Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Witnessing a Death, out of Duty

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Witnessing a Death, out of Duty

Article excerpt

On March 13, 2000, Chester Allan Poage was beaten and tortured in a snow-filled gulch in Spearfish, Colo. The 19-year-old's attackers were Piper Briley, Darrell Hoadley, and Elijah Page. Briley and Hoadley were 20; Page was 18. Poage's death throes lasted more than three hours.

During the six years that followed, the state of Colorado watched as Poage's attackers were arrested and charged. Hoadley received a life sentence in 2001. That same year, Piper and Page threw themselves on the mercy of the court by pleading guilty. Circuit Judge Warren Johnson sentenced both to death by lethal injection.

In February 2006, from his prison cell in Sioux Falls, S.D., Page wrote a letter requesting that his lawyers end his appeals and allow him to face his death sentence. By doing so, Page was to be not only the youngest prisoner ever executed in the state (at 24), but the first in South Dakota since 1947.

Page was to be put to death on Aug. 29 -- and the witnesses, including those from the media, were selected. But just hours before the execution, Gov. Mike Rounds intervened, citing the conflicting methods of administering the drugs to Page. (The 1984 law for South Dakota requires a lethal dose of two drugs; however, the Sioux Falls prison was prepared to use three, which since 1984 has become the protocol for states that perform lethal injections.)

The execution was delayed until after July 1, 2007: "This will allow the S.D. Legislature enough time to amend the current statute, reflecting more recent lethal injection protocols," Rounds said in a statement.

Among the media that had gathered to cover Page's last hours was Bill Harlan, a reporter for the Rapid City (S.D.) Journal, and one of two reporters who were on hand to witness the execution. When the Journal, along with the state's AP bureau, were cleared by the state Department of Corrections to attend (the larger Argus Leader in Sioux Falls and several TV stations were bypassed), Harlan was among a handful of Journal staffers who volunteered for the assignment.

Harlan said that his choice was based in part on his experiences as a medic during the Vietnam War. As he wrote on Mount Blogmore, a blog he shares with two other Journal reporters, "When I returned home [from Vietnam], very few people wanted to talk about Vietnam, and, frankly, that was just fine with me. The less said, the better.

"It turned out for me at least, that the less said was not better. …

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