermelon, he brought his left hand around and slapped his prisoner, knocking him flat on his back.

“Oh, you gonna have to do better than that old man,” Sonny said.

Wilson smiled at his prisoner.

Sheriff Wilson Underwood walked into the witness room at the Cummins Correctional unit. Within thirty minutes, Sonny Howell, a man convicted of one of the most brutal rapes and murders Wilson had ever investigated, would die.

Three bare block walls surrounded twenty folding metal chairs, their numbers divided in half by a narrow aisle down the middle of the room. A fourth wall of bulletproof glass squared off the room – the black curtains hanging from the other side temporarily hid the secrets within the death chamber. Soon the curtains would peel back from the middle of the glass so the witnesses could observe the execution. Wilson had always wondered about the bulletproof glass. It seemed odd to protect a man condemned to die, especially during the final moments before his death. The safety glass must have been installed to protect prison employees. The black curtains made the room seem small and cramped, but any room would feel cramped that held both Frank and Ellen Davis, the parents of the victim Nancy Davis, and Beaver Howell, the father of Sonny Howell.

The murder had shocked the community, but every murder shocked the small community of Delbert. In the twenty plus years Wilson had served as sheriff, he had investigated five murders. Four had been solved, and this was the only one that had garnered a death penalty.

Nancy Davis had dated Sonny Howell for months before she disappeared. Her parents nagged at Wilson to investigate her absence the first day she didn’t come home. But Wilson knew he couldn’t begin a missing person investigation just because a girl who dated the town thug didn’t show up one night. A class valedictorian and homecoming queen, Nancy could have dated anyone in Jester County, and she chose the county’s best chemist. Wilson knew Sonny had two different meth labs, but Sonny always seemed to be one step ahead of him.

Frank and Ellen persisted, however, and on the third day of Nancy’s absence, Wilson became worried.

Sonny’s family had founded Delbert, Arkansas. But although Sonny may have shared the Howell gene pool, he shared none of the character that made the Howell family such prominent members of the Delbert community. Wilson knew he needed to talk to Sonny, so he sent a deputy out to pick him up.

On a three-week meth binge, Sonny came to the sheriff’s office and confessed immediately. His drug-induced paranoia had him convinced that the law had witnessed the murder and he had no choice but to tell the truth.

Nancy had come to him and told him she was pregnant on the day she disappeared. She was ecstatic, but Sonny had warned her the whole time they dated; if she ever got pregnant, he’d kill her. Nancy always thought he was joking. That day he talked her into going for a drive down the levy in the Hatchie Coon Bottoms of the St. Francis River. Sonny and Nancy got out of the truck down by the Big Slough Ditch, and he hit her from behind with a slapstick-a leather pouch filled with lead shot. He’d hit her three times when he thought he might want to get laid before she died, so he stripped her clothes and raped her in the seat of his truck. Sonny wasn’t sure if she had died before they had sex or during. The prosecution had to prove that Nancy was still alive during the rape to get the death penalty. The jury believed the prosecution. Sonny had laughed and joked with the deputies during his confession, saying, “That must have been one helluva an orgasm, huh?” When he realized she had died, he began to chew on her breasts, mutilating them as he gnawed her nipples and areolas away. Covered with her blood, he dragged her out into the woods and hid her body in a brush-pile. On the way back to his truck he jumped in the Big Slough to wash up before going home to finish another batch of meth.

At the trial, Sonny Howell claimed Wilson had beaten him and threatened to cut off his testicles if he didn’t reveal where the body was hidden. Wilson truthfully denied that he threatened to cut Sonny’s balls off. The sheriff testified the cuts and bruises on Sonny’s back and legs were the defendant’s own masterwork, a result of a psychological disorder that caused the defendant to cut himself. The state psychiatrist said cutting and mutilation were common among methamphetamine users, and the defendant’s confession that he mutilated the body of his victim proved those tendencies. The judge allowed the confession given to Bishop and Witt, but refused to allow any evidence from the autopsy of the mutilated body, including any pictures of the body or physical evidence of the rape and mutilation of the corpse, ruling that the discovery of the body was the result of abuse administered by the sheriff when he was alone with the prisoner in the woods. The jury still convicted Sonny Howell of rape and capital murder and recommended the death penalty. The judge followed the jury’s recommendation.

Now, after thirteen years of appeals and coroner’s inquests, public and political scrutiny, FBI and State Police investigations, and a civil rights lawsuit subsequently dismissed when he found jailhouse religion, Sonny Howell was about to die.

Inside the room, the light was just bright enough to see with a squint. Although the curtains behind the glass were closed, Wilson could see the bright lights on the other side. Beaver Howell sat on the right of the room up on the front row. Cora Howell, Beaver’s wife and Sonny’s mother, had died of breast cancer three years before Sonny started cooking meth. Beaver told Wilson at the trial he understood why God had called her home now, as he would rather face losing his son alone than to have his mother suffer this anguish.

Beaver sat alone.

Two rows behind him sat three men in khaki slacks with briefcases and legal pads. Wilson assumed they were either Beaver’s attorneys or reporters. He didn’t recognize any of them, but that wasn’t unusual. The trial attorneys had long since been replaced with attorneys who dedicated their lives to battling the death penalty. Wilson knew that a last ditch attempt was being made at that moment to stop the execution based upon new evidence regarding Wilson’s beating of Sonny Howell.

On the first row of the left hand side sat Frank and Ellen Davis. Mr. Davis wore jeans and a red flannel shirt. Mrs. Davis wore black from head to toe. They sat with Mooney Marrs, the preacher from the church in Delbert, and Money’s wife, Delilah. Mooney held his Bible and squirmed. Occasionally he could be heard to pray under his breath, or quietly say “Hallelujah,” or “Thank you, Jesus,” like he was in church on Sunday morning waiting for the crowd to arrive. Wilson could think of no reason to be thanking Jesus right now. He had lost his own daughter in a freak accident when his gun went off at his home.

Having lost a daughter in such a violent manner, he felt he knew what Frank and Ellen Davis were going through. At least they could sit on this side of the bulletproof glass and hate the man on the other side for robbing them of their daughter. When Wilson tried to look through the glass, his reflection stared back at him, reminding him that the man who took his daughter’s life had never faced justice. After all the investigations had concluded, the death of Wilson’s daughter was ruled an accident. That only cleared him of any criminal charges.

But even worse would be sitting with Beaver Howell as the state took the life of your only son while you watched, helpless to save the boy you had raised to a man.

Both sides of the aisle hated Wilson Underwood. Wilson knew how they felt. Beaver Howell believed Wilson had done his job in investigating and accumulating evidence, but the old man had sworn to take revenge on him as soon as he no longer hid behind his “tin-badge of courage.” Sonny had exaggerated the beating he’d received from Wilson. Although the jury believed the doctor’s testimony that the cuts on Sonny’s legs were self-inflicted, Beaver Howell believed his son. The jury believed the medical testimony; the judge did not.

For Frank and Ellen Davis, a guilty conviction and a death sentence weren’t enough. They wanted the world to know that this man had mutilated the body of their beautiful daughter. They had also lived with the fear that at any time an appellate court could throw out the conviction because of the way Wilson had handled the investigation. The loudspeakers in the corner of the witness chamber hovered over the room like an ax about to fall. News of a stay of execution would be announced over those speakers and would enrage one side of the room-and elate the other.

But that would be none of Wilson’s concern today. Outside of Jester County he had no legal authority. He wore pressed jeans and a white shirt like always, but no badge was visible. Wilson was present as an obligation to the citizens of Jester County to see this case to its final conclusion. He took a seat in the back row and tried to shrivel away into the dim light, hoping his presence would not be noticed by anyone.

The curtains opened and two prison guards rolled a gurney into the death chamber. Sonny Howell lay strapped onto his final resting place. He raised his head and looked at the glass and squinted against the glare of the reflected light. Wilson knew he searched for his father and could tell the moment the man finally saw Beaver, as his face beamed with a smile. Now standing, Beaver held his hand out to his son, the palm open, the fingers extended and spread like a five-year-old about to draw a turkey.

“I’m here son. I’m here for you. Can you see me? I’m right here.” Beaver ran an unsteady hand through the thinning hair on top of his head. He leaned and reached as if to touch the glass, and a guard standing at the front of the room admonished him and asked him to please sit down. Wilson hadn’t noticed the guards and didn’t know if they had come in with the gurney or been there all along. Beaver stepped back from the window but did not sit down.

Two more white-robed technicians entered the room and began to work over the prisoner. They pulled back the sleeves on his arms and searched for a vein. With rubber gloves on their hands and emotionless precision, they worked quickly and efficiently, as if they had other places they wanted to be-like a mailman moving on to the next box. In spite of his revulsion at what he watched, Wilson found himself leaning forward, stretching his neck in an effort to see.

The technicians dabbed white cotton balls with alcohol and swabbed the spots on both arms where the IV needles were to be inserted. Wilson nearly choked as he thought of the irony, and the noise brought the attention of the room to him for just a moment.

“Excuse me,” he said. As if on cue, all eyes returned to the glass at the front of the room.

After swabbing the arms, they removed the plastic from the sterile needles of the IV tubes. With military precision, they inserted a needle into each arm. Sonny’s face reflected the sting, and Beaver sighed and ran his hand through his hair again. They replaced the straps around his arms, then left the room without so much as acknowledging the presence of the prisoner they had just rigged to die.

Over the speakers mounted in the corners, the warden read the death warrant. The prisoner was asked if he had any final words. A guard stepped forward and held a microphone for Sonny to speak into.

“I’ve had years now to think what I would say when this time came. I can’t see anyone but you, Daddy. It sure is nice to see you. I’ll see you again in Heaven. You’ll be young again next time I see ya. I been baptized, and I am right with my maker. I go to a better place. Don’t cry Daddy. They don’t realize they send me to paradise. This is so much better than rotting in a cell till I die. Mr. and Miss Davis, I don’t see you, but I know you’re there. I feel your hatred. I am sorry for what happened. Please find a way to forgive me, because without your forgiveness, I will have the blood of your souls on my hands too—”

“Excuse me, but I must interrupt this proceeding. ” The warden’s voice echoed off the block walls. “The United States Supreme Court has issued an emergency temporary stay of execution while they examine a final appeal for the defendant.”

The room that had felt so small and cramped earlier now seemed large and empty, with nothing but the void of silence filling the space. Wilson sat with his head down. He didn’t understand what had happened or what was going on, but he knew he was to blame. The voice came over the speaker again.

“This is a temporary stay. The prisoner will remain hooked to the IVs. The Court will issue a decision in just a few minutes. At that point, the execution will go forward, or the prisoner will return to his cell pending further court action. Please, remain calm and in your seats. Anyone creating a disturbance or harassing anyone in the witness room will be arrested and removed from the chamber. We will notify you immediately when we receive instruction from the court.”

On the left hand side of the room the witnesses reacted with rage. Ellen Davis cried and leaned on her husband’s shoulder. Wilson could hear her sobs.

“This will never end. Why can’t we get justice? Let’s pray. Please, let’s pray.”

“Hallelujah. Let’s seek God’s will and mercy right now. Every one kneel at your chairs and go to the Lord in prayer,” said Mooney Marrs. They all shifted and knelt but Frank Davis, who rose from his seat and walked to the back of the room, and Delilah, who sat stone-faced in her chair next to her kneeling husband. Frank Davis stopped in front of Wilson.

“If his execution is stayed, it will be no one’s fault but yours. I don’t understand how God works. It makes no sense to me. My daughter and your daughter are gone, but your worthless ass and that sorry piece of shit up there on that gurney are still here.”

Wilson looked up at Mr. Davis.

“I promise, Frank, I don’t understand it either.”

A prison guard stepped forward.

“Return to your seat, Mr. Davis, and be quiet, or I will remove you from the chamber.”

Frank looked at the guard and then back at Wilson. “It doesn’t matter. They’re not gonna execute him today.” Then the man turned and walked back to his wife.

As he scanned the room, Wilson missed Beaver Howell. Then he spied the bald head of the old man. Beaver had fallen to his knees, and as tears ran down his cheeks, he prayed to the same God that the people across the aisle prayed to, asking that same God for the opposite of what they sought. Wilson sat in the back, alone, and thought of what he had done that day on the banks of the Big Slough. Wilson knew he should have waited for the dog. The dog would have found Nancy’s body, although they would have been there late into the night. Now all of these people had fallen to their knees to pray, and the man on the gurney with the needles in his arms waited to have his life extended or exterminated by a panel of judges he had never met and would never know, a panel of judges who would rule on Wilson’s actions, a man they had never met and would never know – all because of Wilson. What he did wasn’t right, but he’d done his job; he’d solved the crime. He’d brought the decomposing body of Nancy Davis home so the family could put it to rest and begin their grieving process. And still he ended as the scorn of everyone involved. Standing up, Wilson walked to the back of the room.

To a guard he said, “Is there a bathroom? I’m sick.”

“Through that door, sir.”

Wilson walked in and knelt in front of the toilet. The one-piece stainless steel seat looked clean enough to eat off. He couldn’t keep the toilets at the county jail that clean. Then he emptied his stomach. After retching and convulsing, he composed himself and stood. Turning the water on at the stainless steel sink, he cupped his palm under the faucet and drank from his hand. After he rinsed his mouth and quenched his thirst, he opened the door to leave the room. Delilah Marrs pushed him back through the doorway.

“Are you all right? This isn’t your fault.” She reached for his hair and ran her fingers through it. She cut his hair every two weeks, and anytime she saw him, she touched him and commented on how handsome he looked.

“I’m fine,” Wilson said.

“I’m leaving that self-righteous hypocrite. I’m going back to Chicago this weekend when he leaves for that revival at Success. He’s going back up there to fuck that preacher’s daughter he was engaged to.”

“I’m sorry to hear that Delilah. Is there anything I can do?”

“Come to Chicago to see me. Or come see me before I leave.”

“We gotta get out of here,” he said.

She kissed him easily on the lips, but as she tried to walk away, Wilson grabbed her and kissed her again, pawing at her breasts as their lips touched.

“Come see me, Wilson,” she said. Then she slipped back out the door, locking it behind her as she eased away.

As he walked into the chamber, Wilson saw Beaver Howell walking toward him.

Beaver wasn’t much older than Wilson, but today he looked old. His white hair looked like new silk at the end of an ear of corn and barely covered the crown of his head. The man was short, but stocky and powerful. The tale had been retold many times of how Beaver had taken the anvil at the old livery stable when he was young, and after several older men had tried to lift it up and place it on the bench from which it had fallen, he had picked it up and lifted it over his head and laughed at them. Beaver had spoken in anger when he threatened Wilson, but the sheriff knew the old man as a true man of God, one who practiced what he preached and who lived a good life, planting and harvesting three thousand acres of rice, corn and beans with a dozen hired hands he cared for as if they were his own.

Wilson looked to the front and saw Delilah, sitting next to Mooney, staring at the glass in front of her. He straightened in front of Beaver and prepared to accept whatever came.

Beaver walked up to him and stopped.

“I want to hate you so bad. I know what you did. But I also know what you could have done. Sonny told me last week that you were right. That he had forgiven you. He asked me to forgive you, too. I can’t kneel and ask my savior to spare my son’s life while holding this hatred for you. So I am sorry for speaking to you in anger. And whether he lives or dies today, I will not confront you. But I will never support you for sheriff again.”

Wilson nodded his head in a slow, exaggerated manner and said nothing. His stomach churned, and he feared the small amount of water he had swallowed would come up if he opened his mouth.

Beaver returned to his seat. Wilson thought of Beaver looking at the boy for the first time, years ago in a hospital room through a glass window in a nursery. At one moment a father marvels at the life to be lived by the child beyond the glass, at the other, a father could only think of the eternity that waits the closing of the curtain.

A squawk broke the tension in the room. The warden spoke again.

“The Supreme Court has refused to hear the appeal. The temporary stay of execution is overruled.”

The warden once again read the death warrant. But Wilson did not hear the words. He watched the shoulders of Beaver Howell, shaking as he cried and prayed for his son.

Wilson knew a technician would push a plunger releasing into the I.V. a solution that caused the prisoner to lose consciousness. Then another drug that paralyzed the lungs would be thrown into the mix. The crowd watched in silence interrupted only by the sobs of Beaver Howell and Ellen Davis.

Sonny’s eyes had been closed for several minutes when his fingers twitched. Wilson thought of the hand of his daughter as he had burst into her room after his gun had exploded – her fingers extended as if she waited for someone to read her future in her palm. He remembered the severed hand of Earl Montgomery that he’d found up under the train the day Earl was run over and dragged along under the wheels of the freight cars. He looked at his own hands, big and calloused, scarred from years of abuse.

Eventually a doctor walked into the room. He listened to Sonny’s heart through a stethoscope, then peeled back each eyelid to look at the prisoner’s eyes. He scribbled for a few moments on his pad, then spoke.

“The time of death of Inmate Sonny Howell is 12:51 A.M.”

Then the curtains slowly closed.

The quiet of the moment felt like a heavy dew, drenching Wilson. With all emotions spent, everyone stood and stumbled toward the middle of the room to leave. Wilson heard Beaver talking to a guard about having the body picked up and brought back to Delbert for burial. That made sense. The state wouldn’t want to pay for burying a prisoner. Wilson wondered if Beaver would use Mooney’s church for the service. It was the only church in town, unless he went to Success, or used one of the small chapels out in the country. Somehow Wilson could not see Beaver going to the Reverend Mooney Marrs and asking him to do the service after Mooney had stood with the Davis family.

With Frank and Ellen Davis by his side, Mooney eased out the door. Delilah reached out and clasped the hand of the sheriff as she walked by. Her leaving would likely disrupt church services for a while. Wilson would have to find another beautician. He’d always enjoyed the way her ample bust had seemed to get in the way while she cut his hair. And Wilson always tipped well for the experience. Delilah would be hard to replace.

Wilson walked out the door behind all of the others. He lit a cigarette, nearly dropping it in his haste. His truck sat at the far end of the parking lot. The cigarette had burned down to the filter by the time he opened the door to get in, so he stood outside the door and lit another one. Prince Albert was better, but he’d bought a pack of rolled cigarettes on his way down, afraid his hands might give away his nervousness as he tried to roll a smoke.

The late November sky had cleared. Breathing produced a misty cloud of vapor. There was no moon, and he searched for the Big Dipper and Orion’s belt. He remembered watching the northern lights recently at Delbert. A solar flare had caused an atmospheric disturbance and the aurora was seen for three nights as far south as Alabama. As he stood and looked at the stars, he wondered what happened when we die. Do we achieve all knowledge of things of heaven and earth? What would it be like to know all of physics, to see the galaxies and stars and know their names, to understand the biochemistry that makes the human body so complex; the minerals that help us to live, and the compounds that cause us to die. He wondered if his daughter had experienced all of this when she died in his arms. He wondered what it would be like to finally close his eyes and stop breathing. Would he open them again in another world? Would she be waiting there for him, to forgive him for the accident that took her life? Did Nancy Davis wait for Sonny Howell? Or would Sonny’s mother greet him?

Wilson threw the butt of his cigarette onto the pavement and got into his truck. Four hours of highway separated him from home, and he wanted to get some sleep before he patrolled that evening. Shivering against the cold, he turned up the heater in his truck. As he pulled through the gate, he saw the protesters standing and holding their signs. Every time an execution occurred, they came crawling out of the woodwork. Wilson was surprised there weren’t more. They stood and held signs that read “Stop Allowing the State to Murder our Citizens,” and “Only God can take a Life.” They held candles and stood in circles with bowed heads. Wilson assumed they prayed. Everyone seemed to be praying.

Maybe executions weren’t such a bad idea after all.


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