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Witness to My Friend’s Execution | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Personal photo of Samuel McDonald.

So much time has passed, and yet September 24 remains very painful.

Twenty-two years ago today, I found myself sitting with five other civilians and four security guards in a tiny, cramped room in the bowels of the maximum security Potosi Correctional Institute, just southwest of St. Louis.  The civilians were seated in two rows of chairs, facing a glass window and closed mini-blinds. I was in the front row, and I could look through a crack in the blinds to see the lower part of a man’s face, including a mouth and jaw.  And I knew that was my friend Samuel McDonald, who in just a couple of minutes was going to be injected with a lethal combination of sodium pentothal (which would render him unconscious) and pancuronium bromide and potassium bromide, which would stop his breathing and his beating heart.

I had opposed capital punishment since the ninth grade.  In this, as in many other things, I was at odds with my evangelical parents and my evangelical Baptist church.   I was surrounded by folks who – while not bloodthirsty – wholeheartedly supported the notion of state execution. Interestingly, it was growing up in the church that led me to dissent from my family and church, as I was (and am) convinced that capital punishment violates the essence of Christ’s teachings to choose mercy over revenge, to love our enemies, and to forswear violence (which is why the Catholic church and almost all of the major Protestant denominations have come out against capital punishment).  

But for a number of years my opposition to the death penalty remained an abstraction.  This was because by the late 1960s capital punishment had almost disappeared from the American landscape; what seemed to be the final blow to a barbaric institution came in 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court held that the death penalty is “arbitrary” and “capricious.”  But just four years later, the Court ruled that capital punishment does not violate the Constitution, as long as the state has adequate due-process procedures in place. Soon, 40 or so states re-instituted the death penalty for certain types of murder.   

One of the states that has proven to be most enthusiastic about applying capital punishment is the state of Missouri. Since 1976 Missouri has executed 88 individuals, ranking #5 among the states that kill (behind Florida, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Texas, the latter state having executed 564 individuals in the past 43 years).

In 1984, I became a Missouri resident: having completed my Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I accepted a teaching position at the College of the Ozarks, near Branson.  I felt I needed to do something in response to the fact that I now lived in a death penalty state. But I was not looking to do anything heroic. What I settled upon was corresponding with someone on Missouri’s death row.  So, I contacted the Death Row Support Project for the name of a condemned prisoner with whom I could exchange letters. This is how I became acquainted with Samuel McDonald.

Over the next decade or so I was able – through conversations with Sam, newspaper reports, and open access court records – to piece together Sam’s story.  He grew up in a poor, churchgoing family in inner city St. Louis. At the age of 17 he enlisted in the Army. It was 1967, and Sam ended up – as did so many poor black males – in Vietnam.  He proved to be an efficient soldier, earning a raft of medals. But the experience traumatized him, particularly when, in the process of “sweeping” a village, he more-or-less deliberately killed an elderly woman and an infant (an incident about which he would have nightmares for the rest of his life, even the week before his execution).  Like a host of other Vietnam veterans, Sam returned to the States mentally and emotionally unhinged, addicted to drugs, and without anything in the way of adequate medical and psychiatric support. Over the next decade, he lived the life of a petty criminal, arrested a couple of times for robbery.

Then, on the evening of May 16, 1981, the downwardly spiraling Sam McDonald encountered someone whose life had been going in precisely the opposite direction.  Robert Jordan had been a St. Louis County police officer for 19 years; not only was this former Marine (who had earned both his BA and MA degrees) just the second African American to be hired as a police officer by the county, but he was president of the St. Louis County Association of Minority Police Officers.  Besides his full-time job, Jordan moonlighted as a security guard. Which is what he was doing on the evening of May 16. And when he got off work and arrived home, where his wife Emma Jean was waiting for him, he discovered there was no beer in the fridge, and not much in the way of snacks. So, with his eleven-year-old daughter Rochelle in tow, he went back out the door and headed for the local liquor store.

At the store, they made their purchases and headed out the door.  In the parking lot, they encountered Sam McDonald. Sky-high on “T’s and blues” (a heroin substitute), and accompanied by a drugged-up girlfriend (who was waiting for him in the car), Sam was looking for someone to rob, for the money that would provide him with his next stash of drugs.  Encountering Robert Jordan, Sam pulled out a gun and demanded that he hand over his wallet. Jordan’s daughter ran back into the store, where she then watched through the window. Robert handed over his wallet, which also held his St. Louis County police badge. Whether Sam actually saw the badge was a matter of dispute at the trial.  But we do know that he took the wallet, shot Robert twice in the chest and once in the side, and ran for the car. Dying, Jordan managed to pull out his service revolver and shoot six shots, one of which hit Sam in the side. Obviously showing the effect of the drugs, Sam had his girlfriend drive him to the local VA hospital for treatment.  It was there that he was arrested for the murder of Robert Jordan.

A poor African American drug addict who killed a well-respected off-duty police officer in full view of the officer’s young daughter: it is obvious that Sam’s chances in the justice system were bleak.  But things were made worse by the fact that the district attorney decided to try this case himself. The normal procedure would be for the DA to give the case to one of his subordinates, but the DA was in the middle of a re-election campaign in which he was promising to get tougher in capital cases. Worse, Sam was assigned an inexperienced and overworked assistant public defender who got into shouting matches with the judge (at one point the judge responded by swiveling his chair around so that his back was to Sam’s attorney).  Worst of all, the judge refused to allow testimony regarding the impact of Sam’s Vietnam experiences on his mental and emotional health, even though there was solid evidence that Sam was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. So, it was no great surprise that, on February 22, 1982, Samuel McDonald was sentenced to die by lethal injection . . . the 17th man placed on Missouri’s death row.

Three years later, I sent Sam my first letter.  We soon became regular correspondents. I also visited him in the state penitentiary.  

But when I took a teaching job in Pennsylvania, I was no longer able to visit him.  So, while Sam kept writing, he also began calling, generally on weekends, and generally every other weekend. I know it may seem peculiar, but we spent much of our time laughing and joking and making fun of each other; in fact, if friends were visiting they would often be stunned to learn that I was talking with a man on death row.  Sam and I spent a lot of time talking about sports. We were both particularly convinced that we had special insights into football. We had an annual contest to see who could pick the most winners in the college bowl games, with the winner – usually Sam – getting to keep the “traveling crown” that Sam had drawn on typing paper (he sent this to me before he was killed).

But we also talked about conditions in the prison, and the state of his appeals up and down the court system (appeals which focused on the failure of the original trial judge to allow his psychiatric history to be considered at sentencing).  We talked about politics, including the Supreme Court (which would consider his final appeal – Sam particularly disliked Clarence Thomas). We talked about God, and church, and the efficacy of prayer. We talked a lot about our families. I commiserated with him when his son – who was only three when Sam went to prison – was caught in the middle of a gang fight, and was shot and paralyzed.  Sam commiserated with me when my mother died of cancer. In fact, he was probably more sensitive to my grief than anyone outside my family; a few times he called out of the blue just to see how I was doing.

Much to my surprise, Sam McDonald and I had become very close friends.  I had started corresponding with him assuming that I would be the one giving to him.  It turned out that I was receiving from him at least as much as he was receiving from me.

In all of this I tried very hard not to think about the fact that the state of Missouri was determined to end Sam’s life.  But in the spring of 1997 reality hit. Sam’s appeals had come to an end: the Supreme Court would not stay his execution – that he was a decorated Vietnam veteran with war-induced psychiatric problems was irrelevant – and the governor of Missouri let it be known that he would not grant clemency. My letter pleading for Sam’s life was clearly irrelevant.  Sam was given a firm execution date: September 24, 1997.

Sam handled these developments with remarkable grace, but I went into an emotional tailspin, contemplating that my friend was going to be killed. More than this, I started to wonder what sort of friend I was.  I had a pretty strong suspicion that Sam wanted me to serve as one of his witnesses to his execution. I was a middle-class white academic who had grown up in the suburbs, and who had never seen anyone die . . . much less seen anyone be killed.  So, throughout the summer of 1997 I tried to ignore Sam’ s oblique hints that he wanted me there for him. But when on Labor Day Sam asked me to serve as one of his six “family and friend” witnesses – “I don’t want to die alone, and I need to see you there” – I said yes. 

The week before the execution was surreal. I ended up in a minor media vortex, as Missouri newspapers and radio stations apparently had some fascination with the fact that a college professor from Ohio was coming out to witness the execution of a person they clearly considered a “low-life.” I was a novelty act, and I ended up doing a number of phone interviews from my office in UD’s Humanities Building. I liked talking with the newspaper reporters, but the radio folks were annoyingly superficial: one even suggested that I should be happy if Sam’s execution were televised, as I would not then have to drive from Ohio. 

The night before his execution, Sam called me to tell me that I would be allowed to visit him at 5 PM, seven hours before his execution. (It turns out that I was the last “civilian” to see Sam).   When I arrived at the isolated, fortress-like prison, a guard – who made no effort to disguise the fact that he despised me – led me to Sam. We descended endless flights of stairs into the depths of the prison.  This is where the “death cell” is located, where all death-row inmates spend the last two days of life. The guard knocked on the door. It opened, and I walked in.

There was Sam, rumpled and weary-looking, and markedly heavier than when I had last seen him.  He was in a tiny cage with a bed, a chair, a toilet and not much else. Instinctively I walked up to the wire fence and put my hand against it.  But before Sam could respond a voice behind me barked, “Get away from there!” Alarmed, I looked at Sam, who pointed at the floor: a white line marked off a “no-man’s land” between the rest of humanity and the condemned man’s cage.  I backed up behind the line and sat down in one of two chairs bolted to the floor. I noticed for the first time a guard sitting at a desk behind me, clattering away on a very loud typewriter, presumably reporting on what was taking place in the cell (although there was also a video camera recording all).  Sam McDonald’s final 48 hours were without privacy, in part to ensure that he did not commit suicide and thus cheat the executioner.

At first I struggled to make conversation with Sam.  But in a few minutes, we were talking freely. In some ways, it was no different from our phone conversations.  We talked about sports and our families; we had a few laughs; we talked about our friendship. But Sam also talked about himself in ways he never had before. He regretted how he had messed up his life, and he expressed remorse for what he had done.  He assured me that he was prepared to die – “things on the other side have to be better than they have been here” – and to face God. For the first time in the 12 years I had known Sam, he was resigned to his impending death.

At 5:58 my angry escort returned to the cell.  I stood up. Sam and I said “I love you” to each other.  The door opened, and I left the death cell. Soon after I departed, Sam ate his last meal, which included steak, catfish, and eggs.  Soon after that, prison authorities began to prepare him for execution. 

Six hours later I was being marched to the observation booth for friends and family (in Missouri there are three such booths, with the other two for family of the crime victim, and for state witnesses), in the process being sternly warned by a guard that “there will be no standing, crying out, or knocking on the window.” Just after midnight the guards raised the blinds. There lay Sam, on a gurney with a white sheet up to his neck. He had obviously been told where we would be, as looked only at us. He spoke rapidly, but we could not make out what he was saying. But then, after only a minute or two, the drugs kicked in, Sam shuddered, and then he was still. We were then escorted out, in the process instructed that we could not stop until we were out of the prison. Not even to pray.

I felt filthy, and over the next few days I took 3-4 showers a day. Capital punishment demeans us all. And it does not bring back the victim of the crime. 

In that regard, last year I received an email from the son of the man who was killed by Samuel McDonald. He ran across an article I had written about this experience, and felt compelled to write:

I too was at the execution and I prayed for Sam, and his family . . . That experience was traumatic for all involved in every facet. I would love to engage you in conversation one day. I am sure the conversation would be great. God Bless. Robert T Jordan Jr.

I look forward to that conversation.

For a Christian Century article that I published one year after the execution, which is the article I think Robert Jordan Jr. read, see here: “My Friend’s Execution.” While I borrow from this piece for this post, 21 years later I have written something a bit different.

Coincidence #1: The writer Christopher Hitchens was in the state witness booth for Sam’s execution. He wrote about the experience for Vanity Fair.

Coincidence #2: Tonight, there will be a panel discussion here at UD on “Lethal Injection: Human Rights and the Law.” See the flier connected with this post.