Last week, reporter St. John Barned-Smith went to cover his first execution. "You'll never be the same," one anti-death-penalty protester warned him outside Texas's Walls Unit prison, where James Garrett Freeman would be put to death for killing a Texas game warden in 2007, when he was 26. "I'd be lying if I didn't admit I was nervous about witnessing my first execution. I kept wondering what it would be like and thinking about my own mortality," Barned-Smith writes in the Houston Chronicle, where he describes the steps he took in advance of the execution itself: talking to other game wardens, Freeman's defense team, the parents of the murdered game warden, and—the most difficult call of all—Freeman's dad.
Barned-Smith describes how "surreal" it was to stand crammed into the viewing area with "the men whose colleague he'd killed and [who] wanted him dead," all while Freeman's family stood, devastated, in another room. "There was a weird, medical feeling to the whole thing" as he watched Freeman, strapped to a gurney, decline to give any last words before the execution drugs were pumped into him via IV. "I wondered at the terror he must be feeling" in the moments before the drugs were injected, as well as what the warden must be thinking as he presided over the execution. After Freeman's eyes closed and he made a slight gasping sound before his breathing slowed and stopped, "I could feel my heart pounding. It was bizarre and strange, and at the same time, surprisingly anti-climactic." Click for his full column. (Read more execution stories.)