Stories from an Oklahoma execution coordinator: 'There will never be closure'
LONGTOWN, Okla. (KTUL) —
It's a quiet, breezy day in Longtown. And as John East looks across the valley toward the lake, he reflects on a life in the state penitentiary.
“I talked to every inmate that wanted to talk to me,” East says. “Every time I, every morning at 8 a.m.”
John has a visceral understanding of capital punishment in Oklahoma. He used to be the state execution coordinator.
“I was cold,” he says with a somber look. “I was cold. To me, I hate to use it, but what is, is.”
His eyes saw 13 people die.
“It's considered a homicide,” he says of his state-ordered work. “It obviously is.”
From 1992 to 1999, John did his job making sure everyone who needed to bear witness was there. I asked if he’d ever had one go wrong.
“It had nothing to do with the injection,” he said.
That one was Robyn Leroy Parks. He was convicted of murdering 24-year-old Abrahim Abdullah in 1977. He was John's first.
“I've had people say 'Why did you do that job?'” he says. “I said, 'You know me. Do you know of anybody that could handle that job any better?'”
He was grizzled before he got the job. He endured three tours in Vietnam. But some things he'll never forget, like when he saw two executions in three days. The second was Olan Randle Robinson. He was convicted of murdering two people in 1980.
“The judge said he is to be executed at 5,” East says. “That's when he killed the people. Judge can do that.”
He also saw scores of families in that room watching the person who killed their loved ones get killed by the state.
“There will never be closure,” he says. “He's gone. She's gone.”
I asked John about the future of capital punishment with the controversy next door in Arkansas.
“Arkansas does it differently,” he says. “Every state does it differently.”
Will executions ever fall by the wayside?
“The next highest is life without parole,” East contemplated. “If a person gets life without parole, how much closure is there then?”
Life behind bars is its own kind of slow death. And even if the executioner doesn't get you, John says, death can still be waiting around a corner.
“I've seen everything made into a lethal weapon, everything,” East says. “So, believe me, you have put a lot of lives in jeopardy.”
Seeing so much death has given John East a clear understanding of the value of life. He's living his, on his quiet dirt road in Longtown. A smile and a story are always ready about his time in the state pen.