It seems the very opposite of “Silent Night, Holy Night.” A method of death is announced. There’s often a last-minute plea for mercy. A last meal is revealed. There are official designated observers. A crowd gathers to protest and celebrate. It’s execution night on death row.
I never met David Earl Miller. I didn’t even know he existed until the week he was set to die. December 6 was his day to die at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tenn. Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the governor refused his lawyer’s final tries. Miller wanted to die by firing squad — the quickest way to go — but Tennessee won’t do that. He had fried chicken and seems to have mumbled his last words — “Beats being on death row” — possibly assuming no one really cared anyway.
These details seem to bring humanity to inhumanity. I find them chilling every single time, but even more so in the case of Miller.
The Tennessean explained the details of how it went down, comparing Miller’s to the Nov. 1 death of Edmund Zagorski. Before Zagorski’s death, the electric chair had not been used in the state for 11 years. It hasn’t been used in the United States anywhere else since 2013.
“Both men were strapped down to the chair with leather straps and buckles. A large sponge, soaked in saline solution, and a metal helmet were placed on their heads. The solution dripped down their faces and soaked their chests. Prison staff wiped it off with a towel in their final moments.”
When it was Miller’s time, “when the warden signaled for the first charge of 1,750 volts of electricity, Miller’s upper body raised up in the chair and his elbows stuck out.”
Both men clenched their hands into fists. “Miller’s pinkies stuck out straight over the armrest of the chair. Zagorski’s pinkies were described as appearing to be either dislocated or broken. Neither made any signs of movements during the short pause before the second jolt. They were quiet.”
“Miller was pronounced dead at 7:25 p.m. local time. Zagorski at 7:26 p.m.”
In the case of David Earl Miller, the details of his life make his death by the state all the more a clarion call for an examination of conscience for a civilized country that purports to value human life.
The Tennessean explained Miller’s early years — “He started drinking in the womb, abused from his first moments by a mother who wished he’d never been born.”
“He grew up in a household of ‘unspeakable horror’ and made his first suicide attempt at age 6.”
“When his mother died this year, her obituary didn’t even list his name.”
“David Earl Miller came to Knoxville in 1979 a 22-year-old drifter — homeless, jobless and friendless. He might never have stayed had he not been picked up on Interstate 75 by a preacher looking for sex — and Lee Standifer might be alive today.”
Lee Standifer is the beautiful innocent woman he was convicted of murdering in 1981.
The details of her death — beaten with a fireplace poker and stabbed — are excruciating to read. So are the details of Miller’s childhood. He was born in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, in the summer of 1957. “His mother met his father during a one-night stand in a bar, drank throughout her pregnancy and was later diagnosed with brain damage from exposure to toxic fumes at her job in a plastics plant. He was 10 months old when she married his stepfather, an alcoholic who routinely beat him with boards, slammed him into walls and dragged him around the house by the hair, according to court records.”
According to Miller, he was sexually abused by a female cousin at five, then by a friend of his grandfather at twelve, and by his own intoxicated mother at 15. “Miller tried to hang himself at age 6 and began drinking, smoking marijuana and huffing gasoline daily by age 10. By age 13, he’d landed in a state reform school where counselors regularly whipped boys with rubber hoses and turned a blind eye to sexual molestation.”
In a court-ordered examination, Miller said that his earliest memory was being beaten by his stepfather. He said that he couldn’t remember anyone ever telling him they loved him as a child. “Being beaten by his stepfather is the earliest memory that Mr. Miller can recall, and beatings are the rhythm of his childhood,” a clinical psychologist wrote. “Mr. Miller, from a very early age, harbored a simmering rage. He hated his stepfather for the brutality and humiliation he was subjected to, and he loathed his mother for first failing to protect him from his stepfather and later for turning him into her sexual plaything. … His rage has also been enacted on many other innocent ‘stand-ins’ for his mother.”
Miller never had a chance. No one cared to give him a chance.
Miller had been on death row for 36 years. He was the third person to be executed in Tennessee this year. More are scheduled for next year.
Justice and mercy involve recognizing evil but also the human, too. Could the state have acknowledged the evil done to Miller long before that deadly night of rage? I think we are called to be better than the death penalty. Certainly in Miller’s case. As we approach that annual Holy Night, give thanks for the opportunities you’ve had with the memory of Miller. Whisper a prayer for God’s mercy all around. Think about what kind of people we are and ought to be. Real thoughts and prayers and difficult conversations and policies for mercy will mean Miller did not die in vain. May the ugly details make us more human.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.