What it's like to watch a man die

By The Anniston Star journalist John Archibald

Jan 22nd, 2016

Arthur James Julius seemed to welcome death.

Many said it was too good for him. Too quick. Too easy. This was a guy who -- while free from prison on 8-hour leave – raped and killed his own cousin.

What I recall most is his hands, the double thumbs up he gave those who gathered at Holman Prison in Atmore in 1989 to witness his death. Thumbs up, like some injured athlete signaling his A-OK as he was carted off the field.

Or the earth.

They strapped his hands down on Alabama's old "Yellow Mama" electric chair.  He gave a statement, forgiving the warden who had to kill him, and professing his faith in a  God that would not torment him.

Julius offered  a little smile, as if in farewell. And witnesses gathered in a little observation room adjoining the execution chamber said nothing. Nothing.

We walked quietly away. To write our stories. To tell the world that Julius was dead. The sentence had been carried out, and Julius was officially the seventh person killed by  Alabama since the re-instatement of the death penalty.

It was sterile. It was clinical. It was over.

yellow mama1.jpgAlabama has retired "Yellow Mama," but not executions.

That was 27 years ago, after a U.S. Supreme Court ban on executions had ended, when the state rushed to make up for lost time. Alabama executed four people in 1989, and nine between 1986 and 1992. I saw a handful of them.

I saw more than I wanted to see.  Then again, I saw what I needed to see. I don't even remember all their names.

I remember Horace Franklin Dunkins. He died in that chair four months before Julius. It would be almost impossible to turn Dunkins into a sympathetic character.  He raped and killed a young mother from Warrior, a woman tied to a tree and stabbed 67 times.

But Alabama did it.  It strapped Dunkins – with his IQ of 69 – down and zapped him with what was supposed to be enough voltage to kill a man, and it didn't work.

A guard scrambled over to pull the blinds down in the observation window. Another muttered how they'd put the jacks on wrong. Beside me in that quiet chamber Dunkins' father said, over and over, "they're torturing him."

They hit him again and he died about 20 minutes after the first jolt. I don't want to make it too dramatic. It was not gruesome. The first electricity rendered him unresponsive, and I believe he felt no pain.

I felt for his father, but in truth I felt little else. It was the same every time I witnessed an execution. I wanted to feel more. I expected to feel more. I felt bad, quite simply, because I did not feel bad. I was constantly overwhelmed by the ... nothingness.

I was neither  judge nor jury. Just a witness. And he was convicted of ghastly crimes. Who am I to say he did not deserve a similar death?

Brooks executed for 1992 murder of Jo Deann Campbell

Brooks executed for 1992 murder of Jo Deann Campbell

"I hope this brings closure to everybody," Brooks said before his execution.


But of late I have begun to feel. Not for Dunkins, or Julius, but for all of us.

For one other thing sticks with me about that botched execution. It is the anguish of the prison official  who stood shaking after it was done.

"I regret very very much what happened,'' Alabama Prison Commissioner Morris Thigpen said then. "It was human error."

That makes me feel.

Because if human error can screw up the killing of a man, it can screw up justice, too.  Alabama knows human error.

Alabama has sentenced innocents to death. Alabama is the only state left in which judges can ignore juries and send people to die. At least one in five Alabama death row inmates are there because a judge overrode a jury.

Don't misunderstand.  This is not to say it is wrong for the state to kill people,. It's not to say it is right.

I don't know. Decide for yourself.

But I do know we can't be satisfied to feel nothing. And we can never go too far to be sure. Sure that we have the right men or women. Sure that we stand for justice, and not simply vengeance.

Vengeance is too easy. Justice is hard.

We have to be right and must be righteous. So we never look back at a human death and apologize. For human error.



Gesendet: Sonntag, 24. Januar 2016 um 00:18 Uhr
Von: Ursula Malchau
An: jarchibald@al.com
Betreff: Your article "What it's like to watch a man die"
Dear Mr. Archibald,
Following the night where Alabama killed Chris Brooks I read your article “What it’s like to watch a man die”. I have to admit I was both disappointed, and frightened, and I found this piece to be eye-opening.
I was disappointed about your apathy towards another cold blooded, state sanctioned murder that has happened. I was frightened about the lack of empathy to the just murdered man and his loved ones. And I’ve got a glimpse of why States like Alabama will not abolish the death penalty any time soon.
Do you know what I would expect from a journalist in your prominent position in the light of the current event?
I had expected you talking about the inconsistence of the Supreme Court which ruled last week in an 8-1 decision the Florida death penalty to be unconstitutional - which is much like and based on the Alabama system. I had wished you going into Alabama’s new three-drug-protocol which includes Midazolam, a sedative that has failed to render condemned men unconscious and led to at least four terrible botched executions last year….
I had expected you educating people about the undoubted unfairness, the arbitrariness, the racial biases, the pest of corruption, the absurd practice of judicial override – simply put: the flawed and broken justice system - in Alabama. I had expected you mentioning the 156 exonerated inmates nationwide since reinstating the capital punishment, who spend more than two or even three decades on death row, including some in Alabama. You could have told your readers about Alabama man Mr. Darrell Grayson who was denied a DNA testing which could have proved his innocence, and instead was quickly being executed.
Instead of addressing these issues you told your readers that only of late you have begun to feel that human errors can occur even in the justice system. As if it’s a very new cognition; as if it isn’t a well-known fact that human beings are fallible in so many ways, and therefore mustn’t be allowed to make life and death decisions.
Then you said in this article you don’t know if it’s right for the state to kill people. And you stated that it’s to make sure that you stand for justice, not simply vengeance. So in your opinion, where is the justice in killing people for killing people? I’d like to think that you know about studies and statistics that show the death penalty does not work as a deterrent; the death penalty does not bring back the victim. It just creates another set of victims. And this is oddness in all journalists’ stories after an execution – they never mention the pain and grief of partners, children, parents, siblings and friends of the executed person, who are traumatized by the cold blooded, premeditated murder committed against their loved one. Why do you keep always quiet about that?
Have you ever read the comments on your article or on others regarding the death penalty? Did you ever notice what kind of people supports the death penalty? It is all about vengeance, nothing else. Reading those sadistic, hateful, self-righteous statements is literally a look into an abyss. The death penalty reveals, and appeals to the basest instincts, and it is damned bitter that politicians in Alabama listen to them, and comply with this assumed majority, instead of showing moral authority, and responsible leadership based on human rights and dignity.
I would like journalists like you just to be the other voice…
Thanks for reading,
Ursula Malchau


Whistling “Dixie“ in Dothan




Allow us to paint you a portrait of the Dirty South where racism still runs rampant and the badge is just a shield against accusations of injustice.


There is a fire burning in Dothan and as the whistling in Dixie continues, there has been no news reports of the big news of massive police corruption of racial targeting of black innocent men with false and planted evidence.


In a police department where officials are said to have stolen guns and drugs and planted them on young black men for prosecution there are:


Crooked judges taking payoffs


Politicians lie and steal everyday


While Americans face devastating layoffs


Courts snatching up me and you


Our justice taken away


By the neo-confederate red, white, and blue


No wonder why Alabamians haven’t seen the works of a neo-confederate organization / “racial extremist” who advocate for blacks to return to Africa. Why the hush by Governor Bentley? He must be the Grand Wizard of this club. Is there no media coverage because of the code of silence? News15 says, “We bring you the news first!” Why are you getting this news from us? Is this just another case of the “Good Ole’ boys” protecting each other?! The Governor hasn’t called for any sort of special task force to investigate this atrocious, and disgraceful display of racism, discrimination, and injustice. He was quick to take to the podium to speak out against accepting any of the Syrian refugees, but he hasn’t stumbled up to one yet to speak about NOT accepting such blatant racism, and injustice in the state’s police departments. We say “departments”, because this is not, and cannot be confined to only Dothan. The name of the organization those crooked officials a part of is called “The League of the South”. A league is, an association or alliance for a common purpose, and you can be assured they have tentacles farther reaching than Dothan.


In a state that holds onto its death house like it needs it to breathe, such obvious racism, and corruption cannot be tolerated, and needs to be fully and thoroughly investigated. There have been numerous capital convictions handed out in Dothan, and some of those very same men, or others a part of “The League” took part in those cases … investigators, officers, and the DA’s. So, if they’ve been stealing, planting, and fabricating evidence since the 90’s, they’ve done it in capital cases as well. The Department of Justice needs to expand its investigation, because we know Gov. Bentley can’t find a podium!


We ask you to please raise your voices, and ask the questions that we know you have, and that we all need to be answered.


Thank you, take care, and be blessed
- The Group -