The business of death has a way of making people feel uncomfortable. That discomfort was surprisingly acute for reporter Tara Servatius who was among three journalists witnessing Clifton White's execution in Raleigh's Central Prison on Aug. 24. White was executed for the 1989 stabbing murder of Kimberly Ewing of Charlotte. He became the 18th person executed in the state since 1984.
Servatius, a staff writer at Creative Loafing in Charlotte, said she entered the witness room feeling no sympathy for White. Surrounded by White's and Ewing's family members in the cramped space, Servatius thought White's death by injection would be justice served for a man who brutally killed a young mother.
"It was very strange for me because I'm very pro death penalty," Servatius said. "I read about this terrible crime, and I was so angry at him for what he did to her. I could picture this happening to my sister who has a child and how outraged I would be. And then as I saw him laying on the gurney and mouthing, 'I love you,' he just looked kind of old and pathetic and pale. And I started crying. I couldn't believe it. I mean he was a human being. He was a person, and he had a life. I didn't expect to have that reaction at all.
"I thought he'd just go to sleep, and that would be that. I was trying not to cry because I sort of felt ashamed that I could be standing there choked up when the victim's family was standing less than a foot away, and they weren't choked up. I almost felt ashamed for having any kind of compassion for the man."
While Servatius was emotionally conflicted, Ewing's sister Kyle Cook was not. She came to the post-execution media conference with a prepared statement. Holding up a picture of her sister, Cook said death by injection was too easy for White.
"He went to sleep," she said. "Kim suffered a violent death. His family had over 12 years to say goodbye to him, and we were robbed of that luxury. ... When will the public stop feeling sorry for people who claim that a bad childhood caused them to become a criminal? ... The system was fair and it worked. At considerable taxpayer expense."
White's execution opened a whole new round of grieving for those who were hoping Gov. Mike Easley would spare White, who committed his crime while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Throughout the night and into the morning, more than 200 people gathered for a candlelight vigil and prayer service in front of the prison.
"Killing Clifton solves nothing but to increase the misery of this tragedy," said White's attorney Jonathan Broun of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.
One of the people most deeply affected by White's death was UNC-Chapel Hill student John Johnson, an activist with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. After randomly getting White's name as a death-row pen pal, Johnson started a friendship with White that grew over the last two years during Johnson's visits to the prison.
In a final statement, which Broun read after the execution, White wrote: "I want to thank John Johnson, a young man who became my pen pal in efforts to stop the death penalty. You are like family to me, so remember to keep up the fight, and I'll be watching over you."
Johnson said he plans to honor his friend's request. "It's like putting an iron into a fire; it just hardens your desire to keep going," Johnson said. "I'm going to be hurting for a long time, but I'm going to keep going. I have to now."