In 2016, the State of Georgia executed more prison inmates than any other state in the nation. When the crime for which a prisoner is being executed happens in your town, your local newspaper gets the call to be the official “media monitor.” What if you got that call? How would you handle yourself? Today, Matt Aiken, of The Dahlonega Nugget in North Georgia, tells us exactly how he handled it.
By Matt Aiken | Photo-illustrations by Gentleman
"What do you wear to an execution?"
It was one of the first thoughts that entered my head when I woke up the morning of Wednesday, November 16.
This was the day Steven Frederick Spears was scheduled to die. And I was scheduled to watch it happen.
As I stood, bleary-eyed and squinty, in my dim closet, I settled on a dark blue dress shirt, green slacks and a plain tie. If it had been a normal workday, I probably would have opted to go with my dinosaur tie.
This was not a dinosaur-tie day. It was a day I'd been dreading for weeks.
Meanwhile, down the road at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison, Steven Frederick Spears wouldn't get the chance to choose his outfit.
For him, it would be a white jumpsuit, the same thing he had been wearing since shortly after his name was first printed in The Dahlonega Nugget in our September 5, 2001, edition. It was then that Spears was listed as the main suspect in the heinous murder of his ex-girlfriend, Sherri Holland.
When the local mother was discovered in her downtown home, hands and feet bound with duct tape, head enclosed in a black plastic bag, investigators immediately sought out Spears.
The news shook our friendly mountain town, before a completely different tragedy shook the entire nation six days later.
At the time, I was a recent college graduate who was delivering flowers in a van and sleeping in my parents' guest room.
A year later, I would land my first job as a reporter and eventually wind up as publisher at The Nugget in 2013.
Working at a small-town newspaper, you cover a lot things. City council meetings. Football games. Beard-growing contests (this is a real thing in Dahlonega).
But I never considered the possibility that lethal injections could be among those things. Not until one October afternoon when an email from the Georgia Department of Corrections dropped in my inbox with a resounding thud.
It was unlike any invitation I've ever received.
"The Lumpkin County Superior Court has ordered the execution of convicted murderer Steven Frederick Spears," it read. "...Commissioner Homer Bryson has set the date for Wednesday, November 16, at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson at 7 p.m."
They were looking for a "media monitor," and since The Nugget is the legal organ in the county where Spears was convicted, the duty fell to us.
So, as the leader of that legal organ, my first thought was something like: "I've got to get out of this."
For that, I sought out veteran reporter Sharon Hall.
She reported the original story at length. From the awful murder, to the resulting manhunt, to the grueling and graphic trial in 2007, to the ultimate imposition of Spears’ death sentence.
Sharon was our Spears expert.
And she seemed a bit haunted by that.
During the trial, an emotionless Spears seemed unfazed by his premeditated, horror movie-style murder of Sherri Holland. In fact, he seemed proud. Much of the trial centered on a recording made shortly after the murder in which Spears, then 39, told investigators he would do it again if he had the chance. He also discussed the possibility of murdering other innocents.
"One, two, three, what's the difference?" he said on tape."If you're gonna go to hell, one sin or 10 sins, what difference does it make?”
And so, Sharon politely declined my offer.
I couldn't blame her.
Next in line was Greg Finan Jr., our senior reporter/sports writer.
Greg is a journalist's journalist. He has a degree from the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism. He worked his way through college. He believes journalism serves the greater good, and he has the skills to serve that good. So, if ever there was a natural fit for a media monitor, it'd be him. I grabbed my cell phone and stepped outside of the office so my shameful chickening-out would not be overheard by other Nugget employees.
"This is going to sound like a strange request," I said. "But there's this execution next month..."
Like the pro Greg is, he agreed to do it.
And as soon as he did...I felt bad. That feeling followed me home from the office.
"I can't assign this story to someone," I told my wife Katie at the dinner table. "It's too heavy of a thing to ask someone to do."
The next morning, I took him off the story.
"I need to do it," I said, "because I don't want to do it. You know what I'm saying?"
He knew what I was saying.
So, later that day I sent my info to the Georgia Press Association and became the official media monitor for the Spears execution.
In the meantime, I spent the next few weeks convincing myself this execution wouldn't really happen anyway.
"These things are always pushed off," I said to anyone who would listen.
But not this one. Because Spears had other plans.
In a case that was a bit of an anomaly for death row inmates, he opted not to appeal.
His automatic appeal, required by the state, was rejected back in 2015. After that, Spears did nothing to save his own life.
Meanwhile, that date on the calendar began to feel less like a Wednesday and more like a yawning black hole: an unfathomable day when I would be required to leave work early, drive to Jackson, and watch a man die.
It sounded like a Johnny Cash song. Though not the happy, foot-tapping kind.
The day eventually came. And as I stood in my closet that Wednesday morning, I realized that whatever I wore was going to wind up in the execution chamber that night.
I dressed as somberly as possible. The only hint of casualness was my socks, which had a repeating pattern of colorful rowing oars on them.
But then, who was going to see my socks?
"Don't do it!" pleaded our office manager, Chauna Utterback, when I walked into the office that morning.
She’d had a dream. She was on death row, instead of Spears, and I was there, watching and reporting her execution but not helping.
"C'mon," I said. "There's a very good chance that’ll never happen."
Strangely, her worry seemed to boost my courage a bit. At least someone was more freaked out than I was.
I left Dahlonega around noon.
I realized this would give me a five-hour buffer to make it through Atlanta, but Atlanta traffic is stressful enough when I'm headed to a Braves game. I just couldn't imagine the hair-pulling stress of being bumper-to-bumper while on the way to an execution.
As a result, I arrived three hours early.
Just after 5 p.m. I called up my wife and told her I was about to go to radio silence. No cell phones were allowed past the guard gate.
I hung up, pulled to the front and was directed to a small gathering of other media folks.
There was a reporter from The Gainesville Times, one from The Associated Press and another from a nearby TV station.
While waiting to be summoned, we engaged in chit-chat, small talk and the occasional haunted vacant stare into the middle distance (mostly from me).
It grew dark, and a white van pulled up in front of us.
We got in and headed to the main entrance of the prison.
It wasn’t what I expected.
First off, everyone I came across at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison was very personable and friendly. These weren't the stone-faced guards of Shawshank or Alcatraz. Think Chick-fil-a, with more sally ports.
"Awesome socks!" said a guard when I took off my shoes at a metal detector.
Once in the sprawling prison, we travelled down a series of long corridors that were decorated by motivational posters with words like Achievement, Success and Perseverance, until we arrived at a makeshift media waiting room.
Really, it was a prison kitchen.
There was a table with four chairs sitting a few feet away from a flat-screen TV.
"We just got a new TV!" said one of the smiling media liaisons.
Sure enough, they had a new TV. And as my fellow reporters and I discussed the sobering details of what we were about to witness, a movie starring a young Chuck Norris unfolded in the background.
"This is all very surreal," said one of those fellow reporters.
We were told that we could be waiting there for hours, and they would bring snacks if needed. That's usually how it works with standard executions. Plenty of last-minute waiting.
Except, this was no standard execution. And there was no need for snacks. Spears still wasn't fighting it.
It's odd to think that with a mere wave of his hand, he could have called his lawyers and filed formal appeals that would have added years, if not decades, to his life.
Instead Spears' last day included only a final meal of a large meat pizza and a sedative of Ativan as the execution neared.
No legal maneuverings.
He was ready to go.
After 15 minutes in the Chuck Norris Room, I was summoned away from the other reporters, down another corridor and into another SUV.
A small pool of media witnesses every execution. But most see only the actual injection. The official media monitor must view the entire preparation process leading up to the final moment.
That was my job.
I was joined by three other prison officials as we drove through two heavily guarded checkpoints, under the watchful eye of guards with machine guns and riot gear, until we came upon the squat cinder-block building known as "The Death House."
From the outside, it didn't look like a Death House. It had the mundane appearance of a standard-issue governmental building, where one might store extra office furniture or cleaning supplies.
We got out of the car and walked through a door marked with a 34, into the execution chamber.
The chamber was divided into two main sections — an observation area and the actual execution room — separated by large, clear, acrylic windows. On one side was a gurney with a pair of wires and tubes coming out of the wall. On the other side of the window was a small viewing area that contained three long wooden benches, like church pews.
I sat in the front row and said a quick prayer.
And then I waited.
While in the media room, a fellow reporter had warned me about what I might see.
"He may stare at you, and he may struggle," I was told.
"And I may pass out," I thought. I just took deep breaths and calmed myself by watching more Chuck Norris.
The final wait for Spears didn't take long. After a couple of minutes, a door opened and he walked in. Death-row inmates normally enter the room backward. Spears didn't. He walked into the room face-first.
With six guards escorting him, he was led to a gurney and restrained at the feet, legs, chest and arms.
He didn't look at me. He didn't look at the guards. He showed no pain or emotion. He might as well have been sitting down for a dentist appointment.
Once he was restrained, four nurses appeared from behind a curtain. They quickly hooked him to an IV, and all but one nurse and two guards left the room.
Then the other reporters, state officials, and family members of Spears’ victim, Sherri Holland, entered.
I moved to the back row with the other media reps.
Warden Eric Sellers entered the chamber, stood next to Spears and asked him if he had any final words.
He shook his head and stared at the ceiling.
At this point, the son of Sherri Holland was sitting no more than 10 feet away from him on the other side of the glass.
He was 13 years old at the time of his mother's murder, 16 years before.
Spears said nothing to him. Nothing to anyone.
"Would you like a prayer on your behalf?" asked Sellers.
And then the execution began. Not with a bang but with silence, and the release of pentobarbital into his veins.
More than 30 people sat quietly and watched. I actually didn't. In the transition from the front to the back row, I wound up sitting directly behind a man who was completely blocking my view of Spears' face.
I really didn't mind. In fact, I was very thankful.
Five minutes passed.
Ten minutes passed.
Twelve minutes passed.
Doctors entered the room, checked his vitals and gave the nod. The warden entered again and declared the time of death.
A curtain was pulled over the observation window, and that was it.
I’d say it was a process that was very clinical.
It was efficient.
It was still.
It was quiet.
It was strange.
And because of all those things, it was also sad.
We're all going to leave this earth sometime. But it's safe to say we'd like to do it amidst reassuring hugs and teary eyed loved ones.
Steven Frederick Spears left the world restrained, in a cinder-block box, guarded by men with machine guns.
He left the world in captivity.
And no one in the room shed a tear.
This was the eighth injection of the year for the state of Georgia. And it wasn't the last.
On December 6, William Sallie was put to death more than 25 years after the murder of his father-in-law.
That means Georgia was tops in the nation for 2016.
And that's significant when you take into account that the U.S. is always a top executioner among western and western-leaning countries.
Despite this, the Death Penalty Information Center reports that death sentences, executions and even public support for these executions are at historic lows.
Though you probably wouldn't know it by looking at the past 12 months in Jackson, Georgia.
Room 34 was busy this year.
After it was over, we were escorted out of the Death House and straight to the parking lot.
Five minutes later, I was in my car.
This may sound weird, but for all the nerves and dread, I was glad for the opportunity to be there. As a journalist, I often find myself arguing for maximum transparency from our local government. Open meetings, open records, and open officials. Open is always better.
But sometimes, this openness leads us to places we'd never thought we'd be.
Maybe this process is a bit of over-sharing on the government's part, but it's better than the other way around. Secrecy and shadows surrounding a state execution would be much more disturbing.
That's what I’ve told myself, anyway.
Sitting in the darkened parking lot that night, I still felt the chill and the quiet of Room 34.
So I called home.
And home sounded like sweet pandemonium.
My wife gave me a distracted play-by-play of the mini-wrestling match that had broken out in the living room. My 1-year-old, Theo, was trying to bite my 6-year-old, Bowie, on the ankle. Bowie was returning fire with a Nerf gun.
All the while, my barking dog Scamp sounded as though he wanted to join in.
It was loud. It was boisterous. It was alive.
I could have cried.
So I put my Toyota in drive, pointed the car north and headed toward home.
Leaving the Death House behind, monitoring duties complete, I drove toward life.