COLUMBUS, Ohio — John Hicks is trying to reach his mother, but a recording says her phone isn’t taking calls right now.
It’s 6 a.m., and Hicks has been up almost an hour. He’s shaved, made his bed, gotten dressed and read for a while in his cell.
At 10 minutes after 6, he says he’ll pass on the prison breakfast: toast, peanut butter, cereal, pineapple juice, coffee — with six packets of sugar. At 6:25 a.m., he changes his mind and opts for a couple of sweet rolls. Nine minutes later he brushes his teeth, then sits down to read the Bible.
At 6:40 a.m. he tries the call to Mom again. Still no luck. He decides to take a shower.
It’s now 6:44 a.m. on Nov. 29, 2005. Hicks doesn’t have long to complete the call.
In a little more than three hours he’s scheduled to be executed.
After Ohio resumed executions in 1999, the state began documenting prisoners’ last days down to the minute and second. Twenty-three convicted murderers have died by injection.
The executions are carried out at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, where guards maintain a running computer log from the time a condemned inmate arrives at the prison in the Appalachian foothills to the moment a funeral director leaves with the body a day later.
Looking at the logs
Through a public-records request, The Associated Press obtained copies of the logs to more fully examine how the state carries out the death penalty. The request was filed after one execution was delayed because of problems finding a vein for the injection. Prison staff keep similar logs for inmates in other states with busy execution chambers, including Florida, Oklahoma and Texas.
Peppered with intimate details yet deliberately emotionless in tone, the logs’ exhaustive entries sweep up the mundane and the moving in the sparsest and at times coldest of diaries. The log keepers offer no opinion, attempt no creative flourishes.
“Scott is sleeping (snoring),” says the log for Jay D. Scott at 5:02 a.m. on June 14, 2001, five hours before he would be executed for killing a man in a robbery.
At 1:32 p.m. on April 28, 2003, David Brewer is talking about visiting hours as he awaits execution for choking and stabbing a woman to death.
Nine minutes later, Brewer offers a reflection, the log records: “States it was hard coming down this morning because the sun was shining and he saw a lot ov new cars for the first time in eighteen years.”
Prison employees, who volunteer for the job and are not identified, compile the log, with occasional spelling or grammar errors, at a Dell computer. They sit at a desk directly across from the 12-foot by 14-foot holding cell where condemned inmates spend their last day, 17 steps from the death chamber.
Some logs show inmates accepting responsibility. When family members of Scott Mink ask him to remember to forgive himself, Mink — who beat his sleeping parents to death for money to feed a drug habit — says he has.
“And he is sorry,” the log adds.
Other logs indicate little remorse.
A guard asks inmate Adremy Dennis if he needs anything.
“A chopper out of here,” Dennis replies. Convicted of shooting an Akron man in 1994, Dennis blamed the victim for disobeying an order not to move during a robbery.
His last meal is recorded: fried catfish, garlic bread and three pieces of pie — pumpkin, pecan and sweet potato. He stuffs himself, then talks about being sick to his stomach, the log says. At 7:07 a.m., three hours and three minutes before he is declared dead, he takes Pepto-Bismol.
The logs show some inmates sleep fitfully or hardly at all.
Herman Ashworth stays awake from the moment he arrives at the prison at 9:22 a.m. on Sept. 26, 2005, until he is declared dead at 10:19 a.m. the next day. He spends his night writing letters, listening to music, watching TV, including Monday Night Football, smoking and drinking Mountain Dew.
Ashworth shows little emotion until the end. The log at 9:09 a.m. says the inmate “is on his knees softly sobbing.”
The prison logs cast daily habits and decisions in a new light.
At 4:21 p.m. on Feb. 18, 2002, a guard puts an uneaten salad ordered by John Byrd “in refrigerator for later if he request it.” Later never comes.
One of the first things Joseph Clark does waking up on his last morning is to put on deodorant.
The day before his death, John Glenn Roe asks for salt in warm water to treat a sore throat.
William Smith cleans his cell, washing windows, walls and doors, then selects a fantasy novel from the prison library, “Child of Flame.” The log doesn’t say if he finishes it.
Many of the inmates talk sports with their attorneys and the guards. Laughter is common, even as execution time nears.
“I think I’ll have one more cigarette,” Mink says, “and then quit.” His joke comes at 9:29 a.m., an hour before his death.
Some inmates stay busy with legal work, typing court filings and faxing documents in hopes of stopping the execution.
Many become temporary counselors, assuring relatives all will be fine.
“This must be very harder on my family than it is on me because I am ready to go,” Stephen Vrabel, who killed his girlfriend and 3-year-old daughter, says one hour and 51 minutes before dying.
In a 2004 log entry, a guard takes pictures of Roe with visiting relatives.
“I thank you for all you have done for me and my family,” Richard Fox says 69 minutes before his execution on Feb. 12, 2003. In his pocket is a wooden cross that, as noted in an earlier log entry, a guard gave him.
Fox and Roe were convicted of killing women in separate crimes in the 1980s.
Victims’ advocate Nancy Ruhe regrets that those who were murdered couldn’t have a similar diary of their last hours.
“We don’t hear what the victim went through and how tragic and horrific it must have been sitting there, laying there, standing there, knowing you’re going to die at the hands of some killer,” says Ruhe, executive director of Parents of Murdered Children.
Prison chaplain Gary Sims, counselor to many inmates on their last day, says that as detailed and factual as the logs are, they never show the whole story.
Last minutes for Hicks
Execution is scheduled at 10 a.m. for Hicks, 49, who strangled his mother-in-law while high on cocaine in 1985 and later suffocated his 5-year-old stepdaughter.
It’s now 7:02 a.m. Hicks finishes an eight-minute shower. He has not been able to reach his mother.
7:04: Hicks closes the window in his cell, talks with a chaplain, then speaks with his attorneys.
8:06: He asks to speak with the chaplain again. “Rev. Sims back at the cell window talking with ... Hicks,” the log notes a minute later.
8:08: A guard gets Hicks’ mother on the phone. She and her son talk for four minutes; the log doesn’t give details. “Hicks finished with phone call and requested to speak with Rev. Sims once again,” the log says.
Hicks asks to see a prison nurse who gives him a sedative at his request. He speaks again with the chaplain, pausing at 8:28 a.m. for a restroom break.
Hicks spends the next hour talking to the chaplain, reading the Bible and drinking from a cup of water.
9:39: The execution team leader sits on a chair next to Hicks and explains the execution process. They shake hands and the team leader “exits cell and secures door.”
Just before the warden reads Hicks’ death warrant, the log makes its final entries on how the condemned inmate spent his last day.
“Hicks sits quietly at cell front,” it says at 9:44 a.m. “Hicks takes another drink from the cup.”
10:20: “Warden announced time of death.”
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