A report from inside Tennessee’s execution chamber.
Gregg Henley sinks into a molded plastic chair inside a classroom painted an immaculate, penal white, and taps an aimless staccato beat with his tennis shoes on the tile floor. As the only son, it falls upon him to compose the Henley family’s statement to the media, who are waiting outside of Nashville’s Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in a press tent, huddled around a propane heater against the 20-degree chill of an early February morning. It is 12:30 a.m. Gregg’s father, Steve Henley, is scheduled to die in ninety minutes. He is 55.
“How do you spell executing… I mean execution?” he asks his sister, Leanne. Then he reads from what he has written so far. “I forgive the State of Tennessee for executing our loving daddy.”
Gregg puts the pen down and rubs his damp palms on the thighs of his jeans. He tugs at the tail of his T-shirt. He’s not sure how he should dress in this place, for this occasion.
A guard’s radio hisses and a voice says something inaudible. It’s time to move into another room, further inside the prison. We shuffle single-file—the Henley family, seven members of the media, including me, a reporter for the Nashville Scene—through hallways and back entrances, all secured and cleared of inmates. We enter a room, smaller than the last. In the center is a black, rectangular conference table. My seatback nearly abuts the wall. We’re not allowed to talk to the family, to ask them questions. I’ve been issued a pencil and a legal pad. I write down things that strike me as important: Leanne’s eyes, which remind me of her father’s. Gregg’s heavy lidded stare.
I feel uncomfortable, guilty, even morbid doing this.
When a member of the family gazes my way, I smile politely, self-consciously, as awkward in my own skin as I think Gregg feels. I want to look away. The Henleys seem ambivalent about our presence and mostly ignore us, the dispassionate observers in a grim, semi-public spectacle of justice.
As we sit and wait, Gregg, who is 29 and wears a faded AC/DC T-shirt and a black baseball cap, shares a memory with his family of his father and his prized black Chevelle SS, the one with a 4-speed transmission, a 454 engine, and red racing stripes. Steve Henley taped a hundred-dollar bill to the dash when Gregg was just a boy. “Reach the bill when I say ‘go’ and it’s yours,” he’d told his son.
Gregg stomps on an invisible clutch. Yanks an invisible gear shift. Go. Clutch, 2nd gear. The car lurched. Clutch, 3rd gear. Gregg says he remembers his fingers arching toward the bill, but the G-forces felt like an invisible hand on his chest. The Chevelle hit 60 and the bill remained taped to the dash. “It glued you to the seat,” Gregg recalls, shaking his head in wonderment. “You couldn’t reach up and grab that bill.”
Gregg, Leanne, and Henley’s sister, Stefanie, chuckle. It doesn’t last long. Here, moments of levity are as fragile as a robin’s egg, shattered as soon as they remember the clock on the wall and the significance of each sweeping of its hands. I wonder if the inherent irony of capital punishment is lost on them: The State of Tennessee will kill their father for killing, to demonstrate that killing is not condoned in a civil society.
Gregg is sitting next to me. His father’s twenty-five years on death row have been hard on him. During a visit with Steve inside a box-like visitation booth a week earlier, he told me that Gregg has battled meth addiction—an epidemic in rural Tennessee. Now his son looks at me and, without the slightest trace of guile, asks, “How do you feel about the death penalty?” My jaw goes slack. I don’t stammer, but I’m mum, catatonic. The silence in the room is so complete that I feel swallowed by the hum of the fluorescent lights. I am about to answer him, but one of my peers, the editor of a local paper, speaks up first. “They told us we’re not supposed to talk about that.” I’m nodding earnestly, utterly relieved. I was about to tell him I wasn’t sure. “Ask me after I watch your father die” would be closer to the truth. I think there are some who deserve death. If Steve Henley is in fact guilty, then I experience no moral recoiling.
Pine Lick Road is where it happened back in 1985, way out in the Tennessee farm country. A few old farmhouses, rows of tobacco, soybeans, corn, and not much else. The law rarely ventured down those remote, rutted dirt roads about eighty miles as the crow flies from Nashville. Out there, old family resentments festered for decades, and revenge might come with the flickering glow of a burning barn in the rural darkness.
Steve Henley was the kind of back-slapping, short-fused country tough guy you’d find in any dim watering hole in nearby Cookeville, Sulphur or Algood—axle grease caked beneath short fingernails, neck burned a livid shade of crimson. He grew up sitting on his grandfather’s lap as he guided a combine over open fields on a farm in the Pine Lick Creek bottomlands. All he’d ever wanted was to be like his “Gramps,” Jack Henley, a coarse old cob who farmed a 519-acre spread on Pine Lick Road.
An undiagnosed learning disability made school frustrating for Steve. Composing coherent sentences on a page was all but impossible, and he dropped out in 10th-grade. Steve’s mind was of a mechanical bent, and he could repair anything that burned diesel or gas. He went to Maryland and found apprenticeship as an outboard boat motor mechanic, married at 18, and had two children—Gregg and Leanne. But friction between Steve and his new in-laws drove the family back to Tennessee for a fresh start.
Soon after, his beloved grandfather died of lung cancer, leaving Steve as steward of the 519-acre farm. He decided to expand to an 1,800-acre patchwork of owned and leased land where he grew corn, soybeans, and tobacco. Banks were issuing massive loans to anyone with a modicum of collateral. In Steve’s case, it was his beloved grandfather’s farm.
Over the next several years, Steve worked seven days a week, sleeping and bathing in the fields. (At night, the lights of his tractor could be seen burning over rows of corn.) But in 1980 drought struck. His soybean and corn crops were decimated. His wife, fed up with his long hours in the fields and their growing financial woes, asked for a divorce. The following year, hoping to recoup the loss, Steve gambled everything he had left on 700 acres of wheat. From late June to the end of August, the wheat was inundated with some forty inches of rain, literally drowning the crop.
Creditors seized his tractors, his remote fields and, eventually, his grandfather’s farm. He said it was like losing Gramps all over again. He had nothing left but the small plot of land on Pine Lick where his trailer sat next to his grandmother’s clapboard farm house.
By 1985, Steve was working odd jobs and hanging out with a 30-year-old junkie named Lester Flatt, who lived out on Bullet Hole Road. Flatt was unemployed and hooked on prescription painkillers. He suffered from bacterial endocarditis—an infection of the heart’s inner lining that can cause extreme fatigue and a host of other ailments—from shooting up with dirty needles. Steve started drowning his anxieties with beer and Dilaudid, an injectible morphine substitute. He had always been a rough customer, but neighbors who’d known him must have noticed he was slipping into a place darker than the barroom brawls he was famous for—and that made him a familiar face to Jackson County Sheriff deputies.
Fred and Edna Stafford lived on a farm on Pine Lick Creek, no more than a quarter mile from what had been Steve’s family farm. They knew him as a boy. They knew him now by the black Chevy pickup that rumbled past their home every day. Pine Lick Road was narrow, and one day the couple met Henley in a head-on collision. Both parties were probably at fault. A jury seemed to think so, because when Steve sued the elderly couple, the jury decided that each party would take responsibility for its own vehicle.
But Steve never got over it. He hated the Staffords, and there was more to his anger than hurt feelings over an unfavorable legal judgment. There was talk of an old family grudge, though no one who is still alive will speak of it. Fred Stafford’s brother would only tell me that Steve drove his tractor through Fred’s field from time to time, crushing his tobacco.
Steve had leveraged himself out of his farm, out of his marriage, out of the only way of life he’d ever wanted to know. He had nothing now but a small spit of land and monthly child support payments. And he was failing even that. The last Christmas before Steve disappeared from Pine Lick forever, there was so little beneath the tinseled tree that his boy Gregg asked him if he’d been bad that year. For a proud man, there could be no greater failure.
For the folks along the narrow rutted dirt road, it was no great mystery when Fred and Edna Stafford were murdered on July 24, 1985. Steve and Lester Flatt brought the rumbling Chevy pickup to a stop in front of the elderly couple’s farm. According to court records, Steve demanded money, marched them into their home, and shot them with a .22 caliber rifle and a .380 pistol. Then he poured gasoline around their bodies and burned them up.
As the men fled the scene, they met a deputy down the road who asked for directions to the Stafford residence. A fire had been reported, the deputy said. Steve pointed the guy in the right direction and continued on down the road. By the time Fred and Edna would normally have gone to bed, their bodies lay burned and ruined among piles of logs and planks that were incandescent in Sheriff Wayne Mahaney’s headlights.
An amateurish investigation by Mahaney’s office procedurally contaminated nearly every piece of evidence it sifted from the ashes. But more than a few farmers who lived nearby put Steve at the scene. When the prosecution asked Flatt who killed Fred and Edna, he leveled his finger at Steve. In exchange for his testimony, he was sentenced to twenty-five years but was paroled after five.
He’s probably guilty, I think to myself as I sit among Steve’s family, waiting for the state of Tennessee to execute him. But I also know the investigation was shoddy, making Henley’s guilt anything but certain. From the moment he was arrested, Steve staunchly maintained his innocence. And he’s not alone. His family doesn’t think he did it, nor does Steve’s spiritual advisor, Stacy Rector, of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing. But none of that matters anymore. The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the death sentence would stand. The U.S Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit declined to grant a stay. As of this evening, Steve has exhausted every legal remedy.
It’s 1:00 a.m. now. Another voice over the prison guard’s radio. This is the last stop: the viewing room. Three rows of plush, burgundy cloth seats, like a movie theater. A rectangular Plexiglass window at the front of the room, covered by drawn black blinds, as though at any moment they will lift and grinning performers will soft-shoe across a backlit stage. Gregg, Leanne, Stefanie, Stacy, and Leanne’s boyfriend sit in the front row, the press in the rear two. Leanne caresses Gregg’s back in slow circles. Her breathing is labored and phlegmy. She leans forward, elbows on knees.
“Are you feeling sick?” her boyfriend asks. He massages the tendons in her neck. Stacy pushes a trash bin toward her. I can see Leanne kneading her lips over her teeth in the reflection of the Plexiglass. I can’t see Gregg’s face. He is bent and rocking himself in his seat.
The speakers above us crackle with feedback. Gregg is startled and searches the ceiling for the source. The speakers emit the staticky sounds of a gurney rolling into a room. Clicks and bangs of equipment. Tonight’s work has begun. The blinds are drawn. There is Steve—burly, red hair shot through with gray. His face is pinkish yet pale—deprived of sunlight for more than two decades of death row isolation. He has the big hands of men who ranch, farm, or work construction.
Less than a week ago he was agitated, rambling about half-baked conspiracy theories and agribusiness plots to steal his land right out from under him. This was when he believed he might be granted a stay. This morning he looks surprised to see his family. He grins and sticks his tongue out at them. He is strapped from head to foot to a gurney. IV lines run along his arms like translucent vines.
“Oh my God,” his daughter cries, covering her mouth with cupped hands.
A sheet of Plexiglass separated me from Steve the week before the execution. He didn’t want to sit, and the nervous energy bound up inside him was only exorcised through his voice, which is normally deep and drawling but sounded tinny through the speakers. He spoke quickly. His eyes were cagey and searching. He adjusted strips of white cloth wrapped around his wrists beneath the handcuffs. He said they hurt him.
The last two decades of this man’s life were spent filing appeal after appeal, see-sawing between hope and despair. He had immersed himself in the legal minutia of his trial. He wrote a letter to Oprah, hoping she’d visit and bring attention to his case. I nodded and smiled. I suspected he would be disappointed. Our conversation was difficult to steer, but I tried to get to the point. Steve always denied using hard drugs around the time of the murders, but his accomplice testified they were both drunk and high the day Fred and Edna Stafford were killed. The inconsistency is typical of Steve’s story, which is riddled with a thousand little lies. I wonder what they all mean. Whether they all add up to his guilt. I ask him directly: “Were you shooting up the day the Staffords were murdered?”
Steve looked away, a momentary pause in what has been a nearly breathless conversation. He didn’t answer me and began drifting from one topic to the next. He talked about his tractor—a real honey. It was an International Harvester 700. The bank took it. He told me he loved his children. He told me about his great guilt for their anguish, and for the weight of his impending death over those long years, like an abstraction, terrifying yet incomprehensible. “It’s like my sister said the other day: ‘It’s like a funeral that never ends,’” he said.
He expressed unmasked contempt for the prosecutor, the Jackson County Sheriff, anyone who had a role in the investigation and the subsequent prosecution. Next, he shifted to outright despair: “The death penalty? I welcome death at this point in my life.” Then to resignation: “I screamed for ten years I was innocent. I finally lost my voice.” And, finally, to a sort of spiritual defiance: “They can’t kill Steve.”
“Uh, I’d like to say that I hope this gives Fred and Edna’s family some peace,” Steve says when the warden lowers a microphone mounted to the ceiling to his mouth. He speaks in a steady, forceful tone. I can detect no bitterness, fear, or resentment. “My experience in life is it won’t,” he continues. “All my love to my mother and father, my sister and children. I’m an innocent man.”
“Bye,” Henley says. He blows his family a kiss.
They are out of their seats now and huddled around the window. They tell him they know he’s innocent, that they will always love him. Through choking sobs, they assure him he will inherit the Kingdom of God .
“See you on the other side,” he says. “Y’all a pitiful bunch.” Henley lays back and looks at the ceiling, like a man with somewhere else to be. “Let’s go to Pine Lick Creek.”
His neck lolls between his shoulders. The barbiturate is beginning to work. “I feel it coming,” he cries out. It doesn’t sound like fear, though. It is as if there is something he wants to say, but he knows the barbiturate’s dreamless sleep is swallowing up his words and, in a moment, will swallow his world entire. And then he releases a prodigious breath, as though all the weight of his life was expired through parted lips. A great snoring and gurgling sound rattles at the base of his throat.
“Oh my God! No! No! No!” Leanne cries.
Henley’s irises roll back into his skull, revealing the sightless white. His lids flutter and finally close. His head shifts and strains on his neck, as though he is trying to draw breath. His family is screaming at the Plexiglass. Veins are distended on his forehead. His pink face begins to turn blue. The room seems to vibrate. I look over at the reporter next to me. He is not writing anymore. I look down and realize I am not writing, either.
Stacy leads the family in the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
Something rises up in my chest that I am afraid to name. For a moment I consider the possibility that this feeling will never leave me. Henley’s children and sister clutch at each other, wailing the lines of the prayer.
“Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation…”
I am not writing. I know that I am here for a purpose. To document. To bear witness. The pencil the Tennessee Department of Corrections issued me was the lens through which I filter this reality. But now I’m not a reporter. I’m just a man watching Steve Henley’s slack and moribund face turn an improbable shade of purple. I beat down this shapeless hysteria working its way up through the coils of my intestines and into my chest—nausea and a sensation like a thousand frozen needles pricking my skin
Their voices fill the tiny room, rising now. “…but deliver us from evil.”
LeAnn vomits into the trashbin. I watch her shoulders heave and fall.
I shut my eyes. I tell myself I am here for a reason. I tell myself that by bearing witness, something can be learned. I begin to write again.
Gregg stares into the darkened face of his father. The warden calls it at 1:33 a.m. The black blinds slide back down. I look at the other journalists. They say nothing.
Henley’s sister turns around and sweeps us with her eyes. “Not a tear in the bunch,” she sneers. “Y’all’s a bunch of dogs.”
I look down, staring at nothing in particular in my notebook. A mix of anger and shame fills me and reddens my face. I don’t write her words down because I don’t need to. I’ll never forget them. I don’t know if I will ever shed a tear for Steve Henley. I might weep for his children.