I have not had the time nor the energy to attempt to write anything here before today. The past week has been one of the most painful and most holy of my life, and it will take me a very long time to deal with all that has happened. Looking back, I guess that I lived in denial for a very long time about Steve’s possible execution. When you have known someone for 10 years, it just seems too incredible that one day, the state will strap him down to a gurney and kill him.
In the days leading up to the execution, I continued to believe that someone would intervene…the courts, the Governor, someone would look at all the serious problems with this case and stop this execution. But, no one did. And so I was faced with helping my friend to prepare for his death and helping his suffering family to endure it.
As most of you have probably now read, Steve was the most at peace I had ever experienced him in the hours prior to his execution. We spent the hours from 9-11 p.m. sharing stories, talking about God’s presence in suffering, reading Scripture, praying, and sharing the Lord’s Supper together. When it was time for me to go, we tried to hug through the bars that separated us, and I gave him a kiss on the cheek. I told him that God had given me some measure of peace by the way he was facing his death, and he told me not to let this whole ordeal scar me.
Then, a few hours later, I watched my friend attempt to lighten the mood in the execution chamber as he made a joke about how pitiful we all looked and stuck his tongue out at his kids. After his heartfelt words about his concern for the Stafford family, for the pain Fred and Edna Stafford has gone through, and after again, asserting his innocence as he had for 23 years, Warden Bell said, “Proceed.”
Steve lifted his head and said, “I feel it coming.” As his head feel back and he began to make a loud snoring sound, I grabbed his sister sitting next to me and reached my hand over her to put it on his son’s shoulder. I closed my eyes tightly and the words of the Lord’s Prayer began pouring out of me as I struggled and as Steve struggled. I wanted Steve to hear those familiar and comforting words over the wailing of his kids, and I wanted to drown out any sound coming from that room where my friend was dying.
We buried Steve on Saturday at his home place in Gainesboro. He was buried next to his beloved grandparents and his brother David who was murdered while Steve was in prison. I, like Steve, hope that this horrible nightmare brings peace to the Stafford family, but I am hard pressed to see how so much suffering inflicted on the Henley family can possibly bring anyone any peace.
For now, I will try to heal and remember my friend by telling his story and through the work that I am doing to end this awful death penalty. The last thing I said to Steve before the poison flowed was, “Steve, I am never going to quit.” He raised his head with a smile and said, “I am counting on that.” Steve, none of us will quit until the death penalty is abolished. And yes, you can count on that.
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