Witnessing a Death, Out of Duty

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By: Sarah Weber

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. … I think it’s toxic for citizens in a democracy not to be informed about life-and-death public policies ? sometimes even when the details are painful.”

When word came down that Page’s life had been spared, Harlan was in his motel room, about to put on his tie. Was he disappointed or relieved? “When I heard the news it felt like every muscle in my chest, neck, and face let go at once in an almost overwhelming relaxation,” the reporter wrote on his blog that night.

Harlan later told E&P, “I was prepared for the execution. I was not looking forward to it, I wasn’t excited about it. It was kind of something I knew would be difficult, but as a reporter, I could not turn away from.”

He also cited the importance of a journalist’s presence during this historic period in South Dakota’s history: “I think that the first execution in South Dakota in over 59 years is arguably the most important public policy event in some time. As a reporter, just as much as I had reservations about watching another human being die, I also wanted to report. It’s in my blood, it’s what I wanted to do.”

Readers of the Journal, however, were not always of the same mindset. When he ran a long profile on Page shortly before the execution, it drew fire from readers who were furious both at the details of Poage’s grisly murder, and that the paper ran baby pictures of his killer and treated the “monster” with some sympathy.

Harlan said he understands the reactions: “I’m not immune to those arguments. In the end, my feeling was that if we’re going to put people to death, we ought to know why. I think that in an ideal world, the people that were in favor of putting him to death should read the profile [of Page], and the people who were protesting the death penalty should read about the crime.

“But of course,” Harlan noted, “we don’t live in an ideal world.”

The uniqueness of an execution in South Dakota ? and then the stay ? sparked national media coverage. On Aug. 30, the Journal ran an editorial calling Gov. Rounds’ decision a “cruel embarrassment” to the state, and suggesting that “justice delayed is justice denied.”

Awaiting the next twist, Harlan and the rest of the state’s media will continue to report on this controversial case. “The fallout from this day,” Harlan added, “is going to last a while.”

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