From a certain angle, Florida’s death chamber looks like a nondescript doctor's office: sterile white walls, a gurney in the middle of the room. But if you move a couple of steps you will see a large window and, on the other side, rows of chairs situated so witnesses and family members can peer in.
For Death Row inmates, there aren’t many places where the inside world and the outside world intersect. This room is one place where they do, at the moment when the sentence of death is carried out.
In March 2014, I sat in this room with one of the state’s experts on the death penalty, John Koch, who has been to 73 executions in Florida.
Koch is an eccentric guy. He lives in an old home that looks like it could double as an antique store, with old metal Coca Cola signs and little trinkets everywhere. The house is nestled in the woods surrounded by farmland in Live Oak, Florida.
People around town seem to tread carefully around him. This is small town Florida and John Koch is a big personality.
On one of his first encounters with the local Sheriff, they were looking at photographs of an autopsy of man whose throat had been cut.
“I said you know Sheriff, you’ve got to get another color processor, these reds and greens are just way off,” recalls Koch before the Sheriff kicked him out of the office.
Koch used to be a free-lance reporter for the local newspaper. He’s mostly retired now, but retains his press credentials to cover the one thing that he pretty much knows better than anyone else in Florida. He still files short radio stories for commercial stations about executions.
John Koch has been to every execution since Ted Bundy’s in 1989, making the trip down to Florida State Prison, right on the Bradford County line, for each one.
The way he sees it, his job is to watch the execution and report on what happens in those 10, 12, or 20 minutes that it takes to declare an inmate dead.
“No, I don’t get a thrill out of it, I get the thrill out of trying to tell you the story,” said Koch about covering executions. “I have 30 seconds to explain something that’s very heavy, very important, very emotional, that’s being done in your and my name.”
And at this point, he’s the most consistent pair of eyes in the witness room outside of Florida Department of Corrections staff; it’s rare for other reporters to go more than once or twice. Even less 73 times.
Koch knows what an execution is supposed to look like—and what it’s not. He keeps a folder full of notes for each execution, which meticulously chronicle the final minutes of each of those put to death.
There were so many botched executions with the state’s electric chair that former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth said people better not commit murder in Florida “because we may have a problem with our electric chair.”
Koch saw the transition in 2000 to lethal injection, which comes with its own set of challenges including overly lengthy executions.
The process Koch documents is outlined in procedure developed by the Florida Department of Corrections. At least once every two years, the secretary of the department has to review them and make sure the procedures meet state laws and evolving standards of decency.
Florida inmates are still allowed to be put to death in the electric chair, if they so choose. You can find those procedures here:
The Department of Corrections declined a request for an interview about the state’s lethal injection protocol, but spokeswoman Michelle Glady passed along the form statement: “The death penalty is our most solemn duty. Our foremost objective of the lethal injection process is a humane and dignified process.”
Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Charley Wells says that secrecy comes from the fact that the death penalty is an emotional issue. There have been concerns about boycotts or even violence against businesses that provide lethal injection drugs. He was on the bench during the 2000 transition to lethal injection.
“[Lethal injection] then began to be a political issue that the companies that made those drugs had to deal with,” Wells said.
There is no FDA testing of lethal injection protocol. The methods the state uses to develop these procedures and details like where they get the drugs from is a secret.
Over the past six years, many European drug companies have said they won’t allow their drugs to be used for lethal injections. Last year, Pfizer joined that group. It manufactures the three drugs that have been used in Florida’s death penalty procedure since 2013.
The company declined to be interviewed, but in a statement said its products are made to save lives, not end them.
On Jan 4, 2017 , after it became clear the state was stockpiling different kinds of drugs, the Department of Corrections signed off on a new protocol. The state will now use one drug that has never been used in a lethal injection before. Another has only been used once, accidentally, in the botched execution of an Oklahoma inmate.
Over the past year, with all the legal challenges to the death penalty, things have been quiet in the execution chamber. In the first five years of Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, though, 23 people were executed. Because it looks like the courts have opened the doors for lethal injections to start again, defense attorneys suspect the governor will start signing death warrants again soon.
Back in 2014, when I first met John Koch, he’d developed an execution-day routine, which includes stops at Subway and Starbucks, where he gets a double shot of espresso and a banana.
When we arrive at the prison, an hour’s drive from his house, we park across the street in what used to be a cow pasture.
Koch recognizes some of the people already there: a photographer who comes pretty often, but stays outside, and a newspaper reporter who’s been in once before.
He hangs out, talking shop. In the distance you can see cows milling around. It’s a beautiful warm spring afternoon, Robert Henry’s last on this earth.
Henry was convicted of murdering two women in Broward County back in 1987. Janet Thermidor was 35 years old; Phyllis Harris was 53. In the bathroom of the fabric store where they worked, Henry hit them on the head with a hammer and lit them on fire. He stole $1,300 from the store. Thermidor lived long enough to tell police who did it--Robert Henry
At about 3:30 p.m., the assistant warden, Jeffrey Mc McClellan, comes out and makes a statement.
“Inmate Robert Henry is scheduled for execution tonight at 6 p.m.,” McClellan said. “He appears to be calm and in good spirits. He did request a last meal consisting of red beans, rice, oxtail, pecan pie, ice cream and orange juice. Inmate Henry did eat most of his meal. He did have a last visit with family from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. yesterday.”
The quick announcement is followed by instructions-- what reporters need to know before the execution: no pens, pencils, laptops, cameras, recording equipment. You can only bring in your car keys, a photo ID and five $1 bills for the vending machine in the waiting room.
Before we load up into state vans John Koch counts the number of reporters, which doesn’t take long, five of the 12 chairs for journalists were taken.
“Our chairs were full up until maybe two years ago, three years ago,” says Koch. “And then we started having less and less [reporters come].”
For Robert Henry’s execution, five of the 12 spots for journalists were taken.
At the entrance to Florida State Prison, a big gate slowly rolls to the side to let you in. It closes behind you before the next gate opens. We go through lots of gates, and I feel a bit more claustrophobic each time one is closed.
These are the same gates I’d go through two years later to interview Mike Lambrix.
We camp out in the canteen until right before the execution. Koch says you never know how long that can be; there might be last-minute delays or stays from the court.
There’s a welcome sign on the wall, like the ones you’d see in an elementary school, with big bubble letters and a picture of Elmo and Cookie Monster, presumably for the kids who come to visit inmates in general population.
The prison gives each reporter a small pad of paper and two No. 2 pencils. Koch recommends we dull the tips a bit before we start using them so they don’t break because then you would have nothing to write with.
Eventually we are driven over to the far part of the prison and taken into the sterile witness gallery.
In front of us is a big window covered from the other side by a brownish curtain.
There are roughly 20 people in the room and it’s absolutely silent, with just reporters making noise by scratching those blunt pencil tips to paper.
The curtain goes up and there in the far room lies Robert Henry on a gurney, his arms strapped beside his body, intravenous needles already in his arms. A white blanket of some sort is draped over him, covering the straps that secure him to the gurney.
Confirmation comes over the telephone on the back wall of the execution room that there are no last-minute stays of Henry’s sentence.
At 6:02 p.m., Robert Henry has a few last words. He reads them from a clipboard one of the guards holds above his face, as he lies on the gurney.
"To the innocent women of my crime, Mrs. Phyllis Harris and Ms. Janet Thermidor, their families, friends and communities, I sincerely apologize for my devastation to your lives, and for the grief, loss and pain that I have caused, and if indeed this event will help you to head or feel better because it is the law, I do not begrudge you your closure," read Henry. "I apologize to my loving family, loyal friends and [their] communities, for having made you as well innocent victims to my friends, in all of your equally real, devastation, grief, loss, and pain."
"Hopefully, in the not-so-distant future, this society shall truly evolve in its law and practice, in that if we are not a society who are comfortable with castrating and raping a rapist, and we do not chop off the hands of thieves,'' read Henry from a statement, "well then, why would we continue to be murderers to those who have murdered? Many would argue that is the law, and my counter would be, so too was slavery…"
Koch quickly scribbles notes. Here is the first page of his notes for March 21, 2014:
Two people in the front row--the brother and sister of one of the victims--shake their heads…. “Die” says the brother.
We later find out from an assistant warden that he was praying. Henry's eyes blink. Then his lips start to move more slowly and he blinks less.
Here are the notes I took that same evening:
The brother in the front row visibly crying. Says, “It’s too easy”
It looks like Robert Henry goes to sleep. He continues breathing though his breaths come more sporadically, staccato-like. And then that stops. And we wait.
From Koch's notes:
Koch watches intently, writes and checks the clock. Again from his notes
The reporter next to me shakes her head a few times. Here are my notes for that moment:
The doctor has salt and pepper hair and wears a white doctor’s coat. Here are my notes:
The brown curtain goes down. And we file out, silently.
Koch says this was a typical execution. It took 11 minutes for Robert Henry to die.