During the three years we exchanged letters, only once did Billy Keith McGregor mention the inevitable end that awaited him and his fellow inmates on death row.
“We prisoners here are getting ready to see one of our own walk to his death one minute after midnight,” McGregor wrote.
“I know I should be asleep. I have a lot of dreams about being executed and here I am. Before I started this letter, I was feeling down. And I still feel down.”
With his legal appeals nearly exhausted, it appeared McGregor would soon, like the 44 other inmates he had seen go before him, walk down the corridor of Oklahoma State Penitentiary’s “H block” and into the execution chamber. After 17 years in and out of court, a ruling last summer all but ended any hope of reversing his death sentence. Barring the miraculous, he would die by lethal injection some time before the fall.
But, as I have learned, my death-row pen pal is a remarkably difficult man to kill.
In his 44 years, McGregor has been shot in the head and left to die in the woods. He has been stabbed four times through the heart. Once, he was declared legally dead on a prison hospital operating table after an attack by other inmates. Each time, he staged a Lazarus-like recovery. His own attempt at suicide failed and even the state of Oklahoma stumbled in repeated attempts to kill him. Twice, he has been sentenced to death, yet still he lives.
But Oklahoma, birthplace of Hollywood cowboy Will Rogers and Yankee slugger Mickey Mantle, is a persistent foe. Since reviving executions in 1990, after a 24-year hiatus, Oklahoma has quietly become the most efficient executioner in America.
Texas may have killed the most prisoners, but plucky Oklahoma, its dusty neighbour to the north, with less than a quarter the population, has this year gained the lead in per-capita executions. Nowhere else the U.S. does one have a better chance of dying by lethal injection. If Oklahoma’s current rate were projected onto the Canadian population, it would result in more than 200 executions annually. This year, for the first time, Oklahoma even overtook Texas in the total number of annual executions, with 14 lethal injections in 2001 by the end of July, compared with 10 in Texas.
Billy Keith McGregor survived knives and bullets, but Oklahoma’s needle seemed inescapable.
I first noticed McGregor’s name — the surname we share — on a roster of U.S. death row inmates I found while researching a story on the death penalty in Texas. At the time, I held a liberal view on capital punishment and recognized as valid all the conventional arguments against it: the chance of wrongful conviction, the disproportionate use of the death penalty on the poor and non-white defendants and the demonstrated absence of a deterrent effect.
Yet I also understood why the only real argument in favour — vengeance — holds great appeal in a culture steeped in violence. Death row, I believed, was the province of irredeemable psychopaths and drug-crazed rednecks, capable of raping children or butchering gas-station attendants as easily as they pop open a can of Schlitz. The death penalty might be morally wrong, I thought, but for its supporters it created an illusion of justice in a society where poverty, drug addiction and guns often combust into evil crime.
When I saw McGregor’s name on the list, I wondered what act of depravity had brought him to death row. My family once had distant relatives in the American South and there was a remote chance we might be related. Was it possible that I shared some segment of genetic code with a serial killer? Why had a member of the Clan McGregor, far from our ancestral home in Scotland, committed a crime so heinous that he deserved to be executed?
The Web site of an Oklahoma abolitionist group provided more details. McGregor was described as “a teddy bear who has had a hard life with people afraid of him because of his size. He enjoys drawing and listening to rock ‘n’ roll.”
There was no account of his crime, but the Web site said he was hoping to find a pen pal. Intrigued, I wrote a short letter introducing myself with some innocuous personal details — “I have two cats, enjoy travelling and playing softball.” I asked him to explain his crime.
A few weeks later, a letter arrived with an Oklahoma Department of Corrections logo stamped on the outside.
“This is great. I have tried for years to find a ‘McGregor’ in another country to write,” wrote Keith (as he prefers to be called) on prison-issue yellow foolscap.
“You asked how big I am. I’m 40 years old, 6’7″, 339 lbs. On June 21, 1983, I was arrested for killing a lady friend. I went to three trials, but I’ve had court-appointed lawyers who never cared if they won or lost my case.”
So began our conversation.
I could find no family connection to this enormous man, but as I learned more about him and the crime of which he was accused, his case became an object of fascination. I assembled newspaper clippings that traced the legal history of his arrest and trials. I arranged to have 4,000 pages of court transcripts photocopied and shipped to my home, at considerable personal expense. In spare moments at work, I called his lawyers, his family, the prosecutor, and the county sheriff, seeking more information. Most were surprised by my inquiries. Why, they asked, would someone in another country want to know about a case that held so little interest in Oklahoma? I wasn’t sure how to answer.
Keith, I learned, was neither a child rapist nor a serial killer. As murders go, his crime did not seem particularly heinous. In fact, like thousands of other death-row inmates in the U.S., his conviction appeared fraught with doubt about his mental health and his competence to stand trial. And, even after two jury trials, there remained critical questions about a coerced confession, evidence withheld by the police, and the possibility that he did not commit the crime for which he had spent 18 years in jail.
The court documents and medical records I obtained showed that questions about Keith’s mental health can be traced as far back as his birth in 1957, in Mangum, a tiny burg in the southwest corner of Oklahoma. His mother, Martha, was in labour a full week with Keith, her third child. The doctor finally used forceps to pull the baby into the world, leaving Keith’s head bruised and flat on one side. Although Keith was a good size at eight pounds, in the first hours after birth he struggled to breathe and required constant medical supervision.
Growing up on the family farm, Keith showed early signs of mental illness. He often appeared disoriented and seemed to be asleep with his eyes open. At seven, he exhibited signs of paranoia and had vivid hallucinations of snakes and panthers.
His father, who ran a business that assembled campers and trailers, noticed something was amiss with his son. “He wasn’t mentally right,” Bill McGregor Sr. told me.
At public school, the hulking Keith stood nearly a head taller than classmates and struggled to fit in. His parents eventually paid to send him to a military academy across the state, but after the first term, he came home with horrific burns on his hands and arms. He had mutilated himself with a cigarette to impress classmates with how much pain he could endure.
At age 14, a psychiatrist sent Keith to the state mental hospital, where he received his first regimen of anti-psychotic drugs and underwent electroshock therapy, an unusually radical treatment for someone of such young age.
After his release, Keith began to drift from home and experiment with drugs. He spent a year in the army, then bounced around Oklahoma, Wyoming and Texas. In Colorado, he stumbled into a dispute with a gang of teenagers who tied him up, robbed him and dragged him into the woods. Keith took four shots at point-blank range, two in the neck, one in the head, and was left to die. Amazingly, he came to.
With his boots soaked in blood and bullet fragments lodged in his skull, he dragged himself to a nearby home to get help.
After his recovery, Keith was twice convicted of auto theft and served two prison terms. In a settling of prison debts at the state penitentiary in McAlester, Oklahoma, he was attacked by other inmates who stabbed him in the neck and chest more than 20 times. So serious were the wounds to Keith’s heart that his family was told over the phone that he had died. Once again, Keith mounted a stunning recovery. In jail the next year, Keith attempted suicide by hanging himself with a bed sheet. Of course, he survived. He explained to prison doctors after that he “had nothing to live for.”
During his incarcerations, Keith was diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses: bi-polar disorder, psychosis, hallucinations, paranoid schizophrenia, and anti-social personality disorder. Doctors prescribed such anti-psychotics as Mellaril, Congentin, Haldol, and Thorazine, a drug he takes to this day.
When Keith finally walked out of the Oklahoma state pen two days before Christmas in 1982, at age 25, his family hoped for a fresh start. He attended the Pentecostal church that his older brother Charles, a pastor, had established in Wewoka, a tiny town of 5,500. Through members of his brother’s congregation, Keith found work doing odd jobs and lawn care in the area.
One of his customers was Virgie Plumb, a 57-year-old widow who lived in a crumbling bungalow near the high-school football stadium. Plumb’s neighbours said she was a quiet woman who was often seen strolling to the liquor store to pick up her regular refill of Jim Beam five-year whisky. Her husband had died five years earlier and Plumb survived on his veteran’s pension of $292 a month. To help get by, Plumb agreed to take Keith in as a boarder.
One Sunday afternoon, two weeks after he had moved in, Keith appeared at the police station, driving Plumb’s car. He wanted to file a complaint against his landlady for writing him a “hot cheque” of $300 for some electrical work he had done at her house. Plumb, he said, had vanished and had not been seen for two days.
Given Keith’s history as a petty criminal, the police doubted his story. Virgie Plumb became a missing person and suspicion turned on Billy Keith McGregor.
Several weeks passed with no sign of Plumb. Agents from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations (OSBI) — the state equivalent of the FBI — convinced Keith’s father to lay a complaint against his son for taking a post-hole digger without permission. They took Keith into custody on grand-larceny charges.
Keith was a three-pack-a-day smoker, but in county jail, he was restricted by a no-smoking policy. Nicotine withdrawal was likely compounded by a lack of drugs to treat his schizophrenia. Some time before his arrest, he had stopped taking his anti-psychotics. In jail, he received no medication.
Lured by the promise of cigarettes, Keith eventually agreed to speak to police. According to the OSBI report, once allowed to smoke, Keith explained that Plumb had been kidnapped and murdered by Dunnie Moore, a drifter whom he had met years before in Houston. He gave an account of how Moore, a Texan with red hair who was missing his right thumb, had visited him at Plumb’s home. The three of them set off for Keith’s family cabin in Lake Eufaula, about 90 minutes away. During the trip, Moore became angry at Plumb for “mouthing off” and dragged her into the woods to kill her, Keith claimed.
But, according to the police report, after he concluded the Dunnie Moore tale, Keith admitted it was a fabrication.
“I guess I’m about to hang myself,” he told police as he began a revised confession. He alone had taken Virgie Plumb to see his family’s cabin, he said. As they drove, she told him she had discovered he was an ex-con and planned to evict him for late payment of rent. An argument followed, Keith pulled the car over onto the shoulder of the road and began to strangle Plumb, he said.
With Plumb still breathing, Keith started the car and drove onto a dirt road off the highway. He pulled her from the car and dragged her through the forest, into a clearing, where he tied her to a tree. Keith said he told Plumb he planned to leave her while he hightailed it to Texas. She begged him to free her.
They heard the sound of motorcycles on the road. Plumb began to scream for help. Keith covered her mouth with his hand. She bit him. Keith picked up a rock and smashed her head. He hit her a second time with a larger rock and her head “exploded,” with parts of her brain spraying onto the ground.
That night, police found the partially decomposed body of Virgie Plumb at the crime scene Keith had described.
When Keith went to trial in 1984, the prosecution was led by Bill Peterson, a young district attorney from the town of Ada who had been elected four years earlier. The McGregor trial was Peterson’s first capital case. Later in his career, he would prove to be such an effective prosecutor that he twice convicted the same innocent man of capital murder. The inmate spent 12 years in jail and came within five days of execution before he was cleared by DNA evidence uncovered by Barry Scheck, the lawyer who defended O.J. Simpson. A stunned Bill Peterson was forced to withdraw the charges.
Although there was no physical evidence linking him to the Plumb killing, Keith’s case was not particularly difficult to try, Peterson told me. There was a dead body. There was a confession. And there was Keith, huge and menacing, glaring at the jury from the defence table.
The public defender wanted Keith to plead insanity, but he refused. At the end of the week-long trial, the jury deliberated for just 40 minutes before returning a guilty verdict. The sentence: death. Keith was sent back to Oklahoma State Penitentiary and the appeals process began.
Four years later, an appeal court ruled that the trial judge had erred by not allowing the court to pay for an expert witness to testify about Keith’s competence to stand trial. The verdict was set aside and, in April 1989, Keith’s second trial began.
This time, the McGregor family hired Irven Box, a well-known Oklahoma City criminal defence lawyer who would later gain local fame as a television commentator on the Timothy McVeigh bombing case.
Throughout the nine-day trial, Keith was alternately disruptive and disinterested, sometimes interjecting with bizarre outbursts, occasionally falling asleep in his seat. During jury selection, when Keith heard that one potential jurist was a former high-school football coach, he blurted out: “Do you want a game of basketball before we leave, one on one?”
Keith was “a big hulking body at counsel’s table,” Box later recalled. He repeatedly told the judge that his client was non-communicative and disoriented, but the trial continued.
Even before the jury returned its verdict, Box admitted to the judge that the case was lost. This time, it took only 12 minutes for the jury to reject the insanity defence and find Keith guilty as charged. Two hours later, the sentencing verdict came down: death, again. Keith was returned to McAlester’s death row.
In the course of preparing an appeal to state court, investigators working with the public defender’s office uncovered some disquieting facts about Keith’s case that the prosecution had not shared during the previous trials. Virgie Plumb, they learned, was not the only person Keith had confessed to killing. In interviews with police, he had also taken credit for four other murders, including two women who had gone missing around the same time as Plumb. Both disappearances had received newspaper coverage in Wynnewood, the town where Keith’s parents lived.
One of the women, Keith had told police, had been having an affair with his father. Keith claimed he had cut off her head with a meat cleaver, put it in a feed sack, and taken it to his parents’ farm. There, he dramatically yanked the head from the bag and yelled, “Dad, here’s your lover!” The woman was never found, but there was no evidence to support Keith’s horror story. His father dismissed the tale as fantasy.
And, unbeknownst to his lawyers, Keith had also given a detailed description of the kidnapping and murder of a 19-year-old convenience store clerk. The woman’s body was eventually found, but the details Keith had provided about her disappearance were so wildly inaccurate that police believed he had nothing to do with her death.
His other two confessions — the killing of a vagrant at the Oklahoma City bus station and another inmate in the state penitentiary — were found to be equally bogus.
Had the defence at trial known of these confessions, his appellate lawyers argued, it could have changed the outcome of the insanity plea or even cast doubt on the validity of his confession in the Plumb killing.
Bill Peterson was unmoved. “He can confess to shooting John F. Kennedy for all I care,” he snarled in court. “It has nothing to do with the Virgie Plumb case.”
None of these irregularities were enough to have his second conviction reversed. The courts agreed with Peterson’s sentiment and, one by one, Keith’s appeals were shot down.
When Keith and I first began corresponding, he had grown weary of the protracted legal battle that was by then in its 15th year. He was feuding with his lawyer over strategy and was frustrated by her inability to secure him better conditions in jail. He planned to ask a judge to end his remaining appeals.
“I’m going to fire her and ask to be executed,” he wrote.
But Keith insisted on his innocence, a stance he maintained throughout our entire correspondence. His letters gave long and detailed explanations that he believed proved he could not have killed Virgie Plumb. The alternate version of the crime, starring the thumbless redhead, was described in vivid detail.
I wrote back to ask him to reconsider dropping the appeals. Under pressure from his lawyer, he eventually agreed and the appellate process resumed. Keith’s letters showed a surprising degree of literacy and knowledge of current affairs. He sprinkled his correspondence with jokes about Bill Clinton’s sexual proclivities and passed on gossip about J.C. Watts, the former Ottawa Rough Riders quarterback who is now a U.S. congressman for Oklahoma. Watts’s sister, he wrote with great delight, had been arrested for trafficking marijuana and methamphetamine in Oklahoma City.
Still, Keith seemed disconnected from his current surroundings. He rarely wrote about daily life on H Block, the super-maximum security facility that Amnesty International considers one of the most inhumane prisons in America. Keith spends 23 hours every day confined in a dark, six-foot-by-nine-foot concrete cell, which he shares with Jimmy Bland, who was convicted of killing his boss a year after being paroled from a previous murder sentence. On death row, the prisoners are given three showers a week and an hour daily in the “exercise yard,” a concrete box with a wire mesh roof. None of this I learned from Keith.
Instead, his letters were given over to nostalgia for his life of freedom in rural Oklahoma: “All day I’ve been thinking about the things I done in the woods,” he wrote once. “They really come back (like) I was there.”
He pined for the days he lived in his brother’s cabin in the bush, with his blue-tick hound dog, “Dog,” and his milk cow “Judith Rae,” (named after a former lover blessed with large breasts, he explained). At the cabin, he could live on $1,000 a year and “there is no law (police) for 30 miles.”
Unlike many condemned inmates who turn to religion in their final years, Keith has remained dubious about death-row conversion.
“I do believe in God and Jesus and all of the Bible,” he wrote. “But I don’t live the way God wants me to, so I also think it’s a bigger sin to fake it.”
In his initial request for pen pals on the Internet, Keith stipulated that he didn’t want to hear from “Bible punchers.” In one letter, he claimed that he had been ostracized and financially cut off from his family, who are devout members of a Pentecostal church. “They don’t curse or drink,” Keith explained. (In fact, I later learned that his parents visit the prison regularly and speak to Keith by phone each week. They have also spent more than $100,000 on his legal and medical bills.)
At the same time, Keith showed in his letters a degree of humanity and warmth that I had not expected from a convicted killer. When I wrote to tell him I was adopting a baby girl from China, he reacted with enthusiasm to what must to him have seemed unthinkably alien. “I hope your daughter wets on you,” he wrote. “Give her a kiss for me.”
In his letters, there was also an undercurrent of sexual frustration caused by spending 24 hours a day confined in a society of men.
“Ask your women friends to write my name and address on the ladies restroom walls. I’m looking for a bi-sexual, rich, single, virgin, ages 18 to 80 years old.”
Sometimes Keith wrote two or three letters a week; then, we might not exchange mail for months. Invariably, the lapses were my fault. When I resumed the correspondence, feeling guilty for not writing, he always showed deep gratitude.
“You have no idea what it means to me to write to someone and get mail,” he enthused. “I’m like a kid with a bag of candy when I get a letter.”
During one lull in our mailings last summer, Keith’s legal appeals reached a critical stage. In a 2-1 split decision, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his petition for habeas corpus — a claim that his constitutional rights had been violated by the trial. The next stop for his lawyers would be the Supreme Court, but there was little hope that the highest court would hear the case. With that rejection, Oklahoma’s attorney general would set an execution date. If I ever wanted to meet Keith in person, it would be best to plan the trip now, advised appellate lawyer Vicki Werneke.
As a matter of course, Werneke filed an application with the circuit court to rehear arguments about Keith’s competence to stand trial. Such requests are routine in death penalty appeals and are invariably rejected. But, to the amazement of Werneke and much of the Oklahoma legal community, the application for rehearing was granted in September 2000. It was the first time in 13 years that the full court agreed to hear oral arguments in a capital case.
After the court issued a ruling on the appeal in April, Werneke made one of the most joyous phone calls of her legal career. She reached Keith in H Block and told him the court had ruled 6-3 in his favour. Citing Keith’s “substantial history of mental illness” and his “odd” outbursts and tantrums during the second trial, the court granted Keith a new trial. Werneke listened over the phone as the giant man broke down and cried. He sobbed for 15 minutes. Billy Keith McGregor had dodged death again.
For the new trial, Keith’s case was turned over to a public defender named Jim Rowan, a former paratrooper with the 86th Airborne who had acquired his courtroom skills prosecuting and defending soldiers before courts martial. Since joining Oklahoma’s publicly funded Indigent Defense System, the loquacious Rowan had accumulated an impressive record trying capital cases. Of 28 defendants he took to trial, just eight had received death sentences and of those, only three had been executed. Five of his clients are still in the appeals process.
Rowan told me he would defend Keith by relentlessly questioning his competence to stand trial. Given Keith’s record, he may be fit one day, but not the next, Rowan theorized. “Competence is a sometimes thing,” he said. “It can change day to day.”
A daily barrage of competence issues might dull the prosecution’s enthusiasm for the case, or even provoke the judge into a hasty denial that could be reversed on appeal.
As he prepared the defence, Rowan received a life-or-death proposition from District Attorney Bill Peterson. Virgie Plumb’s family had met with the DA after the circuit court ruling and asked whether there was any way to avoid a third trial. They asked Peterson to offer Keith life in prison with no chance for parole in exchange for a guilty plea. Keith could avoid execution if he agreed to spend the rest of his natural life in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Or, he could go to trial and gamble his life on the chance of walking free.
“Life without parole is a long time for an innocent man,” Rowan said after the offer. “But he’s already lost twice at trial … ”
Rowan hoped his client would take the deal, but the decision would be Keith’s to make.
The first time I spoke to Keith by phone, he believed that the DA would eventually accept a plea for a reduced sentence of life with parole. That would mean his 18 years spent in jail would likely be sufficient for a conditional release.
What would he do if freed? I asked.
“Probably go to Canada some place and eat sushi,” he deadpanned.
In an earlier letter, I had told Keith, to his profound horror, I liked Japanese food and raw fish.
I laughed at the reference, but it still left me somewhat unsettled. Through our correspondence, I had come to appreciate Keith’s sense of humour and I shared his distaste for the hypocrisy of organized religion. It is difficult to imagine how we would have become friends if he weren’t on death row, but I liked Keith and found him a sympathetic, even charming, figure. He seemed nothing like the stone-cold killer that two juries had believed him to be. Still, in my letters I had shared personal information about myself and my family based on the assumption that he would either be executed or live in jail forever. His outright release was a possibility I had never considered. The prison medical records I read showed a tendency for disturbing and sometimes violent behaviour when he went off his medication, and I wasn’t prepared for a get-together not mediated by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections — particularly in my own home.
Instead, I decided to visit him.
Officials at the state penitentiary agreed to let me meet Keith, but there was a complication with the date I had chosen. Jerald Harjo, a 40-year-old Seminole Indian, was scheduled for execution on that day. A man of borderline intelligence, Harjo had strangled a school-board secretary during a 1988 break-and-enter. All visits at the prison on execution day were cancelled but, if I was interested, there were plenty of media spots available to view the execution. So mundane was the Harjo case that only four reporters had requested accreditation.
Harjo’s death sentence bore some striking similarities to Keith’s. Both were accused of killing middle-aged women in the same county, both had suffered mental health problems, and both had been prosecuted by District Attorney Bill Peterson.
For Peterson, Harjo marked a grim milestone. Many of his capital convictions had been reversed or delayed on appeal by higher courts. None had yet resulted in executions, making Harjo the first in which the death sentence would be carried out. Barring an unlikely reprieve and legal intervention, Jerald Harjo would die shortly after 9 p.m. on July 17, and Bill Peterson planned to witness the deed. “I feel I should be there,” he had told me the day earlier. “I put him there.”
Keith’s lawyer suggested I go, too.
“If you want to write about the death penalty, you should see it in action,” Rowan advised, with the qualifier that the experience — he had seen one of his clients executed — would be “awful.”
The day before the execution, I visited Keith’s parents on their farm outside of Wynnewood. I had expected they might live modestly, but was surprised to find their home was a modern two-storey brick house and elegantly furnished. Rather than dirt poor, the McGregors seemed upper middle-class, even wealthy by Oklahoma standards. Bill McGregor Sr., 71, had retired from the trailer business and had done well with some of his real-estate properties. His wife, Martha, ran a thriving H & R Block franchise in town.
At first, the McGregors were suspicious about my interest in the case, but their support for their son overrode any doubts they had about me. Martha strongly believed that Keith couldn’t have killed Virgie Plumb. His detailed confession had been orchestrated by the police, she told me as we looked through her family photo albums.
“I think they wouldn’t let him have his medication and they kept on him about it,” she said. “They told him where the body was.”
There would be no shortage of evidence to exonerate her son at a third trial, she believed.
Bill Sr. was less decisive about Keith’s innocence. “I don’t know if he killed that woman,” he allowed. The strain of his son’s imprisonment was evident, however. “You wouldn’t know how much sleep we’ve lost,” he said with tears.
With Harjo on my mind, I asked Bill Sr. if he would attend Keith’s execution, should he lose at the third trial. He began to sob. “I don’t want to go,” he said. “We couldn’t watch it. I never got to a place where I could deal with it. It would be so terrible.”
On the afternoon of the Harjo execution, I arrived in a small building at the state prison that serves as the media centre. Four reporters were there, two already typing their stories into their laptops, leaving blank spaces for his last words and time of death.
A young reporter with the Associated Press asked why I had come all the way to Oklahoma to see a routine execution. I mumbled something about researching general trends in the application of the death penalty. I didn’t have the spine to tell her that, for me, Harjo was a sneak preview of how my pen pal’s life might end.
At about 8:30 p.m., a prison official ushered us into a van for the short trip across the prison grounds to the H Block entrance, a concrete-and-metal bunker dug into the earth and topped with loops of razor wire.
We were frisked, then led through a set of sliding bars into a tiny room where inmates research their legal appeals, grandly titled “the law library.” The cooling system on H Block had broken down that afternoon and the air was wet and heavy. As we waited among the volumes of case law, we could hear a rhythmic thudding, like distant tribal drums. A reporter from the local McAlester newspaper explained that the inmates on death row pound on the bars to show support for the condemned man. As the clocked ticked closer to 9:00, the thumping came louder and faster.
At a few minutes past the hour, we were led out of the library, through the bars again, and down another hall to the witness gallery. The victim’s family were seated behind us, concealed by a two-way mirror. We sat in the back row of the gallery, on folding metal chairs. Four windows ran along the front of the room, each covered by a blind. The reporter from AP sat to my right. Her notepad, supplied by the prison, trembled in her hand. She had once covered an execution in Texas, she told me, and she had vowed to never to see another one. This night, however, she had drawn the assignment and wasn’t given a chance to refuse. The reporter from McAlester sat on my left. Earlier he said he had covered dozens of executions and claimed to be bored by the assignment. Now, moments away, he breathed heavily and looked as nervous as I felt.
Two lawyers who had defended Harjo arrived and sat at the far end of the first row. Then Bill Peterson walked in and took his place in the front row. He gave no sign that he recognized me from our interview the day before.
When all the witnesses were seated, a prison official picked up a telephone on the wall. “Warden, you may begin the execution,” he said pleasantly.
The loudspeaker above the window hummed for a moment, then fell silent. I could see a shadow of an arm behind the blinds.
Another moment passed, then the blinds were raised, revealing a small room, painted white and brightly lit. Jerald Harjo lay strapped to the gurney, parallel to the windows, and only three or four feet away from the witness gallery. He was flat on his back, with his arms spread and an IV tube in each. His skin was dark and scarred by acne, and his long, black hair spilled across the pillow beneath his head. The prison-issue blue shirt he wore was the only splash of colour in the room. A white sheet covered his legs and the lower half of his torso. His feet shook. If Keith ever wound up here, I thought, they’d need a much bigger gurney.
Harjo stared at the ceiling, never once turning toward us. He looked terrified.
The warden and the prison chaplain stood on the far side of the gurney, looking across Harjo’s body toward us. Several other prison officials, including the doctor, sat near the foot of the gurney.
“Jerald Wayne Harjo, do you wish to make a statement?” the warden asked.
“Uh, no,” Harjo replied hoarsely.
At 9:08, the chaplain began to read from 2nd Corinthians, Chapter 5, “A house not made with hands … ” In the room behind Harjo, three prison officials injected the lethal drugs into the IV lines. First sodium thiopental, to render Harjo unconscious; then pancuronium bromide, to paralyse his lungs; and finally potassium chloride, to stop his heart.
His eyes shut, Harjo breathed deeply twice, then a moment later his cheeks puffed up and he let out a long breath, like a weightlifter trying to jerk a heavy load. His leg twitched lightly for another moment. Then all movement stopped. The chaplain continued to read, ” … that mortality might be swallowed up of life … ” A minute passed.
The doctor examined the body.
“Time of death, 9:10 pm,” he said.
The blinds closed. We sat in silence for a few more minutes as the victim’s family filed out. Then the door opened and a prison official indicated for Bill Peterson to leave. The DA looked flushed and his eyes seemed rheumy. He fanned his face with both hands as he walked out. It had taken Peterson 13 years to see Harjo’s sentence carried through, but barely two minutes to watch him die.
The speed of the execution, I realized after, was what made it palatable for the witnesses. I had once read an account of an executioner’s trick used by “Camile,” the trade name of a hangman who performed executions in Canada during the 1940s.
To spare witnesses from the gruesome sight of the condemned prisoner dropping through the trap, Camile would make a slight pointing gesture to distract their view from the gallows. When they looked back, the trap had been sprung and the prisoner would be dangling.
With lethal injection, there is no such moment of violence and no need to avert the eye. The hardest part of seeing Jerald Harjo die was the preamble, the inmates’ thumping on the bars, the silent ritual of moving into the viewing room. Before the execution, I was worried I might panic, vomit or even faint. But I experienced no such trauma. Once the blinds opened, there was the awesome spectacle of the execution tableau — Harjo, larger than life on the gurney — but the administration of death was conducted quickly and out of view, in the executioner’s room. I could not pinpoint the exact moment Harjo died.
Did his life end when the sedative knocked him out? Or when his lungs froze? Or when his heart stopped beating? It was impossible to tell because there was no visible evidence of death, but merely the absence of life.
I have driven past car accidents that have left me more shaken than Jerald Harjo’s execution. I’m not sure whether I would have felt the same way if I had watched him spasm in the electric chair or writhe in a gas chamber.
It occurred to me that lethal injection wasn’t just designed to save the inmate from pain, it was also designed to be easy to watch.
The next day, I returned to the prison to meet Keith. We talked over a telephone through Plexiglas and steel bars. As promised, he was a huge man, perhaps 350 pounds, with a wild mop of dark hair and a bushy beard, grey in a few spots. No surprise that the prison guards called him “Bigfoot.” I could still see the scars on his arms from the cigarette burns suffered almost 30 years ago.
If Keith was upset by the execution, he didn’t show it; Harjo, he allowed, was not a particularly close friend on the row. Still, I didn’t mention that I had witnessed the execution, for fear that Keith might think that I was in some way complicit in a fellow inmate’s death.
Keith’s lawyers had warned me to expect erratic behaviour. But he assured me he’d been taking his “nut pills.” In this medicated state, I found him lucid, smart and funny. He had the innate ability to weave cornball jokes into tales about real people. I listened intently as he told me about his brother’s wife, only to realize, shortly before the punch line, that I had been lured into a dumb-blonde gag.
He inquired about my family. “You still got that little girl of yours?” he asked with his Oklahoma accent, a slightly flatter version of good ol’ boy Texan drawl.
We talked about his case and the upcoming trial. Earlier in the day, Keith had met with Jim Rowan and a psychiatrist, who had found him competent for trial.
Keith again claimed innocence in the Plumb killing. Dunnie Moore, the real killer, had died of AIDS in Texas, he told me. When I asked him about the plea offer, he was adamant: “There’s no way I’m going to do life without parole,” he said. “I’d rather be executed.” He’d take his chances at trial.
As I got up to leave, Keith pressed his open hand against the glass, a move I’d seen in countless prison dramas. In the movies, the gesture seemed sentimental and hokey; here, inside the concrete walls and steel bars, it felt as natural as the handshake it was meant to replace.
After reading his letters, combing through thousands of pages of court transcripts, meeting his family, talking to the lawyers, walking over the crime scene, and finally meeting him, I still do not know for certain whether Billy Keith McGregor killed Virgie Plumb. I suspect that he doesn’t know, either. In our correspondence, Keith has shown qualities of intelligence and gentleness that make it difficult to believe he could shatter a woman’s head with a rock. But he has always been mentally ill and will always need medication. Whether his sickness meets the legal standard of insanity or incompetence is endlessly debatable.
My doubts about Keith’s death sentence could be applied to many of the 3,700 other death row inmates awaiting execution in prisons across the U.S. Often, debate over capital punishment accompanies the executions of mass murderers or prolific sexual predators. But these cases are rare exceptions to the everyday banality of death row, where no-name inmates such as Keith McGregor and Jerald Jerald Harjo are convicted of squalid crimes on little evidence, and sentenced to die, despite substantial mitigating circumstances.
The day I met with Keith, Oklahoma’s two major newspapers, the Daily Oklahoman and the Tulsa World, ran short stories on the previous night’s execution. Then Jerald Wayne Harjo was forgotten.
If Billy Keith McGregor ends his life on the gurney with a needle in his arm, I suspect his death will be met with similar disinterest.
“I am a nobody to them and would not be missed,” he once wrote to me, before signing off, as he always did, “Just me, Keith.”
[Billy Keith McGregor died in prison on September 9, 2020 from COVID-19. He was 63 years old.]