Execution day starts early, lasts 18 hours
Bobby Ross Jr.
Nine times this year and 28 times since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1977, Oklahoma has led prisoners to the execution chamber. Here’s a look behind the scenes on a recent execution day.
McALESTER – At 6 a.m., before the sun has time to scale the towering white walls of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Roger James Berget opens his eyes.
Not that Berget, Oklahoma inmate No. 98711, has any choice.
Eighteen hours before his scheduled execution, correctional officers stand over the condemned murderer and order him to wake up.
The officers strip-search him and make him shower in his shackles before giving him new clothes – a prison shirt and jeans – in which to die.
After he dresses, they lead him up the hill from the underground, death-row “H-Unit” to the main part of the penitentiary.
Inside the prison infirmary, he’s X-rayed to ensure he has no contraband on him – or in him – that he could use to hurt himself before the state can carry out his court-ordered lethal injection.
Berget, 39, a pale, thin man with a short, scruffy beard, a ponytail and tattooed arms, has spent the past seven days in a solitary “high-max” cell, away from fellow prisoners while awaiting his date with death.
After the X-ray, he’s taken back down the hill and placed in a special holding cell next to the execution chamber.
Flowers for Rick
In Ponca City, family members of murder victim Rick Lee Patterson, 33, awake with anticipation.
They’ve waited nearly 15 years for this day.
On Oct. 19, 1985, Patterson, a Moore Central Mid-High School math teacher, went to an Oklahoma City supermarket and became a random target.
Berget and co-defendant Mikell “Bulldog” Smith forced Patterson into the trunk of his car and drove to a deserted area.
They ordered him out of the car and shot him twice in the head with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Patterson’s family doesn’t intend to miss Berget’s execution, despite a major regret.
The regret is that Smith, once labeled the most dangerous man in the penitentiary, escaped capital punishment.
An appeals court found evidentiary problems with his first trial and threw out his death sentence. He later pleaded guilty in exchange for a life term.
In prison, he has killed an inmate and stabbed a guard.
“This is only half,” Patterson’s sister, Diane Newlin, said of Berget’s execution. “There’s still the other half…. I hope he gets his in prison.”
Before making the three-hour drive to McAlester, Patterson’s father, brother, sister, sister-in-law and two nephews stop at a Ponca City cemetery.
They place fresh flowers on Patterson’s grave.
“It’s the best decorated grave there,” Newlin said.
Inmate’s last rights
For the inmate waiting to die, the final day affords certain privileges.
Unlimited collect phone calls. Visits with family, friends and attorneys. A last meal request.
H-Unit manager Robert Berry delivers Berget’s last meal shortly after noon.
On the verge of death, Berget eats two bacon cheeseburgers, a large order of onion rings, an extra-large root beer and a pint of chocolate ice cream.
At 3 p.m., Berget’s attorney, Steve Presson, and three colleagues – legal partner Robert Jackson, legal assistant Fera Shokat and Kim Marks from the public defender’s office – visit.
Presson can ask for a “contact,” or personal, visit with Berget. However, that would require Berget to undergo another full-body search and X-ray, which takes up to an hour.
Instead, the attorney visits his client through the visitors’ room glass, with each seated and talking over a phone.
Berget, in chains and leg irons, balances his phone on his shoulder.
The inmate’s last appeal was denied two days before. By the final day, Presson said he feels more like a social worker, a minister, a funeral director – a friend – than a lawyer.
“It’s a Hobson’s choice,” he said. “The state can’t execute a mentally incompetent man. Yet, what I’m doing at the last minute is helping him to keep his sanity.
“In a way, I’m helping the state execute him.”
At 5:10 p.m., Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson makes his way to the execution “media center” across the street from the penitentiary.
Berget has exhausted all his appeals, Edmondson tells the two reporters gathered so far.
On almost every execution day, Edmondson leaves Oklahoma City at midafternoon and drives two hours to meet with the victim’s family in McAlester.
Afterward, he conducts a short media briefing and then returns to the state Capitol, where he handles any last- minute legal issues. He leaves the Capitol only after getting word that the inmate is dead.
Typically, word comes by 12:30 a.m., and he’s home by 1, eating cookies and drinking warm milk to relieve his tensions.
“I would hope it never becomes so routine that tension is not in the air,” he said.
Outside the gate
At 9:28 p.m., a single protester dressed in black holds a lighted candle outside the penitentiary’s front gate.
By 10:30 p.m., an additional two dozen death-penalty opponents, including Berget’s attorneys, join her.
Led by the Rev. Bryan Brooks, a Catholic priest from Okmulgee, the protesters pray for the victim and the killer – and for an end to capital punishment, which they believe only adds to the bloodshed.
Nearby, a half-dozen lawn chairs sit outside Rob McDaniel’s 31-foot-long recreational vehicle, parked by the gate.
Each execution day, a dozen or so members of the Homicide Survivors Support Group meet at the Oklahoma City police station about 5:30 p.m. and pile into McDaniel’s RV.
They arrive about 7:30 and screw together a giant wooden collage covered with photographs, poems and news clips memorializing murder victims. They prop the “victims’ board” against the front of the RV.
“With all the focus on the killer, we want to remind the world that there was a victim years ago,” said McDaniel, wearing a white hat with “Remember the victims” in red letters. “The victim had a name, a face and a family.”
The homicide survivors eat chips and salsa and drink from a bottomless coffee pot.
“It looks like we’re here having a party, but we’re not,” group member Shelly Minton said. “We are a family, just because of the bond between us.”
The final hour
At 11 p.m., attorney Presson enters the prison grounds to await a van ride to witness the execution.
Upon his arrival, he’s given a television and a box containing snacks, shoes, books, pens, paper, stamps and a Bible – all of Berget’s worldly possessions.
He’ll mail the items to Berget’s family.
About 11:30 p.m., Warden Gary Gibson signals to Berget that it’s time to go.
As is customary, prison officials let the condemned inmate walk from the holding cell to the execution chamber on his own. A restraint team is available if the inmate puts up a fight, but most don’t, H-Unit manager Berry said.
Prison officials strap Berget to the gurney, then insert intravenous needles in each arm. They cover most of his body with a white sheet.
At 11:35 p.m., a correctional officer takes the four media witnesses into the H-Unit law library to await the execution. Each reporter is searched upon entering the building .
At precisely 11:45 p.m., clanking comes from death row. Inmates rattle their cell doors with their hands and bang them with their feet – a show of respect for the condemned man.
As the inevitable approaches, stress shows on Berget’s face.
The warden, noticing Berget’s nervousness, asks how he liked his cheeseburgers.
“Did you order out or have a prison hamburger?” Chaplain Don Perteet chimes in.
They were Sonic burgers, Berget responds, joking that it’d been a long time since he ordered take-out.
Sliding bars shut behind the reporters as they walk up a gray, concrete hall to the witness room.
Blinds cover the windows to the execution chamber as the four reporters sit down on brown folding chairs.
Presson and five other witnesses chosen by Berget – Jackson, Shokat, Marks, trial attorney Jim Rowan and volunteer prison chaplain Charles Story – arrive. They sit in front of the media representatives.
The victim’s witnesses – his father, Raymond Patterson; his brother, Lloyd Patterson; and his sister, Diane Newlin – watch from behind tinted glass. Neither the inmate nor the media can see them.
State Corrections Director James Saffle and Corrections Board member Mike Roark enter the witness room last.
Saffle listens for a moment on a phone connected to the governor’s office. Then he picks up a phone to the execution chamber.
“Proceed with the execution,” Saffle tells the warden.
At 12:08 a.m., the blinds to the execution chamber rise.
“Do you have a last statement?” Warden Gibson, wearing a black suit with a gray tie and white shirt, asks Berget.
“No, sir,” the inmate replies, the microphone above his head carrying his voice into the witness room.
“Let the execution begin,” the warden proclaims.
In a separate room, three anonymous executioners, each paid $300, squeeze syringes that pump lethal drugs into Berget’s arms.
Sodium thiopental causes unconsciousness. Pancoronium bromide stops respiration. Potassium chloride stops the heart.
Chaplain Perteet stands at the head of Berget’s bed, an open Bible in his hands, as the execution starts.
“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens,” he reads aloud from Ecclesiastes 3. “A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.”
He skips Verse 3 – which begins “A time to kill” – confessing later that he thought that part was inappropriate under the circumstances.
Berget exhales a few raspy breaths and quickly succumbs .
A gray-suited doctor with a stethoscope steps forward to check Berget’s pulse.
The exam takes a few seconds.
“Time of death,” the doctor says, “12:12 a.m.”
The blinds close again.
End of a long day
Minutes later, a hearse carries Berget’s body to the state medical examiner’s office in Oklahoma City.
The medical examiner will conduct toxicology tests to confirm the cause of death, then release the body within 12 to 24 hours. The body will be cremated, with the $500 expense contributed by attorneys, friends and death-penalty foes.
At 12:25 a.m., Patterson’s stunned-looking family members show up at the media center to give their impressions.
Berget’s death was too easy, they tell the reporters.
“He had a smile on his face before he shut his eyes and he had a smile on his face afterward,” said Patterson’s brother, Lloyd.
“Electric chair, gas chamber, getting hung, firing squad – if it was me, I’d think twice about it. That’s just nothing to go in there and fall asleep.”
Berget’s attorney said his client had planned to express his remorse to the victim’s family and ask forgiveness for the pain he caused. But as happened at his clemency hearing, no words came out when the time came.
“When the curtains went up and everybody was staring at him, he froze,” Presson said.
At 12:32 a.m., Patterson’s father, Raymond, announces that he’s exhausted and going home. It’s been a long day.