By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
A silent, somber ritual of justice: Witnessing an execution
Times reporter recounts experience at execution, killers final moments
1120EXECUTION
"I was becoming more and more conscious of my heavy breathing in the back of our five-person transport. A handful of times, I glanced toward the passengers in the fellow vans, wondering how they were connected to Spears. What brought them to this middle Georgia institution on a Wednesday night as armed guards stood at the ready?" - photo by Photo illustration by SCOTT ROGERS

With my eyes on a man taking his last breaths, all I could hear were my own.

It was a state-sanctioned event sponsored by silence.

Nothing about the day and how it started seemed markedly different than the past 300 or so in a line of work at the intersection of death and disaster.

After waking up around 9 a.m., I spent the morning checking emails and making my usual rounds through police logs. To avoid running out to eat while working on other projects, I decided to order food.

Ding-dong — the doorbell and inbox chimed almost simultaneously.

My editor sent me a release saying Steven Frederick Spears, the topic of my most recent articles, will be executed as expected. At that moment, I realized he and I both would have pizza before we spend our night at a Jackson prison.

On my 90-minute journey down to Jackson for the 7 p.m. execution, I couldn’t see a cloud for miles. Any type of weather would be too on-the-nose for the night’s plan.

Arriving 40 minutes before the designated check-in at the prison, I was told by a kind guard I was too early for the execution. I drove across the street and parked in the Dairy Queen lot, thumbing along to the radio on the steering column. Nine or so songs play at a muted tone before I decided to head back, the last being “One Love” by U2.

In Spears’ confession to killing his ex-girlfriend Sherri Holland, he said he told her when they started dating that “if I caught her or found out she was screwin’ somebody else, I’d choke her ass to death.”

At the end of the confession, Spears said, “I loved her that much. I told her I wasn’t letting go, and I didn’t.”

I entered with three other media witnesses, each parking in the grass as we received periodic updates on the case. An hour of small talk later, and a van arrived to take us to the prison.

After going through security — I could only keep my press badge and keys — the four of us walked down a bright white hallway that was a short walk but seemed endless. The walls had motivational posters, which I remember mostly from elementary school, reading “EXCELLENCE.”

Each new room came with a “sign this” or “fill out that” as we left behind all of our possessions in exchange for No. 2 pencils and pads.

We were seated at a metal table near a TV and given further instructions on the execution, with “Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection” playing in the background. While discussing the exact procedure, I watched Chuck Norris out of the corner of my eye dishing out roundhouse kicks.

Like clockwork, the officials summoned the media monitor after 6:30 p.m. for transport to the death chamber, his duty being to observe the IV placement.

Minutes later, we followed. There would be no last-minute appeal.

The van’s radio clock read 7:59, a reminder that almost all of my devices have not yet recognized daylight saving time. A few buttons pushed, and the time was set a minute before the scheduled execution time.

Riding through the security checkpoints, a guard checked under the hood, above the wheel wells and inside the trunk. After driving across a field, we sat for minutes motionless.

I was becoming more and more conscious of my heavy breathing in the back of our five-person transport.

A handful of times, I glanced toward the passengers in the fellow vans, wondering how they were connected to Spears. What brought them to this middle Georgia institution on a Wednesday night as armed guards stood at the ready?

Allowing the other witnesses to enter before me, I took the last seat in the last pew. Spears laid strapped to the gurney with his arms spread open. Under bright lights, the Lumpkin County man was covered in a bleach-white sheet. His gaze was fixed upward as warden Eric Sellers recounted the conviction details that brought us to this small chamber.

Any final words to be said? No, Spears said.

Any prayers to be read? Again, no.

The three witnesses and I scribbled away as others sat in silence, the warden leaving at 7:18 p.m. Within minutes, Spears started showing signs of labored breathing.

His mouth drooped open, and then nothing. Stillness.

Two doctors wearing stethoscopes entered the room, checking for any signs in Spears’ chest, eyes and neck. Thirty minutes after his scheduled death, and the final curtain was drawn.

The quiet continued in the van ride back to our cars save the reminder to not forget my keys.

It was miles down Interstate 75 before I realized I still had the radio muted.

Nick Watson is a reporter who covers public safety and courts for The Times.

Regional events