March Column Winner

H Unit echoes linger after execution

STEVEN JAMES, South County Leader

The pounding started sometime around 5:40 p.m. Random and disorganized at first, but it quickly found its rhythm. BAM-BAM-clank.
You could hear it through the concrete of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary's H Unit.
I was one of seven media witnesses and two Department of Corrections employees waiting in the Law Library, a small, cramped room ringed on three sides by bookshelves and on the other by three empty standing-room-only cells, with a couple of desks in the center.
We'd been told to expect the sound by Terry Crenshaw, the warden's assistant. The volume is often a measure of other inmates' respect for condemned prisoners as they are led to the Execution Room, he said. For some, the sound is loud and resounding. For others, it can barely be heard.
They never see the condemned led away from their cells, but they always know, Crenshaw said.
Apparently fellow inmates thought quite highly of Shaun Stemple, likely the first Jenks resident ever executed by the state of Oklahoma. The BAM-BAM-clank was pretty loud, almost more felt than heard.
I didn't know Stemple from Adam, nor did I know his wife, Trisha, whose lifeless body was found alongside Hwy 75 just north of Jenks that October morning in 1996. She had been beaten mercilessly with a baseball bat and run over, the scene staged to look like a hit-and-run accident so Shaun could collect nearly $1 million in insurance, according to the testimony of a then-teenage accomplice now serving a life sentence.
For years afterward, a white cross, often adorned with flowers, stood as a silent testimony to the heinous crime committed there.
I had driven past it countless times and kept seeing it in my mind, alternating with a photo of Shaun I'd downloaded for use in my news stories from the DOC website. I could only imagine the scene described by prosecutors and Terry Hunt, Shaun's accomplice, but I kept seeing it, too.
BAM-BAM-clank. White cross. BAM-BAM-clank. Shaun's mug shot.
We were led at a brisk walk from the law library back through the gates we'd gone through just minutes before.
BAM-BAM-clank. Hunt bashing Trisha in the head with the cellophane- wrapped bat. Then Shaun. Over and over.
BAM-BAM-clank. Shaun telling his wife, "Trish, don't worry, the ambulance is on its way."
They guided us up a long hallway and a flight of steps, past a bay of windows. A telephone was mounted on the wall near each window, obviously for use by visitors who came to see their sons, grandsons, brothers, nephews or uncles.
We reached the door of the execution room. It was painted a buttercup yellow, in stark contrast to the institutional gray of the floors and walls.
"Don't ask why it's yellow," Crenshaw had told us back in the library. "I don't know."
A guard opened the door, and we were quickly led inside to take our seats on a row of metal folding chairs.
Stemple's family members were led into the tiny, stifling gallery just a minute or two later. Two sisters, his daughter, and his parents. I was seated behind Stemple's father. They had all maintained Shaun's innocence until the end, hoping for a last minute stay so their analysis of the evidence — which they said refuted prosecutors' accounts of the baseball bat beating — could be heard.
A prison official stood at a telephone just to the right of the windows that separated us from the death chamber, just in case the governor decided to intervene. But the stay for which Stemple's family had hoped so earnestly never came. A small retinue of officials, including Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz and two homicide detectives filed into the room.
By this time, the other inmates' percussive tribute to Stemple had faded. The BAM-BAM-clank I still heard was only in my mind.
BAM-BAM-clank. Trisha Stemple fighting for her life, crawling to the roadside. BAM-BAM-clank. Shaun turning his pickup to run over her one last time. BAM-BAM-clank. The agony his parents must be feeling knowing they were about to watch their son's final moments on earth, convinced the state was executing an innocent man.
"Proceed with the execution," said the man on the phone. The blinds between us and the Execution Room went up quickly.
Stemple lay strapped down on a gurney, eyes closed. He looked just like his mug shot, but nothing like the man I'd seen on TV years ago. A man in a dark suit with a black goatee and buzzcut stood at Stemple's right side. A woman stood at a podium placed at his feet. A physician sat on a chair in the corner of the small room.
BAM-BAM-clank. Trisha's life ebbing away from her body as cars whizzed by, the other drivers never seeing her. BAM-BAM-clank. Trisha's family members crumpling in grief as they learned of her death. BAM-BAM-clank. Shaun and Trisha's daughter weeping silently.
"Would you like to make a final statement?" asked the man in the dark suit.
Stemple shook his head, eyes still closed.
"Let the execution begin," the man said. The clock on the wall read 6:04 p.m.
Stemple's death was quick and efficient. Not anything like the death he had been convicted of inflicting on his wife.
He opened his eyes briefly, perhaps involuntarily, 20 or 30 seconds after the go-ahead was given, then closed them for the last time. His skin reddened, then turned a slight purple. He made a puffing, gasping sound through pursed lips.
Puaaah. Puaaah. B
Stemple's breathing stopped. The color drained away from his face as the officials in the room waited for the lethal injection to finish its work. The moment seemed frozen in time, as if it would last forever.
The silence was deafening. His family sat there, most weeping silently, wiping away tears. His mother's face bore a strangely placid half-smile, as if somehow she'd already come to terms with what she was seeing. His father's eyes moistened, but no tears came.
Trisha's family was in another gallery, separated from the Stemples, as required — and understandably so — by state law. We could only wonder how they were reacting.
The doctor in the corner stood and stepped to Stemple's left side, blocking my view. He uncoiled a stethoscope from around his necka nd searched for a pulse. Once, twice, three times.
"Time of death, 6:11," the doctor said.
The shades went down almost instantly. Glanz and the others were led from the room, Stemple's family a minute or two later. My fellow media witnesses and I waited silently before being led from the room ourselves.
Another brisk walk past the visitors' windows, down the steps, down the hall, through the gate. The kachung of the gate closing behind me was a welcome sound.
We boarded the same two minivans that had brought us to the doors of H Unit and rode the short distance back to the small building that on execution days becomes a media center.
A handful of Trisha's family solemnly filed in a few minutes later to speak to the media.
"Today was not about Shaun," said Trisha's sister, Deborah Ruddick-Bird, reading from remarks jotted down on a piece of paper. "Today is about justice, finality and closure for my gorgeous sister and my family."
Finally, the BAM-BAMclank in my head fell silent.