Killing by the Numbers

At ten minutes to midnight, they brought us in from the cold. After a van ride past dark, mute cellblocks, gates manned by ski-masked commandos and sodium light towers hazing the moonless sky with orange, we climbed into the trailer behind Maximum Security to watch Terry Langford die by poison.A big, young guy from the prison's black-clad, dead-serious Interior Perimeter Security force led us through the back door, through a small antechamber flanked by a heating unit and a spartan bathroom and through another door, into the death chamber.Langford was already there. For weeks, I thought about him constantly, writing and rewriting an article about his crimes for this newspaper, retracing his steps along Highway 200 near Ovando, never speaking to him or setting eyes on him. Then, a few weeks after standing in the small, unexceptional farmhouse living room where Langford executed Ned and Celene Blackwood 10 years ago, I took my seat in the front row of witness chairs, within easy reach of the soles of his feet. I couldn't see Langford's face, just the bottom of his chin, his nostrils and the frames of his eyeglasses.He was trussed to a gunmetal, padded gurney at the opposite end of the trailer, flat on his back, arms strapped to cruciform restraints, ankles manacled, thrashed blue New Balance tennis shoes and white socks on his feet. He wore his Max uniform, a bright orange jumpsuit. The needles that would kill him were hooked into his veins, intravenous tubes taped to his thin, fish-belly white arms.Behind us, the other witnesses entered, an assembly of people who'd seen various chunks of their lives get swallowed into Langford's vortex: law officers, attorneys, relatives of the killer and his victims. I sat, just beyond Langford's right shoe, between Tom Laceky of the Associated Press and Kyle Gillette of Deer Lodge's Silver State Post. An IPS officer, stone-still with illegible eyes, loomed above me, facing the guard who'd led us in.Some of the men who helped put Langford on the gurney sat immediately around me, but the written rules of the occasion demanded that we all stare straight ahead, leaving one another alone. I was not to look at Chris Miller, the Powell County Attorney who prosecuted Langford both for the Blackwood murders and his role in the homicidal brutality of the 1991 Max riot. Nor was I supposed to see how Dave Collings, the hardboiled, retired sheriff who came upon the Blackwoods' bodies in their Ovando home, reacted to a killing he'd long desired. Nor could I tell how District Judge Ted Mizner behaved as his decade-old sentence was finally carried out.Langford was breathing slowly and evenly, his only movement a slight rocking of his head as he looked up into the fluorescent bulbs lighting the trailer. The one-way mirror opening out of the executioner's hiding place, a room behind the gurney, provided a distorted reflection of the top of Langford's face.We waited for midnight without a word. I could hear the men behind me exhale in chorus with the condemned man. Laceky, sitting in a spot that might have been outside the IPS guard's peripheral vision, snuck a few glances around. He'd later report that everyone looked grim.The trailer's heating system hummed a little and the normal room temperature felt warm after the crystal iciness outside. This was something of a relief.The two synchronized clocks reached midnight and Warden Mike Mahoney materialized from the back of the chamber. Mahoney, tall and slightly sepulchral in a dark pinstriped suit, his enormous head inclined slightly toward his chest, walked down the aisle and through the only opening in the waist-high barrier between the witness area and the gurney.He went to Langford's left side and looked down at the murderer's face. "Terry Allen Langford, it is time to carry out the order of the court," he said. "Would you like to make a statement?""No," Langford said. Loudly and firmly. With that, he fell back into the room's uniform silence. He never explained his crimes, never offered a word of apology or remorse. After a decade spent locked away, he submitted to the formality of being killed without accepting a final invitation to rejoin the world.Mahoney turned to the witnesses and said the execution would proceed. He took a seat. Gurgling sounds from the tubes and a hidden tapping and clanging from the executioner's hiding place announced the beginning of the end. Langford coughed once and then again, the second a longer, rumbling sound from deep in his lungs. He snored for a few seconds, then all movement from his breast stopped.Around him, the watchers continued their absolute silence, the thin scratch of pens on notebooks the only sound apart from the executioner's alchemical rattlings. Mahoney and the guards stared straight ahead until 12:07, when the coroner, a neutral-looking man in gray, produced a stethoscope, checked Langford's chest, shined a pen light into his eyes and whispered the expected news to the warden."Terry Allen Langford expired at approximately 12:07 a.m.," Mahoney said, standing directly in front the gurney, his massive shoulders square and his chin set firm. "Thank you for your time. Please remain seated and facing forward until your escorts come for you."They emptied the room from the back with the same choreographed precision that marked the rest of the ritual. As the witnesses left, Mahoney remained still, standing with his back to the corpse, hands folded at his waist, just at the tip of his maroon tie, adorned with a tiny pin in the shape of the State of Montana.With the rest of the reporters, I was among the last to leave. A final glance over my shoulder revealed a stock-still tableau, a brief freeze before they unstrapped Terry Langford and took him to his burial ground.Outside, it was still freezing, and the snap of cold on my face woke me out of the trance I'd fallen into as I furiously recorded what happened around me in the steno notebook provided by prison officials.No one spoke as we were loaded into the same van in which we'd arrived, and I suddenly wanted nothing more than to break the quiet that had attended Langford's death, the enforced silence that was part of a plan so meticulous and successful that the forcible killing of a human being was later described as "anti-climatic" and "uneventful" by the people who watched it happen.Suddenly that silence seemed designed to make Langford's death as blameless as though he'd been struck by lightning or swallowed by the earth. Those who say that what happened to him was no worse than the end he gave Ned and Celene Blackwood are right, but I would offer that it was no better, either.


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