Richard Hyatt: What it's like to watch someone executed in Georgia

May 31, 2014 

Twice I have been invited to watch someone die.

I witnessed the execution of John Eldon Smith in 1983. His face covered by a piece of brown cloth, he died in the electric chair.

I witnessed the execution of Ronald Keith Spivey in 2002. An IV was stuck in his arm and he died by lethal injection.

These men were guilty of heinous acts of violence, but sitting on an old wooden church pew 12 or 15 feet from a person as he is put to death is not a pleasant assignment.

Reporters are there as the eyes and ears of the public. We're supposed to go outside and report what we have seen.

Georgia has been executing people since 1735. More than 500 people died by hanging until the first electric chair was built in 1924. In 1938 the state made history by executing six men in 81 minutes. Lethal injections were made the legal method of execution in 2001.

A botched execution in Oklahoma has drawn attention to problems surrounding lethal injections around the country, including Georgia.

Earlier questions about this method brought me to Jackson, Ga., in 2002 -- the night Spivey was supposed to die.

Before Jim Wetherington was mayor, the former police chief was commissioner of corrections. An Atlanta reporter was hounding him because he would not allow anyone to witness the insertion of the needle in the inmate's arm.

Wetherington didn't invite her. He invited me so I was in the viewing room when Spivey was brought into the chamber.

He was a giant of a man and had grown larger in prison. The dose was large and officials were prepared for problems.

Only there were none. Spivey chattered all the way through the process. He was talking when the rest of the witnesses arrived. The injection was deadly but not inhumane.

Neither was the execution of Smith.

We watched him closely and the only hint of electricity was a twitching of his fingers. We had to ask each other if it was over.

A series of opinion pieces in Creative Loafing, an alternative newspaper in Atlanta, has examined executions in our state.

The latest is an editorial in this week's edition. You can read them at www.clatl.com. The series is very informative.

It talks about horror and abuse. I was blessed to witness neither.

Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at hyatt31906@knology.net.

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