Can execution be a spectator sport?

On Monday, Timothy McVeigh is due to die by lethal injection ­ and more than 300 people are expected to watch. But how does it actually feel to spectate at an execution?
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A death rattle is not something you forget easily. Three years ago, I was present when Robert Carter was executed by lethal injection. The sound he made still remains with me. Strapped down to a table, his arms outstretched as if nailed to a horizontal crucifix, he filled the death chamber with a noise similar to a horse braying as the air in his lungs was forced out between his plump lips. It reminded me of the sound my then boyfriend sometimes made in his sleep.

As is normally the case with executions in the United States, Robert Carter's death was watched by a small gathering. He had invited two friends, two relatives and his lawyer. There were also four journalists ­ including me ­ and a handful of prison officials. No relation of Carter's victim came to watch.

Such reluctance will not be shown at the execution of Timothy McVeigh, which is scheduled for Monday and will be witnessed by more people than any execution in America since jailyard hangings ended in the 1950s.

McVeigh murdered 168 people and injured almost 700 others when he blew up the Alfred P Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995. It was the worst act of peacetime violence on American soil. Barring a last-minute reprieve, his execution by lethal injection at Indiana's Terre Haute penitentiary will be the first carried out under federal law since 1963. Almost 300 survivors and relatives of those who died have applied to watch the execution on closed-circuit television at Oklahoma City's federal transfer centre for prisoners.

Those with the best view will be at Terre Haute itself, where four witness rooms overlook the newly built death chamber. McVeigh, 33, will be allowed two lawyers, three friends or family members and a spiritual adviser. One of his "friends" will be the novelist and commentator Gore Vidal, an opponent of the death penalty. Another room will be allocated to the 10 media witnesses who will act as a press pool for the estimated 2,000 reporters who are expected to be outside. The third group will be made up of 10 survivors and victims' relatives. There will also be a group of government officials.

The US's appetite for the death penalty is unquenchable. According to figures collated by Amnesty International, last year the US put 85 prisoners to death, 10 more than the official figure for Iran.

Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated after a four-year moratorium, the US has carried out 542 lethal injections, 149 electrocutions, 11 poisonings in gas chambers, three hangings and two deaths by firing squad. There are some 3,700 people currently on Death Row.

The pace of executions in the US has been increasing steadily. And the country's lust for retribution looks unlikely to wane under the new presidency. During George Bush's governorship of Texas, 152 executions took place.

Whether the witnesses of McVeigh's showcase execution will obtain any solace from it remains to be seen. Those seeking revenge may well feel cheated by what should be a clinical and orderly death, not a luxury their relatives enjoyed.

Certainly, on the days leading up to Robert Carter's execution, I feared I would feel nothing, and worried whether I would have to face up to a hitherto unrecognised callousness. I had been told on several occasions that the procedure would be much like watching an animal being put down, or someone falling asleep. How traumatic would that be? Not very, I presumed.

When I arrived at the prison in Huntsville, Texas, I was shown into the office of Larry Fitzgerald, the head of public information for the Texas department of criminal justice, where I joined the other journalists. The mood was light and jovial as they celebrated the birthday of David Nunnelee, a prison press officer. I declined a slice of birthday cake. I didn't feel like celebrating.

The phone rang for Fitzgerald. Carter, 34, had been strapped down to the table. It was time for us to make the short walk over to the main body of the prison which housed the death chamber. My stomach started to churn.

Carter was 17 when, in 1982, he shot dead cashier Sylvia Reyes during a robbery at a Houston petrol station. His victim was 18. Carter confessed to the shooting when arrested and arrived on Death Row when he himself was 18. Four years after the shooting, Carter was diagnosed as having brain damage. He had had numerous head injuries as a child and had suffered a gunshot wound to the head just before the crime. His ability to relate cause and effect was impaired, and he had an IQ of 74, making him borderline mentally retarded. All appeals failed.

As we walked outside in single file to the main entrance of the prison, we were heckled by anti-death penalty protestors. Inside the prison, after a metal detector scan and full body pat-down, we walked a further 10 yards in the open air to the death chamber. The narrow path was flanked by neat rows of flowers.

We were shown into one of two parallel witness rooms, which were separated from the execution chamber by a low wall and sheet of enforced glass. I walked towards it. Robert Carter, a 6ft bulk of a man dressed in navy, was buckled to the table. One strap tied him down across his chest, another across his waist and three across his legs. His hands were bandaged to the gurney, palms down. (Witnesses to McVeigh's execution will not be afforded such details, as his body will be covered with a sheet drawn up to his neck.) Two intravenous tubes led from the bandages to a hole in the wall and into the executioner's room, which had a one-way mirror.

Carter's face was different from the teenage mugshot taken when he first entered prison. He appeared several stone heavier and the one-time baby-face now bore stubble. Above his mouth hung a microphone. As we filed into the room, Carter raised his head, which had been resting on a small rolled-up white fluffy towel, as he craned to see who had come in. His brow was wet and his face contorted with anxiety. He quickly looked away from us and towards the room adjacent to ours where his relatives and friends were now entering.

With him in the sky-blue chamber was warden Jim Willett, and chaplain James Brazzil, who kept his hand on Carter's leg throughout the entire procedure. Earlier, he had visited Carter in his holding cell. "Robert was very calm," Brazzil told me the following day. "Very peaceful. We had a good time together. He was very polite and gentle. He'd changed a lot. He was a man truly filled with remorse for what had taken place. He had a good spirit and a good attitude throughout the whole process."

Back in the execution chamber, Willett asked Carter whether he had any final words: "I love all of you all," said the inmate. "Thank you for caring so much about me. Keep the faith. I am going to a better place. I hope the victim's family will forgive me because I didn't mean to hurt no one or kill no one. I love all of you all." The executioner then released the first drug to induce unconsciousness. The second would stop him breathing, and the last would stop his heart. Carter lay with his eyes open, staring at the ceiling for what seemed to me such a long time that I wondered whether anything had gone wrong.

One of the prison officials standing next to me, who was undergoing training, accidentally tapped the glass with a ring. I cringed. I didn't want Carter's last moment alive to be spent wondering why some fat bloke was tapping on the glass at him.

Carter suddenly scrunched up his face, as if bracing himself against something. After a sudden, deep intake of breath, air passed out through his lips, which vibrated loudly. It was an undignified sound, and I felt embarrassed.

Carter remained in the same position for several long minutes, his eyes shut. It was difficult to believe that, only minutes ago, this strapping man had been alive. A doctor came in, checked the body, and pronounced Carter dead.

We filed back to Fitzgerald's office, where the two male agency reporters started tapping out their stories on laptops. I asked Fitzgerald about the procedure. After a while he suddenly turned to me and asked what I thought of it. "I thought it was disgusting. He looked in so much anguish," I replied, tears suddenly and unexpectedly erupting. Fitzgerald wasn't impressed with the answer. He rifled through the papers on his desk to find the victim's name. "I bet Sylvia Reyes looked anguished too," he snapped.

The next day I returned to the prison for a scheduled interview with the chaplain, but was first taken to one side by David Nunnelee, who proceeded to tell me off. It was, he said, unprofessional of me to have been upset. I was so amazed that I couldn't reply.

Despite finding the experience distressing at the time, I have never had nightmares about it, nor suffered emotionally since. How the witnesses of McVeigh's execution fare remains to be seen. Considering America's long-standing love affair with the death penalty, celebrations are inevitable. There is already talk of parties being organised in Oklahoma City.

Bud Welch, who lost his 27-year-old daughter Julie in the explosion, and who has decided to witness the execution, will no doubt be in a minority. "I won't be waving any placard," he said. "The death of this man will be a private moment for me, and a very sad one. I don't think his death is going to help anyone or bring anyone back. If we accept state killing, we accept killing."