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2012 - Edward R. Murrow News Award
Wed February 1, 2012
Idaho’s First Execution in 17 Years
Amber Beierle opens an iron door with a key the size of her hand. Beierle manages Idaho’s historic old penitentiary. Behind this door is the room where Idaho hanged its last man.
Amber Beierle “that is where the rope would have been hanging and then there’s a lever that releases the trap door.”
This room was built in 1954 with the expectation of handling many executions. It saw only one. Raymond Snowden in 1957.
Snowden was convicted of stabbing a woman multiple times. Thirteen months passed between his arrest and execution. Compare that to Idaho today where Paul Rhoades has been on death row for 24 years. Raymond Snowden spent his year on death row looking at the door to the room where he would die. It was ten feet in front of his cell.
Amber Beierle “so a very short trip from his cell over to the gallows.”
As midnight approached on October 17th 1957 guards strapped Snowden to a gurney and carried him that ten feet to the execution chamber.
Amber Beierle “They did ask Raymond Snowden if he had any last words. His response to that was yes I do but I don’t know how to say it.”
They bound his hands and feet.
Amber Beierle “And then of course a black hood would have been placed over his head as well.”
Prison officials had a problem every time a hanging came up over those 50 plus years… lack of experience. It’s an issue today. Idaho has only performed one lethal injection and that was 17 years ago. Paul Rhoades defense team has made that the focus of their appeals. So far those appeals have been denied…. For Snowden, Idaho brought in an experienced executioner from out of state. But something went wrong.
Amber Beierle “Probably an improperly tied knot. It took him about 15 minutes to pass away.”
Hanging was the method used for most of Idaho’s history. The prison held a double hanging outside the walls in 1951 in what is now the Idaho Botanical Gardens. Before that Idaho executed six men inside the walls. Prior to the 20th century county sheriffs in Idaho hanged 16 men. The federal government held one execution. After 1957 Idaho didn’t execute anyone for 37 years.
Stuart Banner “The death penalty was becoming less and less popular in the 50s and 60s.”
Stuart Banner teaches law at the University of California at Los Angeles. He’s written several books on legal history including The Death Penalty in American History. Banner says the anti-death penalty movement showed up in state legislatures. Alaska and Hawaii banned capital punishment in 1957, Vermont in 64, West Virginia and Iowa in 1965. But the movement was most visible in the courts where constitutional challenges tied up executions. By 1967 executions in the U.S. had stopped. The Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that state death penalty laws were unconstitutional under the 8th amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Stuart Banner “The court said that if states wanted to have the death penalty they’d have to have some principled way to decide who deserved the death penalty and who didn’t.”
States quickly rewrote death penalty laws including Idaho in 1973. But there were no executions in the U.S. for ten years until the Supreme Court ruled those state laws were constitutional in 1976. But Banner says by then the movement to abolish the death penalty had lost steam.
Stuart Banner “The 1972 Supreme Court decision finding it unconstitutional had the effect of galvanizing support for the death penalty.”
Idaho began handing out death sentences again. There are 15 people on death row now including Paul Rhoades. And in the post 1976 world Idaho death row inmates can spend decades waiting for their sentences to be carried out. Before that the average time was less than a year. Jinny Hatch says the legal system changed the way capital punishment gets handled. She teaches criminal justice at Boise State University. She says capital cases must be looked at through a unique legal lens.
Jinny Hatch “It all comes down to one thing, we’re scared to death of convicting an innocent person. And that’s why we have all these procedural safeguards in place. Nobody wants to be the judge who executes an innocent person.”
Hatch says this has led in many cases to an indefinite appeals process. Paul Rhoades has exhausted his appeals after 24 years. But there are people on Idaho’s death row who have been there longer. Lacey Sivak received his death sentence in 1981. But Hatch says in the next few years Idaho may actually see more executions. Other death row inmates are in a similar legal place as Paul Ezra Rhoades. They’ve nearly exhausted their appeals. I’m Adam Cotterell, KBSX News.
Every year in the U.S. dozens of death row inmates are executed. And journalists are there to witness and share what they see with the public. That will happen this Friday when four Idaho reporters will see the execution of convicted murderer Paul Ezra Rhodes. Bob Fick knows what it’s like to watch this. He was a correspondent for the Associated Press back in 1994 when the last execution in Idaho took place. He watched Keith Eugene Wells die by lethal injection. Wells was convicted of beating two people to death with a baseball bat at a Boise bar. Bob Fick told Samantha Wright, the execution proceedings began at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution or “Max” late one January night.
Pro and anti- death penalty protesters gather at dawn near the gates of the Idaho prison complex. Two death penalty supporters stand together as generators power spotlights on an otherwise dark and empty dirt lot. 25 – year old Boise resident Chris Bentley says Paul Rhoades’ execution is warranted:
Bentley: Given the situation and the severity of the crime, I think there’s really only one penalty that can match the severity. This absolutely is a situation that – it’s a horrible, horrible thing, and it’s a long time to get to this process.
Brian Amaro is the other pro death penalty supporter. He’s originally from Blackfoot. That’s where murder victim Nolan Haddon was from. Rhoades was sentenced to life in prison for his death. Amaro knew Nolan Haddon:
Amaro: I grew up with one of the victims and so I’m just here to support him. I’m for the death penalty, though, yes.
Just across the road, seven anti-death penalty protestors sit cross-legged. They face the rising sun…. Their eyes closed in meditation. Meanwhile, about four dozen others form a circle. Mia Crosthwaite, a member of Idahoans Against the Death Penalty, leads the group in prayer.
Prayer: Today, we remember that many people are affected in a very personal way by this execution so we’re going to doing this in call and response. Paul Rhoades is being executed today. For Paul Rhoades. Response: For Paul Rhodes.
Jerome Emanzi, a Boise State student from Uganda, says he’s against the death penalty because he’s pro-life.
Emanzi: I’m given a chance to live so I don’t see why we should not give everybody a chance to live even after all the atrocities.
His friend, Nicole Poll (paul), another Boise State student from Nampa has a similar view.
Poll: I’m not the one that decides when a life starts, so I don’t think I have the right to decide when a life ends.
Poll and Emanzi are on one side of the prison complex. On the other… TV crews and reporters. … A biting wind makes it tough to stay outside for too long. Inside a media tent, generators run heaters to warm correction staff and reporters.
SOUND OF GENERATORS FOR A SLIGHT SOUND POP TO TRANSITION
Everything runs as planned. Brent Reinke – the head of the Department of Corrections tells reporters the execution is on schedule. But as dawn breaks Department spokesman Jeff Ray makes an announcement:
Ray: Right now the procedure has been delayed there’s been a court action filed overnight and as a result the matter is currently being reviewed by a judge. 11 sec
An attorney from Mountain Home filed a last minute motion to halt the execution. Idaho Attorney General Lawerence Wasden explains documents were filed in Ada County District court and with the Idaho Supreme Court.
Wasden:The motion to stay was made on the claim that the federal attorneys who represents mr rhoades were not death qualified under the requirements of the Idaho Supreme Court and as a consequence their view was that the matter should be stayed until the courts reviewed that matter.” 21 sec
The courts did review that matter and a judge denied the request. The execution continued albeit delayed. Less than a half hour later Brent Reinke [ rank –ee] returned to the media tent:
Reinke: “In accordance with the orders from the 6th and 7th judicial district the execution of Paul Ezra Rhoades has been carried out”
Reinke witnessed the execution along with four members of the Idaho press.
Rebecca Boone was among them. She works for the Associated Press. Boone says Rhoades appeared nervous while laying on a gurney. Then he gave his last words. Although the husband of murder victim Susan Michelbacher was not in the room, Rhoades addressed him:
Boone: He said to Bert Michelbacher, “I’m sorry for the part I played in your wife’s death.” But then he addressed the Haddon and the Baldwin family and said, “You have to keep looking.”
Rhoades said goodbye to his mom who was in another room. He then turned toward Wardon Randy Blades and said “You guys, I forgive you. I really do.” Nate Green who reports for the Idaho Press Tribune also witnessed the execution. He says he heard comments from others in the witness chamber.
Green: Towards the end there were some things said. One gentleman who apparently is a friend of the Michelbacher family said, “The Devil has gone home.”
SADIE: Tom Moss was also among the witnesses. He was a prosecutor in Bingham county and active in all the cases involving Rhoades. Now 24 years later, Moss says the families of Rhoades’ victims can put this behind them. He says he didn’t come to watch the execution:
Moss:I came here to see these people that I was very close to during a very intense period of their lives and my life. And I became close to them and I wanted to be here in case they needed support and I will say this about the victims. They were very dignified. They handled themselves very well under these circumstances.
Moss says he’s prosecuted cases that ended in the death penalty, but this was the first time he watched the final act. He says he never thought he’d see an execution during his lifetime:
Moss:There’s a certain amount of closure to see one of them get executed. I don’t want you to think I love to see people get killed but there’s satisfaction to see that finally the law comes to conclusion it’s done. There will be no more appeals. This familes these families don’t have to read about oh there’s something going on with Paul Rhoades. Does that mean he’s going to get off with this. No. They don’t have to have those anxieties anymore. This case is closed.
Now there are 14 inmates on Idaho’s death row. A few are near the end of their appeals. But the attorney general says Rhoades’ death doesn’t set the pace of future executions. Lawrence Wasden says court schedules and how cases evolve will determine what happens next on death row.
I’m Sadie Babits. And I’m Scott Ki… KBSX News