Editor’s note: The Times reporter who wrote Angels & Demons, Thomas French, accompanied Hal Rogers to witness the Nov. 15, 2011 execution of Oba Chandler at Florida State Prison. This story was published on Nov. 16, 2011.
STARKE — Hal Rogers felt no need to watch the last breaths of the man who took his family.
In October, when news of the death warrant reached Hal on his farm in Ohio, he doubted he would attend the execution. It wouldn't bring back his wife and daughters. Twenty-two years after their murders, Jo and Michelle and Christe still lived inside Hal so vividly he sometimes had trouble accepting that they were buried in the cemetery down the road.
And although he once harbored fantasies of vengeance against their killer, Hal had long since let go of such bloody thoughts. He rarely thought about the killer at all anymore. He almost never uttered his name, not because he was afraid of naming him, but because he believed the man did not deserve even that small measure of respect. As far as Hal was concerned, the condemned wasn't worth the trip to Florida State Prison.
"He's just going to die," said the 59-year-old farmer, blunt and unbowed as ever. "Big deal."
But then a few days ago, Hal learned that his niece, Mandi Scarlett — Michelle’s and Christe’s cousin — was determined to witness the execution. She didn’t expect anything from the killer. For herself, and for her cousins, she needed to see the man die, even if that meant traveling from Ohio to Florida on her own.
Once Hal realized Mandi wasn't changing her mind, he knew he had to join her.
"I don't want her going down there alone," he said.
The two of them set off before dawn Tuesday. Hal packed a gray pinstripe suit — he had been told there was a dress code — and then he and Mandi drove through the darkened corn and wheat fields to the airport in Fort Wayne, and then they flew to Jacksonville.
The whole morning, the finality of what awaited them hung in the car between them. Mandi couldn't talk about it. Fighting off tears, she went silent. Hal worried that the condemned might use his last words to say something wicked.
"It's a lose-lose-lose situation," he said.
In Jacksonville they rented a car and headed southward until they reached the stone gates of Florida State Prison. Inside, they were ushered into the small viewing room that looks into the death chamber.
Hal took a seat next to Mandi in the center of the front row. Another victim of Chandler’s, a woman he had raped in the ’70s, sat on the other side of Hal. Before them stretched a large window, shrouded by a brown curtain.
Minutes ticked by. Hal breathed and waited. On the other side of the glass, a team was readying the inmate on his gurney. Some of the witnesses had wondered whether the man would confess, express regret, show even a hint of recognition of what he had done.
To Hal, it made no difference. He just wanted it to be over. In his mind, he conjured Jo and the girls, bringing them into this silence with him.
The curtain went up.
• • •
The first snow of the season fell over Van Wert County late last Thursday afternoon, not long before dark.
Hal was busy inside a drying bin, shoveling corn toward an auger that ferried the grain into wagons waiting outside. When the snow came blowing in, it swirled with red chaff from the corn and engulfed the wagons in a cloud of white and maroon.
A strange and beautiful sight, but Hal had no time to notice. Already a month behind schedule, he was lost in concentration.
"I haven't shoveled corn this wet in thirty years," he said.
His beard has gone gray. The lines in his face have deepened. But he still speaks in the same growl, and he moves with the nimbleness of a teenager.
The 370 acres of his farm remain the center of his world. The Holsteins he and the girls once milked twice a day are gone, replaced with pigs. Five thousand of them, snorting and squealing in a pair of giant barns tricked out with an automated system that keeps them fed and watered.
Thirteen years ago, he married a farmer's daughter named Jolene Keefer. She had four kids of her own, and for years she and Hal had tried to have more children. But after several miscarriages, they had had enough. The disappointment still cuts deep, compounded by the void left behind by the murders.
Jolene has done her best to help him through the darkness. She knew that when she married Hal, she was also marrying Jo and Michelle and Christe. Still, she didn't pretend it was easy sharing him.
"Sometimes I do have to fight ghosts," she said the other night. "That's when the jealousy creeps in."
Hal was still outside, tinkering with the auger. Jolene was in the kitchen, frosting a chocolate cake and fretting over what would happen at the execution.
“I’m so worried about whether that — whatever you want to call him — will do something awful,” she said. “That’s what scares me about Hal going down there. I just don’t want him to be hurt anymore.”
The next morning, when Jolene wasn’t home, Hal showed the artifacts he has saved from his previous life — a 4H trophy Christe won for raising a pig, a crayon drawing Michelle colored of the farm when she was in first grade, stuffed animals that both girls had played with throughout their childhood. He feels their presence on the farm sometimes, especially when he’s stressed.
Hal's not sure how he survived the terrible years after the murders.
To this day, he confessed, he still feels like he's out on a tightrope. He can't make it to the other side, and he can't find his way back.
"You get so far out on that tightrope," he said. "You ain't got nothing to do but fall in."
• • •
The execution unfolded in slow motion. The condemned was stretched out on the gurney, a white sheet covering his body, his eyes closed. He looked as though he were already dead. Then the warden asked if he had anything to say, and the man said “no” so loudly it was clear he was awake.
Hal realized that the man was going to give them nothing. It was his way of exerting control, denying the satisfaction of a confession.
Hal was able to observe closely the faces of the execution team carrying out the protocol. Though they were doing their utmost to project composure, Hal could see how hard this was for them. He watched the team give the signal for the executioner — hidden by a wall — to begin the flow of the fatal cocktail.
Hal saw the mouth of the condemned fall open slightly and then began keeping track of his chest rising and falling under the sheet. More minutes went by, and Hal was surprised that it was taking so long for the man to die. He thought of Henry VIII, ordering Anne Boleyn's death. Much quicker, beheading.
"Chop, chop," he told himself.
Through it all, he held to his vow to stay motionless. He didn’t want to give anyone — not the condemned, not the other witnesses — the opportunity to see him losing control.
Finally it was over. He stood up, his face revealing nothing, and walked out toward the sunlight.
• • •
Afterward, Hal thanked the prosecutors who had fought so long on the case and who had joined him there in the viewing room. Mandi made a brief statement to the reporters, her voice trembling, and then the two of them climbed back in their rental car and drove away.
Mandi was clearly relieved. Seeing the man go under, she said, had given her peace. Hal said he couldn't find the right words to explain what he was feeling, but was clearly feeling something. He was happy for Mandi, and happy to be done, once and for all, with the dead man under the sheet. Soon he was talking about God and the devil, heaven and hell. He knew both were real.
"I seen hell," he said. "The devil ain't as smart as he thinks he is. I like to say that I spit in his eye. I ain't afraid of him."
Hal was still out on the tightrope. He knows, he said, that he will never make it completely to the other side.
"There's never going to be justice, okay?" Hal said. "He'd be dead and they'd come back. That would be justice."
But as he sped away from the prison at dusk, his suit jacket was off and his tie was off and his arm hung out the window. The breeze felt good against his skin.