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What if nobody came?

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At 2:17 a.m. on October 12, David Junior Ward died by injection in Central Prison's execution chamber. Ward was the 20th person, and fifth African American, to be put to death by the state since executions resumed in 1984.

Following a relatively slow trickle of just eight executions from 1984 to 1997, the pace has noticeably accelerated with a dozen executions since 1998. With time and appeals running out for many death row inmates, it's likely the pace of executions will continue to speed up in the near future. On the same day that Ward died, the state attorney general's office gave the Department of Corrections the go-ahead to set three more execution dates. Dates were set for Ernest McCarver (Nov. 9), John Hardy Rose (Nov. 30) and Sherman Skipper (Dec. 7). Defense lawyers claim that both McCarver and Skipper are mentally retarded.

As executions become more commonplace, death penalty foes fear North Carolina will become like Texas, Florida and a few other states where media interest in executions is virtually nil. Ward's case may be an indication that such a shift is already in the works. Just three media representatives, instead of the usual five, requested permission to witness Ward's death.Following the execution, only two media outlets, WRAL and The Independent, remained on hand for a press conference. A News & Observer reporter who left shortly after the execution said she was somewhat surprised to be assigned to cover Ward's death. Many local reporters have indicated a dwindling interest from editors in covering executions.

Ward, 39, who was sentenced to death for the 1991 killing of Dorothy Mae Smith, also opted to not bring much attention to himself. He made no final statement, and a witness said Ward's last words from the death gurney were, "Get on with it." Ward requested that his mother and other family members not witness his execution, and his two lawyers who did witness chose not to speak to reporters.

"It's surreal," said Scott Batchelor, a reporter with the Greenville Daily Reflector who witnessed Ward's execution. "It's hard to get your mind around the fact that what you're seeing happening is happening. To me, it is the clinical nature of it that seems so odd; that it's so systematic and deliberate. That makes it surreal."

Witness Corrinne Hess of the Kinston Free Press said those who watched the execution seemed almost impatient.

"It got kind of weird because everyone was sort of looking at the clock about 2:15, kind of like, 'When's this going to get done?' And that's a weird thing to think about, 'When is this guy going to die?' It all of a sudden got restless.

"I wasn't a real proponent for the death penalty before, and this kind of confirmed my beliefs."

Following the execution, Ward's lawyers, Marvin Sparrow and Dawn Battiste, thanked a group of death penalty opponents gathered in front of the prison with candles.

"Do you have anything to say about the brutality you just witnessed?" Battiste was asked.

"No, I think it speaks for itself," she replied.

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