Opinion | The Man I Saw Them Kill

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — On Thursday evening, I sat in the lobby of a Marriott hotel in Terre Haute, Ind., as Shawn Nolan and Victor Abreu tried to save a man’s life. Both wore bluejeans, button-down shirts and a day or more of scruff — Mr. Nolan’s salt-and-pepper, Mr. Abreu’s black. We shared a bottle of red wine in plastic cups as the two men, public defenders whose caseloads are strictly death penalty appeals, discussed the merits of pleading with the Supreme Court for a stay of execution.

“Days of life matter,” Mr. Nolan had reflected as we spoke earlier that afternoon.

Their work, never light, had recently increased. After a 17-year hiatus, the Department of Justice had resumed federal executions in July, wedging 10 deaths into the latter half of the final year of President Trump’s term. Two of those inmates were their clients.

Mr. Nolan and Mr. Abreu debated whether it would be worthwhile to bring a procedural claim before the court for their client Alfred Bourgeois, who was scheduled to die in less than 24 hours, at 6 p.m. on Friday.

Mr. Nolan’s office already had litigation pending over whether lower courts had fairly considered Mr. Bourgeois’s intellectual deficit. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit had denied their claim that judges had discounted Mr. Bourgeois’s disability based on standards that have been superseded by diagnostic criteria from organizations like the American Psychiatric Association. Since the Supreme Court has ruled that the government cannot execute someone deemed intellectually disabled, the question of whether Mr. Bourgeois’s diagnosis had been given due consideration was crucial.

With that still on the Supreme Court’s docket, Mr. Nolan felt reluctant to submit a second petition, claiming the law required more time between the scheduling of Mr. Bourgeois’s execution and the killing itself. The court had already rejected similar claims, he said, and a rejection of that claim might make the justices take their other filing less seriously.

Mr. Abreu paced, took a call from a colleague, then sat again, contemplative.

“I’ve known Alfred for 15 years, almost,” he said. “I know as much about his life as any other person in the world does. And I care about him … as much as any other person in the world.”

As the lawyers conferred, the blue light of Mr. Abreu’s phone suddenly lit his face. The Supreme Court had denied Brandon Bernard’s request for a stay of execution. And despite a clemency campaign by celebrities like Kim Kardashian West, jurors from Mr. Bernard’s trial and a prosecutor who helped secure his sentence, President Trump had refused to intervene.

Mr. Bernard’s case was compelling: He had been only 18 in 1999 when he joined several of his friends in a carjacking that concluded with the murder of a married couple, and he had played a subordinate role. Since then, he had expressed deep remorse for his actions decades earlier. Terre Haute had been flush with protesters advocating for Mr. Bernard that day. The fact that all that support and his tale of redemption amounted to nothing arrived as an ill omen for Mr. Bourgeois. His case was much worse, or so it seemed.

You could miss the Federal Correctional Institution at Terre Haute from the flat strip of State Road 63 along its eastern perimeter. From that remote vantage, its buildings are nondescript, red brick and beige stone rising up on the plains. The Wabash River runs along the campus’s western side, carving a ravine between stands of winter-bare black walnut and white ash. Only upon closer inspection does the shimmer of looping barbed wire emerge, and then the shadows of stadium-style floodlights, dormant in the noonday sun. Signs warn against trespass; armed guards patrol the entrances and exits. This is where all federal executions are carried out, and where Alfred Bourgeois was waiting to die.

Mr. Bourgeois’s was the kind of offense often adduced in advocacy for capital punishment: cruel, senseless, depraved. In 2008, a federal prosecutor opened a pro-death penalty essay in the Texas Tech Law Review with a brief, brutal description of Mr. Bourgeois’s crime. Mr. Bourgeois “systematically tortured and sexually and physically abused his two-year-old daughter, culminating in her murder by ‘grabb[ing] her by her shoulders and slamm[ing] the back of her head’” into the cab of his tractor-trailer in 2002, wrote Richard Roper, formerly the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas.

Jurors attending Mr. Bourgeois’s trial heard more, and worse. Court records show Mr. Bourgeois had a history of domestic violence, extramarital affairs and aggression.

In 2002, Katrina Harrison, a former lover, claimed her 2-year-old daughter, JaKaren, was Mr. Bourgeois’s child. He agreed to a paternity test, which came back positive in May of that year. Immediately after the resulting child support hearing in East Texas, Ms. Harrison sent JaKaren with her father, who set off for Louisiana with the toddler, his two older daughters and his wife, Robin.

Mr. Bourgeois was a truck driver and routinely took his family with him on his routes. For the last month of her life, JaKaren rode along with her father, sisters and stepmother, spending most of her time tied to a training potty. Mr. Bourgeois could not manage her toilet training and beat the girl in frustration with his fists, with electrical cords, with a shoe, with a plastic bat, with a belt. He bit the child, his jurors were told, and once forced her to drink urine from a bottle he used to relieve himself while driving.

Then, on June 27, 2002, Mr. Bourgeois made a delivery at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi. While he backed into a loading dock, JaKaren accidentally jostled her potty chair, tipping it over. Incensed, Mr. Bourgeois’s elder daughter testified, he spanked the girl, grabbed her by the shoulders and slammed her head into the interior of his truck with such force that witnesses standing outside recalled the vehicle shaking. He then left the toddler, now mortally injured, to finish his work.

His wife pleaded with bystanders to call an ambulance. Mr. Bourgeois told hospital personnel that she had fallen from the truck, but the extent of JaKaren’s injuries belied his story. There was blood behind her eyes, her extremities were swollen, and she was covered in bruises and healing scars, some of them suggesting burns. She died less than 24 hours after arriving at the hospital, and Mr. Bourgeois was arrested. Since the girl was murdered on the military base, the case was tried in federal courts.

The worst allegations emerged from JaKaren’s autopsy, when a government expert testified that rectal swabs had tested positive for semen.

“Was he laughing when he bit her, or he burned her, or he put his filthy semen in her little body?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Patti Booth prompted the jury during the sentencing phase of Mr. Bourgeois’s trial.

In the news stories and legal opinions that followed Mr. Bourgeois’s conviction and subsequent death sentence, JaKaren’s suffering is vivid, palpable, fleshly.

At her father’s trial, JaKaren’s older half sister testified that as Mr. Bourgeois had bashed her sister’s head against the interior of his truck, JaKaren’s expression had turned “real sad.” She was a child at the time of her testimony and perhaps lacked the words for the kind of agony, terror, betrayal, anguish, humiliation and sorrow that a face even so young could register. But it comes through in her rendering nonetheless, and it haunts me.

The pain pierced deeper when I noticed that JaKaren’s family had nicknamed the little girl JaJa, the same one we had given my daughter Jane as a baby.

It put me in mind of a theme prominent in Mr. Roper’s essay: Arguments against the death penalty tend to be abstract: moral declarations about taking human life, conclusions from academic studies of legal procedures, dissections of prosecutions, or philosophical concerns about the limits of government power. But arguments for the death penalty are visceral: the blood of a baby girl seeping out into her eyes, the tangled scars crisscrossing her soft skin.

I oppose capital punishment, as did 39 percent of Americans questioned for a 2018 Pew poll. I have written for years to that it ought to be abolished. I believe that it is too absolute a penalty for a trial process so utterly limited, and I’m convinced that it is both arbitrary and prone to bias. In the purest and highest reaches of my spirit, I detest the idea of killing.

And yet the impulse to erase from the earth every trace of a crime as monstrous as Mr. Bourgeois’s still arises in me, at times, pitting my emotions against my intellect. On some irrational level, it occasionally feels not only appropriate but also crucial, urgent. Some would say this is proof that execution satisfies a natural impulse, and a good deal of human history supports their claim. When I arrive on the brink of agreement, a favored verse from Jeremiah echoes in my thoughts: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: Who can know it?” I don’t credit those impulses with any righteousness, but they persist nevertheless.

It’s nearly impossible to live with a conflict between feeling and belief. You end up feeling the way you believe you should, or believing the way you feel you ought to. I have known for a long time — certainly since the murder of my own sister-in-law in our Texas hometown in 2016 — that I had emotions related to the death penalty that had to be reckoned with.

I began to think I wouldn’t know with certainty what part of me was being honest about capital punishment until I saw it for myself.

By midday Friday, a sharp wind had pushed slate-colored clouds over Terre Haute. Mr. Bourgeois’s lawyers had decided a second petition would be futile. The decision was a hard-won consensus, required, they felt, so that they would not tear themselves apart later if one lawyer prevailed over another.

So they pinned their hopes to the appeal concerning Mr. Bourgeois’s intellectual disability and anxiously awaited the Supreme Court’s decision as the minutes ticked down to 6 p.m.

Mr. Nolan and his team only encounter their clients’ cases post-conviction; they don’t have the opportunity to represent them at trial. Instead, they have to make the best of what they’ve got once convictions are handed down. And in Mr. Bourgeois’s case, what did they have?

Mr. Bourgeois’s upbringing in southern Louisiana was difficult, though he was reluctant to present that element of his biography at trial. He never knew his father, and statements by friends and family members revealed that his mother singled him out among her seven children for abuse. Mr. Bourgeois eventually took refuge with an elderly neighbor, who effectively raised him.

“Alfred was this little pretty baby,” Mr. Bourgeois’s older brother, Lloyd Ferdinand, told me. “Everybody wanted him. OK? So, he went and stayed with … this old lady called Miss Mary and she pretty much raised him.” Mr. Bourgeois saw his siblings living happily with his mother and one another, but he could not join them.

Miss Mary tried to provide Mr. Bourgeois with a moral foundation. Alton Preston, a longtime friend of Mr. Bourgeois who, as a Baptist minister, served as his spiritual adviser in his final days, told me that she made certain he was acquainted with the gospel.

But Mr. Bourgeois still struggled with anger, impulsivity and cognitive problems. “Alfred did have a temper, but once he got to that point, it was kind of hard to calm him down,” Mr. Preston said. And when it came to managing adult life, Mr. Bourgeois needed help. “I told him about the checkbook and checks and how to do it and balance it and that kind of stuff,” Mr. Preston said. “With many decisions that he made, he would come to me and ask me what I thought and make sure he was doing it the right way,” he went on. “When he purchased the house, he asked me definitely to come with him” to read and complete the necessary paperwork, Mr. Preston told me. “And after reading them, I would pass them to him and let him know that it was OK for him to sign it.”

During his trial, Mr. Bourgeois was given two I.Q. tests, scoring 75 on one and 70 on another, placing him, in the words of an expert witness, “in the borderline to mildly defective range.” Despite those results and the testimony of people like Mr. Preston, who had known Mr. Bourgeois for many years, the courts determined that because Mr. Bourgeois had kept a job as a long-haul truck driver and owned a home, it simply wasn’t possible that his I.Q. scores and learning difficulties indicated a real impairment.

Mr. Ferdinand tried to explain to the prosecution that his brother’s capacity to hold down a job wasn’t a function of his mental acuity. “You see Alfred, he had a gift from God,” he remembered insisting in an interview with the prosecutor outside court. “I said, ‘Alfred can get out that truck and back it up to the dock standing on a running board. Not many people can do that.’” Mr. Bourgeois hadn’t needed to take a test to earn his commercial driving license; he received a test waiver, Mr. Ferdinand said, because he been employed in shipping for some time.

As futile as the effort to prove he was mentally disabled was, Mr. Bourgeois faced a greater hurdle, his lawyers told me. What doomed him, they said, was the allegation that he had raped his daughter before killing her.

When a witness for the government claimed the autopsy had revealed the presence of semen in JaKaren’s rectum, what he referred to was the discovery of prostatic specific antigen, more commonly called P.S.A. or P30, on two of the swabs taken during the autopsy.

But whether the presence of P.S.A. confirms the presence of semen is hotly debated in the forensic sciences. It occurs in high concentrations in semen, but also in smaller concentrations in other bodily fluids. Studies have shown that P.S.A. appears in female urine and other fluids, which is perhaps why the F.B.I. has stopped using the presence of P.S.A. alone as confirmation of semen.

The other curious fact about the accusation is that a sexual assault nurse examiner in the hospital recorded no trauma to the girl’s anus. The prosecution implied that Mr. Bourgeois could have used a lubricant, leaving no sign of abuse.

Mr. Bourgeois’s lawyers — and there were many over time — were ultimately unable to overcome the lurid accusation. Media reports inevitably focused on the appalling notion of a father raping his own toddler.

Trials create conflicting realities. There is a version of Mr. Bourgeois who was impulsive and cognitively impaired, who had little skill as a caregiver and even less capacity to limit his fury once it flared. In that universe, Mr. Bourgeois’s offenses are the accumulated results of poorly contained anger under stress. That’s still reprehensible and still worthy of severe punishment, but it is distinct from the other version of Mr. Bourgeois — a pathological sadist who derived amusement from suffering and who raped his baby daughter without a shred of remorse.

By the time I arrived at the Federal Correctional Institution at Terre Haute at 4 p.m. on Friday, which version of Mr. Bourgeois corresponded to reality no longer mattered. His appellate lawyers had done what they could, and the long appeals process appended to every capital conviction had come down to one final petition. All that remained to be seen was whether it could save him.

Night fell by 5:30. Somewhere on the prison campus, Mr. Abreu and two other team members were sequestered in a room designated for staff training, awaiting news from the Supreme Court. Mr. Nolan said that the execution would not proceed until the court responded to their petition — a courtesy the federal Bureau of Prisons pays to the highest court that it does not extend to lower courts; some prisoners die with litigation still pending.

In another staff training building set aside that evening for members of the media, I joined five other journalists to put on identification badges and stay put until a decision arrived.

Elsewhere, behind prison walls, Mr. Bourgeois was receiving his last meal. A Louisiana native, Mr. Bourgeois opted for a spread from Red Lobster: seafood-stuffed mushrooms, a platter of fried shrimp, shrimp Alfredo pasta, six buttered biscuits and cheesecake.

At Terre Haute, death row inmates with scheduled execution dates live in the same area and get to know one another. They are permitted to bequeath their worldly possessions, few that they are, to their compatriots shortly before they are taken away to be killed. (Mr. Bourgeois, for example, had the wristwatch of his friend Brandon Bernard for a short time.) One of Mr. Bourgeois’s lawyers told me that this recent spate of federal executions has progressed so rapidly that condemned men have been passing down unfinished food to their friends along with sentimental objects.

As inmates are put to death, those next to die are sometimes moved into the dead men’s former cells. Mr. Bourgeois, for instance, was moved into the space previously occupied by Orlando Hall, who kidnapped and raped a 16-year-old Texas girl before dousing her with gasoline and burying her alive. He arrived so shortly after Mr. Hall’s execution that, he told his attorneys, he could still smell Mr. Hall’s chewing tobacco lingering there.

The 6 o’clock hour came and passed at the media center. I stepped out with a friend, George Hale, of Indiana Public Media, to visit the Dollar General up the road from the prison complex.

Mr. Hale, who has witnessed four federal executions this year, told me that while prison officials permit protesters to gather in certain staging areas, they generally prefer to congregate in the parking lot of the Dollar General, where they hold signs and banners, light candles, use their phones and sit in folding chairs. The night before, protesters and foreign media had gathered. Friday night, there were only a handful of protesters in a dark corner of the lot, some of them Franciscans in their rope-belt habits, with banners and tea lights fading against the rain that had just begun to fall.

Inside the store, Mr. Hale and I were startled by notifications on our phones: The Supreme Court had declined to hear Mr. Bourgeois’s final appeal, and the execution would proceed immediately.

What happened next transpired quickly. Prison officials herded us into unmarked white vans, three journalists to a vehicle, and ferried us to a security screening center where our shoes and coats were X-rayed, our bodies scanned and our masks inspected for contraband. Once cleared, we hurried back into the vans, which trundled down a dark lane named, I noticed, Justice Road.

There was a pause. The vans stopped and we waited. Rain fell. No one spoke. On the radio, festive music played faintly, Bing Crosby’s “Christmas Song” and Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” There is staff housing on the complex grounds, and I had seen Christmas trees glittering warmly in their windows; I wondered if the men sent to their deaths could see them, too, even once before the end. I lay down in the seat to settle my nerves.

The vans lurched ahead, then turned onto a paved driveway abutting a white vinyl frame tent that housed a guard and a metal detector. We passed through it into a small cinder block room with mottled blue institutional carpet. Plastic chairs were arrayed in front of a pair of windows, shades closed.

In a moment the shades lifted, and there in the center of a tiled chamber was Mr. Bourgeois, tightly strapped to a gurney.

Everything there was some shade of green: Milky jade tiles lined the walls, emerald paint framed the windows, a sickly green sheet was draped over Mr. Bourgeois’s body from the chest down, the cushions of his deathbed were teal. Two U.S. marshals stood on either side of him, and a camera and microphone were suspended above. The intravenous line was already in his arm. I could see his eyes, and they, too, were green.

It was hot in that strange, horrible little room, which someone seemed to have deduced; a fan had been situated under the windows, where it oscillated with a dull hum, blowing hot air.

A hiss of static signaled that the microphone above Mr. Bourgeois was live, and then he began to speak. With his last words, he denied murdering JaKaren. “I did not commit this crime,” he said. “I ask God to forgive all those who plotted and schemed against me, and planted false evidence,” he said, adding that he had never raped or sexually molested anyone, ever, in his entire life.

He commended his soul into the hands of God and asked forgiveness for his sins and those of the people who had put him where he was just then, in a tile panopticon in Terre Haute, with a plastic tube snaking away from his vein into a hole in the wall obscured by a metal flap. One of the marshals read Mr. Bourgeois’s sentence aloud, and then the other picked up a black telephone mounted on the wall, requesting final clearance to kill the man. The Bureau of Prisons later confirmed to me that was the moment — 7:53 p.m. — that the federal government began piping pentobarbital into Mr. Bourgeois’s body.

And I am transfixed, I am breathing consciously, I still have yet to accept that this is really happening. Mr. Bourgeois’s trim white beard dips and rises as his jaw begins to work, and then his mouth gapes once, a wide, ghastly gulp for air. His belly begins to twitch and then convulse rhythmically, as mine did, I realize blankly, when I was nine months pregnant and my daughters would jab at my insides with their little fists and feet. That was the precipice of life and this is the precipice of death. Mr. Bourgeois’s eyes flutter and widen and then close, and somehow I’m still convinced he will survive. I am certain of it. I am watching his breast as its shuddering slows, and I realize only when a doctor steps into the chamber that the motion I thought I could see there was just my reflection trembling in the window.

Mr. Bourgeois was pronounced dead at 8:21 p.m., Friday, Dec. 11. It had taken him more than 20 minutes to die. A prison official startled me minutes later when she called me by name, gesturing that it was time to duck back into those white vans and leave. I followed her out of the charnel house into a cold, heavy rain, spitting bile onto the pavement.

That night, I joined Mr. Nolan and his team in their hotel room, where they’d gathered around with cups of wine and beer to share pizza and commiserate.

“When you do death penalty work, there’s no hindsight,” Mr. Nolan had said the night before. “It’ll just make you crazy.” I watched them, one more client lost, trying not to sink into despair contemplating what they could have done, what might have worked. Now there were other clients, other cases, other executions scheduled for January, before Joe Biden takes office.

Capital punishment is often framed in terms of closure for victims’ families, but JaKaren’s mother was stabbed to death by her boyfriend in December 2002. Her grandmother later died as well. No one from the family observed the execution. The Bureau of Prisons released a brief statement from JaKaren’s family celebrating Mr. Bourgeois’s death, but it was unsigned, and the bureau has declined to provide me with further detail on the provenance of the statement.

Mr. Ferdinand had not been there to see his brother die. Family members of the condemned and of their victims are permitted to witness executions, but he chose not to. “I don’t want to have to remember or have that stuck in the back of my head, him strapped down,” he told me.

Mr. Preston stood in the room with Mr. Bourgeois as he died, having prayed with him in the hours before. He had served as his spiritual adviser, but, he reminded me, “it was my friend laying there strapped down about to be put to death.” Tears strained his voice as we spoke.

“I always knew that I was against the death penalty,” Mr. Preston said later, almost offhandedly. Witnessing Mr. Bourgeois’s execution had eliminated all room for doubt. “I saw the realness of it,” he told me, and that definitively settled the matter for him.

It did for me, too.

The idea of execution promises catharsis. The reality of it delivers the opposite, a nauseating sense of shame and regret. Alfred Bourgeois was going to die behind bars one way or another, and the only meaning in hastening it, as far as I could tell, was inflicting the terror and the torment of knowing that the end was coming early. I felt defiled by witnessing that particular bit of pageantry, all of that brutality cloaked in sterile procedure.

So much time and effort goes into making executions seem like exercises of justice, not just power; extreme measures are taken at each juncture to convince the public, and perhaps the executioners themselves, that the process is a fair, dispassionate, rational one.

It isn’t. There was no sense in it, and I can’t make any out of it. Nothing was restored, nothing was gained. There isn’t any justice in it, nor satisfaction, nor reason: There was nothing, nothing there.

Elizabeth Bruenig (@ebruenig) is an Opinion writer.

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