Richard Dale Foster, condemned to die by lethal injection at
McAlester State Penitentiary, McAlester, Oklahoma, June 12
sometime after midnight, for the murder of a convenience store
clerk during a robbery. I follow two guardsóone white with a
pot gut and bushy mustache stained by snuff, the other black,
cool, chewing gum--into the interview room. The white guard
keeps sniffing the air, and releasing a low belch that smells
of grease and onions. The black guard, who looks a little like
Samuel Jackson, wields a clipboard and pen. It is part of the
execution ritual to keep detailed notes of everything the
condemned says and does in his last hours. Unlike Death Row,
where there is a constant clamor, this building is quiet. The
hallways echo footsteps. A sense of imposed bureaucratic
solemnity pervades the senses. If this were death row, there
would be a reverberating serenade, a primal symphony of
condemned men using the instruments at hand: rattling the
doors to their cells, clanking hard objects against the bars,
stomping their feet, clapping their hands, keeping a rhythm
going, chanting, vocalizing fiery raps, gang slogans, Indian
war cries. The inmates do this every time a convict is set to
die. "Sometimes," a grizzled guard told me on one
occasion, "it sounds like some primitive kind of
"Itís the sound of rage against death," I had
replied, thinking of Dylan Thomasí poem. "Thatís as
primitive as it gets." The dying of the light.
Once youíve heard it, you hear it for a life sentenceóinside
your head. The music usually continues unabated until the man
Richard Dale Foster stands up to greet me. His hands have
been unshackled, but he doesnít offer a handshake. He is
about five ten, wiry build, leathery skin pale from his
incarceration, with tattoos up and down both arms above the
indentations from the shackles. He is dressed in a white
sleeveless Tee shirt and black slacks. My eyes are drawn to
one of the tattoos on his upper arm, a large heart with
"Mother" lettered in the center of it. Crudely
stitched underneath the point of the heart is the word fucker--an
afterthought, apparently. When I look Richard Foster in the
eye he gives me a piercing look that I take as a challenge. I
return the stare full-bore but without any provocation in it,
and he smiles and winks. He has a nervous twitch at the corner
of his right eye. His dark, deep-set eyes are bloodshot with
dark circles underneath. They seem to absorb light rather than
reflect it. His thin, sandy hair is combed back on the sides,
mussed on top, as if he has been tousling it with his hand.
His bushy Elvis-style sideburns reach the bottom of his ear
lobes. He is clean-shaven otherwise, sallow-faced, with acne
pockmarks along both jaw lines. His jaw muscles keep tensing
like heartbeats. I sit down in the gray metal chair, and open
my briefcase. I place my tiny recorder on the gray metal
table, and introduce myself as I extract my notes, pen, and
Since I have only been allowed fifteen minutes, I quickly
dispense with formalities and proceed with the first and most
Me: Richard, why did you shoot Tyler Reavis, the
convenience store clerk?
Him: Boy, you donít beat around the bush, do you? (sighs)
Mama said you didnítóthatís why she liked you. The five
hundred dollars probbly didnít hurt none either. (He
snickers) Iíll tell you what I told everybody else including
myself. I donít know why I done it. It was like I was
watchiní myself do it, know what I mean? Like from a long
ways away down inside myself. Hell, I donít even remember
pulliní the trigger. I blacked out for a second and when I
saw that boy layiní there and the blood streaminí from his
head, I started screaminí for helpóthatís no joke, you
can see me screaminí on the tape from the surveillance
camera. Man, I was so fucked up on crank and beer that night I
could have done pretty near anything. I could have
assassinated the president if heíd been in Broken Bow,
Oklahoma that night, workiní in that StopíNíGo. Hell,
Jesus could have been behind that cash register and I wouldnít
have recognized him. Iíd a thought he was the Devil, sure
enough. I really donít believe in killiní. Thatís the
gospel truth. I know it sounds funny cominí out of a
convicted killerís mouth, but there it is. There it is.
Me: So you blame the drugs?
Him: Naw, man, I blame myself. Iím explaininí it to ya,
how it was. If I hadnít been doiní the drugs, it wouldnít
have happened, thatís a factóbut no one put a gun to my
head and made me shoot up that crystal methamphetamine and
drink a case of beer. Everybody is always wantiní to know
why bad things happenólike thereís an explanation for
everything. Well, shit, I donít believe that. Sometimes bad
things just happen."
Me: Come on, Richard. Do you really believe that?
Him: You bet your ass I believe that. Sometimes things just
happen like they were meant to happen. You ask any of the cons
in here and theyíll tell you the same thing.
Me: Maybe thatís because itís a convenient cop-out.
Him: Maybe. (He draws back a corner of his mouth and makes
a clicking sound). I know a man should enter his house
justifiedóthatís what the Bible says. A man can convince
himself to believe any damn thing. But I wish I could know the
damn truth before I die. Hell, Iíd face it. I may be a lot
of things, but I ainít no chickenshit. I know a little bit
about that predestination crap and so on, and now scientists
are sayiní there might be some kind of genetic flaw in
perpetual offenders like me, but what it all seems to boil
down to is bad timing and carelessness. You know, some people
just canít dance.
(Pauses. Watches me intently as I make notes.)
Him: Tellíem Iím better lookiní in person. Those
newspaper photos make me look like the south end of a
(I glance up and he grins. I notice the broken incisor that
has turned brown. While Iím writing he lights a Camel
unfiltered cigarette and takes a deep drag. After only a few
puffs the smoke fills up the small room.)
Him: Helps my nerves. I know these things are bad for your
health but I been smokiní since I was nine. (chuckles).
Hell, I probbly got lung cancer. This lethal injection might
be a blessiní in disguise.
Me: So you couldnít dance, Richard?
Him: Oh, I could do the twist, but I couldnít do the
Macarena (guffaws). Naw, I tell ya, I was born with two left
feet and a white boyís rhythm when it came to walkiní on
the right side of the law. Come by it naturally, too. (His
face is angled downward, but he peers up at me for emphasis.
It reminds me of a look Iíve seen from James Dean in his
Me: Youíre talking about your family history?
Him: You know it, man. Sprung from the bad luck seed. When
I was eight years old, my grandpa shot my daddy and killed
him. He was dead drunk at the time and when he sobered up and
realized what he done, he hung himself in the county jail with
his overall strap. My ole grandpa was a good old man, Iím
telliní ya, as good an old man as there was. He had no
intention of killiní my daddy. It wasnít no ordinary
accident. It just happened.
And when I was twelve some friends of mine took me along
withíem down to the river one night. We had built this raft
out of boards and tires and shit and we were going to float
down the river a ways in the dark. Kind of like ole
Huckleberry motherfuckiní FinnóHey, donít quote that
last comment, okay? I been around the bruthas too much. On
death row the bruthas are the majority, know what Iím sayiní?
Me: I know what youíre saying.
Him: Well, ole Red Carmichael had some kind of pills his
Mama took to keep her from offiní herself, and he spreadíem
around. Fore ya know it, weís all laughiní and wizziní
in the water, just actiní generally goofy. Well, wouldnít
ya know it, ole Red was takiní a wiz and he fell backwards
into the water and just disappeared. Nobody could do nothiní.
Couldnít even see him it was so dark out that night. We
shined a flashlight around and one of the boys jumped in with
a rope tied around him. Hell, I couldnít swim worth a flip
or I would have. Never heard a peep outa him. They didnít
find his body for a week. Good ole Red. That wasnít no
ordinary accident, neither. It just happened.
Mama had a wreck one time when I was fourteen and liked to
killed herself. She ran into a bulldozer parked alongside the
road. Said she didnít see it cause the reflectors were
splattered with mud. Ole gal that was with her got thrown
clear through the windshield. Decapitated her on the bulldozer
blade, they said. They said Mama was drunk but she said sheíd
been sipping cough syrup and I know for a fact she had a bad
cold. Now who could have predicted that? Itís just another
freak happeniní. They kept Mama in jail for a while on that
one. She said the jailer raped her, but I donít know if itís
true or not. My Mama is about two hundred pounds of pure
Me: What about the time you shot your best friend in the
head? Did that just happen?
Him: Iím glad you asked me that, cause that was the
freakest happeniní of all. It was tragic, man. Leroy was my
best friend of all time. I loved that sucker. The only guy I
ever knew who didnít have one bit of meanness in him. Iíd
have killed for him, I really would have.
Me: Would you have died for him? That sounds a bit more
Him: Sure. Sure. I would have hauled a cross up to Calvary
and driven in the first nail myself if it would have saved
Me: Go ahead, please. We donít have much time.
Him: Itís kind of hard to talk about. We were having a
grand ole time, I guarantee you with no trouble in mind.
Sittiní on the hood of Leroyís car, smokiní cigarettes
and shootiní at bats that come flyiní out of that big
limestone cave there in the Cookson Hills where the outlaws
used ta hang out. We were sippiní a little I.W. Harper, too,
but neither one of us was drunk. Anyway, I shot at a bat and I
guess I got a little close to Leroyís head.
Me: It went in the base of his skull and severed his spinal
Him: I never was very good with guns. Thatís no joke.
Me: (giving him a hard look) It paralyzed him. He lost his
ability to speak.
Him: (gets a stricken look) Yep, I know it. I visited him.
He blinked at me like he forgive me. Now letís change the
subject, if you donít mind. (eyes tearing up).
Me: Was that the first time you were sent to jail?
Him: Uh huh. Sent me to Juvie. Thatís where I got my
Him: Yeah, I learned to use a shank (he goes Ďwhish,
whish, whishí as he traces a Z in the air with his hand as
if it contains a blade), hide drugs in my poop chute, shim a
winda, hot wire a car, scrub a lockó
Me: Scrub a lock?
Him: Yeah, itís a pickiní technique usiní torque and
pressure. Man, itís an art. I was okay at it, not great. I
ainít real scientific and my hands were too nervous to be a
Me: Whatís the secret to hiding drugs in youró
Him: Poop chute? Oh, thatís easy. Just stickíem in a
good latex condom, pucker up, greaser up, and shover up. Donít
swallow any sharp objects at suppertime.
Me: And letís see, your first arrest as an adult was for
stealing a fifty thousand dollar tractor?
Him: From a rich ass farmer that lived like Elvis. Hell,
the sheriff was on his way out to his place to play cards! You
believe that shit? Talk about bad timing! That tractor had a
tinted cab, tape deck, squawk box, air conditioning, a fancy
seat. Bout the only thing it didnít have was a shitter. Thatís
how the sonofabitch caught me. I was takiní a dump by the
side of the road when he drove by. Had to wipe my bottom with
Johnson grass while he held a shotgun on me. I should've just
went on down the road with shit in my britches.
Me: And they gave you two years in the El Reno Reformatory,
Him: Yeah, those were the bad ole days. I never had no good
Me: Richard, I only have a few minutes left for my
interview. In oh, about five hours from now, youíre going to
draw your last breath on this earth. What are your feelings
about it? Are you afraid?
Him: (He looks down suddenly. His breathing becomes more
rapid. He shakes his head and clears his throat. His voice
comes out in a slurring mumble.) Well, Jesus, man, what do you
Me: Are you religious?
Him: In my own way I am. I believe in a lot of the Bible,
not all of it. I donít believe in any of that church
bullshit, bunch of hypocrites sinniní six days a week and
all holy roly on Sunday.
Me: Do you believe you will go to heaven?
Him: No, Iím goiní down to the Rock Creek Cemetery and
lie down for a spell (chuckles). I think heaven and hell is in
your mind. Thatís what this fag on death row told me one
time. He was a college professor or somethiní. Shot his
boyfriend for waggliní his tail at somebody. I ainít got
nothiní against fags. Nothiní against jigs or spiks,
either. Nothiní against nobody. Be sure and put that down.
Me: I will.
Him: And I sure donít have nothiní against that store
clerkís family even though theyíve said theyíd like to
torture me in front of my mother. One ofíem said heíd like
to rub honey all over me and stake me to an ant bed.
Me: Do you blame them for hating you?
Him: (shrugs, shakes his head no) But it ainít gonna
bring their boy back. All hate does is make you hate more. It
feeds on itself. Iím an expert on hate. I donít hate
nobody no more. One thing about knowiní youíre goiní to
die, you drop the shit from your mind and heart that donít
matter real quick. Iím as pure a soul right now as there is
on this planet. I ainít sayiní itís of my own doiní,
but itís true. I ainít got any lies in me, ainít got any
hate, ainít got any bad feelingís at all. All I really
feel is sadness. For me, partly, Iíll admit, but a lot for
that boyís family who never got to see him finish college,
get married, and have kids. I sometimes catch myself imagining
what his life would have been like (suddenly his eyes light up
and he grows animated). You know what would be tremendously
wonderful? If my dying would bring that boy back to life! Iíd
go for that in a second! In a second, boy! Now if there was a
god with a capital G like a lot of these holier than thou
types believe in, why wouldnít he have sense enough to do
something like that?
Me: I donít know.
Him: (A look of disgust crosses his face and he slumps in
his chair.) You know thereís a big difference between
fuck-up murderers like me and sociopaths. Iíve never met a
fuck-up killer that wasnít sorry for what he did. It ainít
for me to say but I donít think fuck-ups should be executed.
I ainít sayiní I should ever get out, but I oughta be able
to do somethiní inside the system. Be a guinea pig or
something. Try out some AIDS drugs and shit like that. Be of
some use to society. And they oughta make the living
conditions fit for humans. Twenty-four hours a day in a five
by nine cell with no natural light or fresh airóman, that
would be cruel and unusual even for Hannibal whatís-his-name.
That guy that wanted to eat Jodie Foster. Hey, that sounded
kind of dirty, didnít it?
(The black guard finishes a flurry of writing, slaps the
clipboard against his leg and jangles his keys. Time's up, he
Me: One last question, Richard.
Him: Yes sir, I hope Iíve been some help to ya. I sure
ainít been no help to myself.
Me: You have. Your words may provoke a lot of discussion.
Do you have a final statement prepared?
Him: Sure do. Iíve had it prepared for a couple of years
(eyes tearing up again). That fag helped me (stands up). Well,
see ya. Tellíem I ainít no monster. If youíre a good
enough writer, you ought to be able to convince íem of that.
Donít ya think?
Me: (with a nod) I'll try.
Him: Iím payiní the price and tryiní to keep my
dignity. Richard Dale Foster will no longer be a menace.
Richard Dale Foster will no longer be. Hell, Iím so sick of
piddliní Iíll be glad to get it over with (groans, chest
begins to heave.) No, I wonít. (He turns away and jerks his
head at the guard, a signal to get me out of there.)
They sequester me in the law library. Richard Fosterís
mother has decided not to witness the execution. Even though I
am almost a complete stranger, she has pleaded with me (over
the phone in the wardenís office where I had been
interviewing him) to be there in her stead. She is obviously
drunk. I have gone to the menís room and swallowed a Valium
that my wife slipped in my pocket in case I got stressed out.
Fifteen minutes after midnight, I am summoned to a narrow
rectangular room where I will view the execution. There are
three tiers of chairs, 12 in each row. The first row, nearest
the four thick windows that look onto the death chamber, is
reserved for the inmate's witnesses. The second row is
reserved for reporters. The top row, which is partitioned off
by a wall and darkened glass, is for the family of the victim.
Blinds cover the windows into the execution room. On my left,
as I enter, is a phone to the governor's office. To the right
is a second phone, which goes inside the death chamber.
Besides me, there are eight other witnesses, including
Tyler Reavisís parents and brother, who were introduced to
me earlier by the warden. Behind the tinted glass I see the
mother and father standing, holding hands. The mother is
crying. The father has his head bowed in prayer. The brother
is sitting, reading a newspaper. On the second row, there are
two other reporters; one from Tulsa, one from Oklahoma City.
There are three men in the front row, officials appointed by
I sit down next to a distinguished looking man reading a
copy of "People" magazine. He gives me a nod and
goes back to his article on Julia Roberts.
I review my notes on the process. Two intravenous lines are
inserted in each arm before he reaches the execution chamber.
When the signal is given, the drugs are injected sequentially
by hand held syringe into the intravenous lines, alternating
between the two lines. Sodium Thiopental causes
unconsciousness. Pancuronium Bromide stops respiration.
Potassium Chloride stops the heart. Saline is also injected
after each drug is injected. Three executioners are utilized,
with each one injecting one of the drugs. This is a very
efficient killing of a living, breathing human being. A man
convicted of a capital offense. A man whose death the victimís
family will celebrate. A man who should have learned to dance.
A woman who is the associate director of the state
corrections department enters the room and speaks into the
governor's phone to check for any last-minute stay. Then she
puts the other receiver to her ear. "Proceed with the
execution," she tells the Warden, who is standing behind
the glass. The blinds rise. The execution room is still empty.
At twelve-thirty they bring him in, already lying on the
gurney. The microphone that extends from the wall over his
head picks up his words-- "Where is he?" (over the
wall-mounted speakers his voice sounds like an order taker at
a drive-through)--and then he sees me. He waves off the
chaplain and gives me a thumb up and then quickly turns it
down. He smirks. Itís the first time Iíve seen that look
on his face and I regret it for him. After the executioners
hook him up, the warden asks him if he has any last words. He
clears his throat and begins a long, rambling apology to
Reavisí family, a lot of it similar to what he said to me.
Heís had four years on death row to rehearse. Then he raises
his head up slightly and turns sideways to meet my gaze.
"Tell Mama I understand. Donít blame her a bit. And
tell her I love her even if she is crazy." He clears his
throat again. He quotes a mishmash of Bible passages, ending
with three lines from Corinthianís, I think. "Love is
patient. Love is kind. Love never fails." Then he says,
"Letís rock and roll, Warden."
"Let the execution begin," the Warden says.
As the drugs are injected, Richard Dale Foster begins to
sing, his voice hoarse and faltering. I recognize it as an old
Hank Williams song: "Hear that lonesome whippoorwill, he
sounds too blue to fly, the moon just went behind the clouds,
and Iím so lonesome I could cry. The silence of a falling
star, lights up a purpleÖ" Before he can sing
"sky," he gasps as if in surprise and then shudders;
his eyes roll and then close halfway. His lips vibrate and his
head falls to the side. The doctor comes over and puts his
stethoscope to Richard Dale Fosterís chest. He looks at the
warden and whispers the word "dead." Then he looks
at the clock and announces the time: 12:46.
Even through the glass of the partition above me, I can
hear Tyler Reavisís mother say, "amen." I turn
around and I can see her lips move as she repeats it silently,
again and again.