In nine days, a trio of strangers, chosen in secrecy, will arrive at the large, white prison that sits on a hillside here. Shortly before 10 p.m., they will insert catheters into both of Keith Zettlemoyer’s arms, pump poison into his veins and kill him.
They will each get $300 in cash and disappear until summoned again.
Nobody is ever to know the names of the people assigned to dispatch the first convict to be executed in Pennsylvania since 1962.
The mechanics of capital punishment in Pennsylvania involve a series of meticulous protocols shrouded in sometimes bizarre secrecy. Department of Corrections officials, for instance, won’t say precisely what chemicals will be used for the state’s first lethal injection.
But they will say that the combination of drugs that will put Zettlemoyer into a deep sleep and then stop his heart cost somewhere between $300 and $400.
“The department fails to see what public purpose would be filled by identifying the chemical agents,” said Ben Livengood, spokesman for the department.
“They want to anesthetize the process. It makes it digestible — the ruse that it’s a medical process,” said Andrew Shubin, a State College lawyer and death penalty opponent.
The “execution chamber” is now referred to by corrections officials as ”the injection room.”
The room is the same one in which 348 men and two women were executed in the state’s electric chair between 1915, when Rockview opened, and 1962, when Elmo Smith of Montgomery County became the last person put to death in Pennsylvania by electrocution.
The chair is now in storage with the state’s Historical and Museum Commission.
While state officials won’t identify the chemicals, a four-member contingent visited Huntsville, Texas, in March to confer with officials there. Texas has been executing inmates by lethal injection since 1982 and has carried out more executions than any other state.
Texas uses a barbiturate called sodium thiopental, followed by a paralyzing agent called pancuronium bromide, which stops a person’s breathing. A third chemical, potassium chloride, is then injected into the IV line, stopping the heart.
In Illinois, corrections official Nick Howell watched as executioners used the same three chemicals to dispatch convicted murderers James Free and Hernando Williams and serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
“Free gave out a snort or a snore. Williams did nothing. Gacy gave some sort of respiratory sound,” he said. It took six to seven minutes for the men to die.
Pennsylvania changed its legal method of execution from electrocution to lethal injection in December 1990. Midway through the next year, corrections officials put three people under a retainer, $500 apiece annually, to carry out the executions. They also get $150 each for mock execution “drills.” They are the same three who will get $300 apiece on May 2 for the first execution in 33 years.
State officials will give few details about the execution team except to say its members are neither prison employees nor doctors, and that they are ”technically qualified” to insert IV tubes and administer drugs intravenously. Under Pennsylvania law, the only people other than physicians authorized to administer IV drugs are nurses, physician’s assistants and paramedics.
“There are probably fewer than five people in the entire department who know their identities,” Livengood said. The three are issued prison credentials with assumed names. When they go through mock execution training drills, the prison staff members who join them don’t know their identities.
They will be brought to the prison by a staff member who will pick them up at a predetermined location.
From there, the team will go to the DW building, a squarish block structure that stands directly behind the grand white main prison building. DW stands for “deputy warden,” although staff, prisoners and lawyers alike also call it the “death warrant” building.
Zettlemoyer will be waiting in a second-floor cell. Officials won’t say precisely when he will arrive from the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh.
But when Florencio Rolan was scheduled to die last month for a 1984 murder in Philadelphia, he was taken to Rockview at midday of his planned execution day. Prison neighbors say state troopers blocked off roads as the vehicle carrying Rolan neared. Prisoners who work the fields and orchards of the prison were locked down in their cells immediately after their evening meal. All approaches to the prison were sealed off at 6 p.m. the preceding night.
Rolan was saved by a court-ordered stay of execution.
When Zettlemoyer arrives, he’ll be fingerprinted to verify that the right man has arrived. Transfer documents will include a recent photograph. He will be asked if he would like to issue a final statement. He can write it down or dictate it.
The condemned man will be taken to the second floor and put in one of six cells lining a hallway adjacent to the injection room. His only view will be a patch of sky visible in one of the windows on the other side of the hall, behind a screen of bars.
At some point on the afternoon of May 2, prison officials will deliver a menu from the prison cafeteria for his final meal. The menu includes grilled steak, roast beef, a cheeseburger, fried chicken — “things you’d expect to find on a menu,” as Livengood puts it. No alcoholic drinks are permitted.
Department-approved immediate family members will be allowed a final visit. One clergyman and the inmate’s attorney will be allowed to visit “as needed.” Around 8:30 p.m., prison officials will give Zettlemoyer another chance to make a final statement.
Shortly after 9:30 p.m., a team of prison staff members will wheel a metal hospital gurney to his cell. A series of straps will be used to hold him down. A separate team will stand by, Livengood said, “if there’s a need to do a cell extraction” should the prisoner be uncooperative.
Those who know Zettlemoyer say he’s an utterly beaten-down man, profoundly withdrawn and unlikely to fight.
Larry Fitzgerald, a spokesman at Huntsville State Prison in Texas, has witnessed five lethal injection executions this year and said he had heard no stories of resistance. Prisoners are often remarkably cooperative.
“In those last six hours, the prisoners I have talked to and met are resigned to this thing, or are inquisitive about exactly what’s going to happen,” Fitzgerald said. In one instance, a prisoner with collapsed veins because of intravenous drug use pointed out good veins to the injection team.
There have been glitches in the injection process, says a report by the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. In one, Ricky R. Rector, a brain-damaged convict put to death for killing a sheriff in Arkansas, moaned for 40 minutes as an injection team tried to locate a usable vein in his arms.
Under Pennsylvania’s protocols, Zettlemoyer will be wheeled down the hallway and into the injection room. The front of the gurney will be latched to the wall behind him. Both arms will be extended, crucifixion style, and two members of the injection team will take over. The third will be on hand as a backup.
Team members will insert catheters into both arms and hook them to tubes running through the small opening beneath a two-way mirror on the wall behind Zettlemoyer’s head. On the other side are bags with a saline solution that will drip into the tubes. The injection team members will go into that small room — which previously housed the transformer for the electric chair — and watch through the mirror.
Remaining in the injection room will be Robert W. Meyers, deputy warden for operations, and Harvey Yancey, the major of the guard, the prison’s highest- ranking uniformed officer. Meyers will stand at a black wall telephone near the gurney, on an open telephone line to the office of Warden Joseph Mazurkiewicz. Mazurkiewicz will be on an open line to the office of Gov. Ridge, who signed the execution order.
On a shelf next to the telephone will be a microphone and a small intercom box, linking the deputy warden by voice with the team in the injection room.
Yancey will draw open a blue curtain, revealing a large glass window. Behind it will be the clergyman, six news reporters and six “reputable adult citizens” selected by Mazurkiewicz, all seated in folding metal chairs.
They will see Zettlemoyer’s feet, which will point toward the window. His face will be visible on one of several mirrors set up to provide a view. He won’t be asked to give any last words.
At 10 p.m., barring word from Gov. Ridge, one or both members of the execution team — it’s up to them to decide — will insert a needle and syringe into one of the two IV lines and pump in the barbiturate. Moments later, they will add the paralyzer, then the heart stopper.
What will it look like?
“It’s kind of like watching someone go to sleep,” Fitzgerald said. When the lungs collapse, he said, “they make kind of a cough sound. By that point, the inmate’s dead.”
And at that point, the deputy warden will summon a doctor, who has been waiting in an adjacent room, forbidden by his Hippocratic oath and medical society rules to participate physically in an execution. He will check for Zettlemoyer’s heartbeat and pulse. If all has gone as planned, there will be none.
He will look at a clock that hangs on the wall directly above Zettlemoyer’s head and announce the hour. That’s what he’ll list on the state certificate — that, 14 years, six months and 17 days after he killed Charles DeVetsco, Keith Zettlemoyer is dead.