Put to death

The death room in the Nevada State Prison in Carson City, where Lawrence Colwell was put to death last week.

The death room in the Nevada State Prison in Carson City, where Lawrence Colwell was put to death last week.

Photo By Robert Wilkie

“Well, they’re building a gallows outside my cell/I’ve got 25 minutes to go… And the whole town’s waitin’ just to hear me yell/I’ve got 24 minutes to go…”—Johnny Cash

It’s Friday night, March 26, not quite 9 o’clock, and Lawrence Colwell Jr. is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection in less than 20 minutes.

Despite the presence of one-man death-penalty pep rally Chris Daugherty taunting the convicted killer via posterboard—“Adios Lawrence, Enjoy the Ride!” and, on the other side, the oft-cited “Nevada is the Wild West—Hang ’Em High!”—a group of perhaps three-dozen blanket-clad mourners hold vigil in a semi-circle around flickering candles. Across the road is the visitors’ parking lot of the mammoth structure of wire fence and ruthlessly industrial fortress-style architecture of what is known in the nomenclature of prison officials simply as “NSP.”

As the flash of news cameras pander for poignant, Pulitzer-style shots, the group stirs in and out of spontaneous hymn. They are here as a healing force, says one. They are here for the victim as well as the criminal. The wind is fierce, blasting down from the merciless cold heart of the mountains. Clouds blow over, and the planet Venus becomes visible above the group, the only sign of warmth in the black spring sky, the prison grounds lit up by the indifferent orange-yellow glow of sodium arc lamps.

Occasionally, a pair of semi-smirking troopers cruise by in an SUV surveying the area and keeping the peace. No need. A lot of the town is busy watching the University of Reno trying to squeeze by Georgia Tech in the NCAA tournament. The game even plays on a portable TV outside one of the four or five news vans assembled for late-breaking, on-the-spot reporting, their telescopic umbrella dishes extended in apparent priapic competition. Also, a lot of people just don’t give a damn—the guy’s a convicted killer.

The people break into song: “Give peace, Lord, give peace to every heart, give peace, Lord. …” One man speaks up to lament the “barbaric, senseless, purposeless” act of “state-assisted suicide” about to happen. As citizens of Nevada, they do not want it done in their name.

But this is for real, “so forget about me, eight more minutes to go.”

This is the end of a story, a story of the violence and hatred that lathered within a man whose life of crime started at the age of 12. AP reports disclose a rap sheet escalating at a slow but habitual pace—charges ranging from setting fires to animal cruelty, burglary, theft, automobile theft and forgery. Finally, Lawrence Colwell went to prison for kidnapping. He was on parole in 1994 when his girlfriend Merrilee Paul lured 76-year-old Frank Rosenstock up to a Tropicana hotel room, where Colwell committed what would become his penultimate act of violence, strangling the retiree with a belt and taking $91 and the dead man’s credit cards.

Last I checked, they still call it Sin City, but there are certain things you just don’t do even in Vegas. One of them is kill a tourist—the very cherry-red lifeblood of the gaming industry. The elderly guy who sits at the dollar slots for hours on end shoving his 401k into the feeder because he’s too damn tired to get up or give up. In casino-speak, these are not the whales of yore, but the sacred cash cows who ride around on Rascals and bustle into the buffets. The rule is, you don’t mess with the guests.

“With my feet on the trap and my head on the noose got five more minutes to go…”

Should be any time now. The witnesses, including the victim’s son and daughter, have made their way inside the prison. The extra-terrestrial newspeople, the eyewitness news-team on-the-spot extra-live reporters with teeth so white they can be seen from outer space have gone inside, too. The cameramen, relieved of their duties for the time being, clamber into the warmth of their humming news trucks and talk about going to Bully’s for a few drinks after all is done.

It’s just about 9 p.m.

The prison staff is probably strapping and buckling Lawrence Colwell down onto the death gurney and putting the IVs into his veins right about now. If all goes well, the first thing he’ll feel will be, well, nothing. The sodium pentothal acts as an anesthetic. Next comes the pavulon. It paralyzes all the muscles in his body, meaning he won’t be able to breathe. Meaning, if the sodium pentothal doesn’t work, he won’t be able to complain. Potassium chloride finishes him off. The poison flows through his veins and stops his heart in mid-beat.

This is Lawrence Colwell’s final act of violence.

Like Gary Gilmore, “hero” of Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song who dared the state of Utah to kill him, to follow through on the punishment handed down, Colwell is a volunteer for the last roundup—a man whose final gasp of self-determination is to die now rather than spend the rest of his life in prison. The death penalty didn’t work as a deterrent for Lawrence Colwell. Instead, it seemed to draw him in after a time. It became an escape. His only escape. He simply didn’t care; he didn’t value his life anymore, and it took a decade in prison for him to find some kind of faith, some kind of meaning or lack of meaning to give up and give in.

Nobody knows exactly what he found. He refused to speak to the media unless, it was rumored, someone donated $10,000 to some charity. Nobody took him up on the offer. After all, Lawrence Colwell wasn’t a particularly flashy killer. His body count ended at one. He didn’t ooze the venomous charisma of a Ted Bundy or the clown-cult trading-card status of a John Wayne Gacy. He’ll be forgotten in a week, or until the next “volunteer” steps up to the plate. And then he’ll be just a footnote.

“I can see the mountains I can see the skies with three more minutes to go…”

It’s happening. That’s all I know. It’s happening right now.

“I can see the buzzards I can hear the crows one more minute to go…”

In 2002, Colwell entered a drawing in a prisoner art contest held by felony-life magazine Fortune News. The picture he drew depicted a weary, defeated Jesus, toppled under the weight of a cross, burdened by the phrase “The sin of the world.” Big athletic block letters framed the scene and spelled out “Lord’s Gym.”

It’s over.

After a while, people start coming out of the prison through the gatehouse.

First to speak is Prison Director Jackie Crawford.

“He smoked a lot of cigarettes,” she says.

Then come the victim’s son and daughter. Reading from a prepared statement, Terry Rosenstock explains that the execution didn’t bring closure to his family. In fact, it was just “the end of another painful chapter … in a story we wish had never been written.” He looks into the media hive of lenses, the people out there, his voice hinting at a tremble but the New Yorker in him not betraying one. Not only has his father been killed, but he’s also just watched another man die. His sister, Mindy Dinburg, stands silently at his side. It turns out she is a probation officer.

Lawrence Colwell Jr. was pronounced dead at 9:08 p.m. on March 26, 2004.

He had no last words.

His accomplice, Merrilee Paul, is up for parole in May.