US shrugs at macabre ritual of death 1/42 decky

Rupert Cornwell in Georgia watches as officials are unable to conceal their irritation at the stays of execution and the country remains unmoved es byline in here across widthy across widthy

In the UK the Archbishop of Canterbury has taken up his cause. A thousand angry faxes arrive in the US each day from Britain. But America regards the Nick Ingram affair, and the furore it has detonated on the other side of the Atlantic, with detached amusement. So, silently ask the tiny news items tucked away on the inside pages, what's the big deal?

In the US this is just another impending execution, a familiar litany of the macabre, clinically and instantly recounted by press officials of the state prison system - in the case of Vicki Gavalas, an elegantly dressed woman you would expect to find pushing an account on Madison Avenue, rather than standing in the green fields of Georgia talking to reporters about the electric chair. But this is all part of the well-honed ritual of judicial killing, US-style.

No less well-honed is the process inside the Diagnostic and Classification Center, Georgia's euphemism for the state's maximum security prison where its Death Row stands, and which plainly does appreciate the last-minute meddling by a judge.

For example, at 5.55pm on Thursday came the first stay from Judge Horace Ward, a rare black federal judge in this heartland of Dixie, one hour and five minutes before Ingram was due to be executed. The state argued that two hours would be quite enough. But with defence attorneys looking anxiously at the clock in the courtroom, Ward was adamant: "A man's life is at stake, I'm going to stay it until I'm ready to decide."

Jubilantly, Clive Stafford Smith, Ingram's lawyer, telephoned the prison, where preparations were in full swing.

Discreetly out of view, a hearse was already waiting. Ingram's right leg had been shaved and he had donned the fresh white prison uniform, with a slit by the ankle where the electrode would be fitted.

Outside the press was being informed by a slightly peeved Ms Gavalas, who had already betrayed similar irritation at Ingram's reputed surliness before his death. This, she implied, was not the way these things were done.

Only one thing was wrong: no one had told the condemned man himself. "Oh," said the warden's secretary, "what about we tell him in 40 minutes?" And that in fact was what happened. Not until 6.35pm, as he was waiting in the holding cell 17 feet from the death chamber, was Ingram told that for 24 hours at least, he would live. And 40 minutes, notes Mr Stafford Smith, "was two-thirds of the life he thought was left to him".

Yesterday the same ghoulish ritual was playing out. Another limpid spring day in the beautiful rolling woodlands of central Georgia, studded with blooming white dogwoods. Another wait for the reporters in the special roped off area with Ms Gavalas and her colleagues keeping in touch by walkie-talkie with events inside the bleak white and grey concrete compound half a mile away, with its watchtower and coils of razor wire.

Once again the strange spectacle of a small army of British reporters wandering around under the pine trees with cellular phones clapped to their faces, relaying Ms Gavalas' latest intelligence on Ingram's mood and eating preferences, to copy desks in London.

As the day before, a pile of handouts on Georgia and its electric chair and every wretched soul who ended his days on it since 1924, lay by the entrance hut. As before, reporters scrutinised every car coursing along the broad alley leading to the prison. Was that his mother, his father, his sisters? One thing we did know, however. This time, Ingram's head was already shaved.

And a final footnote to the Nick Ingram carnival of death. On Thursday Texas put to death 41-year-old Noble Mays, convicted of a 1979 murder and robbery. They tried him four times. One ended in a mistrial and two other guilty verdicts were overturned. Mays was the 271st person executed in the US since 1977. Hardly anyone noticed and fewer cared.

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