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Why I Watch People Die

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Vince Larue
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Vince Larue by Vince Larue

In America we love to kill people. Sometimes it is legal, more often it is not. But, legal or not, the killing is steady. Sometimes it is in self-defense, sometimes it is in a frenzy of rage or fear, and sometimes it is premeditated, planned for hours and days and months in advance.
 
I've watched two killings.  I've looked in the men's faces as they died. And many of the other killings happen near me.

I live in a small house in Central Phoenix. On many weeknights, and most weekends, there is audible gunfire. I can sit with a glass of wine, looking out at the hot darkness, watching the moths swarm around the porch lights, and when I hear the gunshots I think about the people who pull the triggers. I wonder what they will eat for breakfast in the morning, who they'll wake up with, who they'll never think of shooting. 

It goes like this: the darkness is concussed by the gunshots, and then the police helicopter, the ghetto bird, hangs noisily above. If the cops come, it is said, that usually means someone was hit. The cops deny this, but it is said that there are so many shots fired that they can't afford to respond to them all.

And sometimes it goes like this: a man is locked in a room, and he is told that he is going to be killed on a certain day. And when the day comes, he is taken to another room, tied down and killed while a group of people watch. Some of those who watch will be people who love him. Others will be people who hate him. And still others will be people like me.

On nights like tonight, I play with my cats, listen to the song of the ghetto bird, and my mind rolls back to the last killing I watched. Scribbled words that lie dead in old notebooks come back to life, and all at once it is no longer night and it is no longer now. Instead, for at least the hundredth time in my mind, it is the furious daylight of June 1999.

He will smile and demand lunch. A moment later, they will kill him. But, as I speed towards Florence just after sunrise, that is still a week away.

Florence, Arizona, is a town that belongs to an earlier time, but some people think it - and other towns like it - are the future of American suburban life. It hasn't changed a great deal in the last fifty years. The dirt roads have been paved, but that's about it. Development hasn't come this far, and it probably won't. The prison keeps it away.
Although the official population of the town is around ten thousand, only about five thousand of them are visible. The others are inmates of the prison. Many of the ones on the outside would probably not be there if the prison wasn't there too. Go into any store or bar or restaurant, and you'll have to search hard to find anyone without a family member who's employed by the Arizona Department of Corrections.

Some theorists have predicted that it won't be long until there are entire towns where everyone is in prison, either as an inmate or as an employee. Anyone who wishes to see a prototype of such a town ought to visit Florence.

But that's not why I'm there on Wednesday, June 9, 1999. I've come to watch a judge decide whether or not to end the life of one of the prison's inmates in a week's time.

My visit to Florence today was set in motion in 1977, when I was 11 years old, by a man I did not know, Michael Poland. With his brother, Patrick, he dressed as a cop, and, in a car equipped with emergency lights, pulled over an armored van on Interstate 17, just North of Phoenix. There were two guards in the van, Cecil Newkirk and Russell Dempsey. The Polands kidnapped the guards and drove 250 miles to Lake Mead. Once there, they wrapped their captives in canvas bags and dumped them in the lake, leaving them to drown. Three weeks later, the bodies washed ashore on the Nevada side of the lake, and the Poland brothers had scored themselves bunks on Death Row.

That's the version of the story on the record, and it's the version I believe, because I have found nothing to suggest that it isn't true. There are other versions. Patrick tried to blame it all on Michael.

Michael's lawyer says that the guards were dead before they were put in the lake. He says that his client only intended to rob the van, but that one of the guards died of a heart attack when the gun was pointed at him, so they had to kill the other one to cover it up.

I don't believe Patrick Poland's version and I don't believe the version told by Michael Poland's lawyer, and if Michael Poland was willing to talk about it I wouldn't believe his version either. The only credible version of the story is silently told by two men at the bottom of a cold lake twenty-two years ago.
 
There are people on Death Row who should not be there. Debra Milke, who was convicted solely on the testimony of the man who murdered her son. Teddy Washington, who was convicted on flimsy circumstantial evidence, and whose post-conviction hearing was handled by a judge who was suffering from organic brain damage. There are plenty of others whose residency on Death Row is not based on anything they did. Michael Poland is not one of these people.

The feds didn't care about the guards, they just wanted to recover the stolen money. They offered Michael Poland a chance to escape with his life if he'd forgo a trial, plead guilty to murder and tell them where the money was. Poland told the state to prove its case. It did, and got the death penalty. Poland has been in Florence Prison ever since.
In October 1998, he was about to be executed when his lawyer got him a stay from a judge in Hawaii. It came at the very last minute.

Poland had invited me to witness his execution, which was to take place at three o'clock in the afternoon. I was in the waiting room with Poland's son and daughter-in-law. An official came in and told us that the execution was being delayed until five. A short while later, the same official came back and said, "There isn't gonna be an execution today."

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