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My First Execution

Ric Rowden, Larry Lee, Charles Bond and myself were best friends in law school. We usually got in trouble together: all for one, one for all. Late one evening in December, 1983, Ric calls me and says “Hey, do you want to go to an execution in the morning?” Now that’s not a normal question one gets asked, so I think my reply was something like “have you been drinking?” He proceeded to explain that John Eldon Smith was being executed in the morning. He had to explain to me that Smith, convicted of a double murder, was scheduled to be the first person to be executed in Georgia since the death penalty had been reinstated. So, being a “all for one, one for all” guy, I said I’d go. Then he told me we were leaving at 4:00 a.m. I had already committed, or I’d have slept in.

guillotineRic convinced Larry to go as well, but Charles opted for the sleeping in part. It was cold, real cold. It was dark, real dark, but off we went in the early morning hours, driving to Jackson where the Georgia Diagnostic Center houses death row inmates. As we arrived, state troopers were checking identification for some reason. Ric and I handed over our driver’s licenses, but Larry didn’t have his license. Ric volunteered that Larry didn’t have any ID. “No ID?” exclaimed the trooper. Ric had one of those priceless responses that will live immortal in my mind, but which may not strike you as funny. Ric: “You’ll have to excuse him, Mr. Trooper, this is his first execution.” Well, it made me laugh anyway. Apparently our casual attitude caused the trooper to question our intentions. We explained that we were pro-death penalty and that caused a total change in the trooper’s demeanor. Larry’s ID became irrelevant and the trooper hollered up the road, “Hey, let these guys through! They are on our side!” 

We were directed into a fenced pasture, which was vacant except for the three of us. The pasture next to us had a several dozen anti-death penalty protestors who were clustered together, singing hymns and burning candles. The two pastures were separated by about 10 yards of barbed wire fence with some concertina wire for good measure. The kumbaya folks didn’t notice us, but the Atlanta media sure did so they gathered around the barbed wire fence and extended their boom microphones over to the three young law students, who were feeling pretty full of themselves. We explained our support of the cause until they had their fill of us.

As the death of Smith was announced, a pall came over the crowd. By this point, we had been joined by a handful of other pro-death penalty supporters. On both sides of the fence there was a respect for what had just happened. No one cheered and the anti-folks simply resumed their singing. The crowd dispersed peacefully and life, for us, went on. 

Someone asked me the other day about the death penalty being abolished due to prohibitive cost, time constraints and unfairness. My reply is the same now as then. As long as there is evil in the world, there will be the death penalty. 

Kelly Burke, master attorney, former district attorney and magistrate judge, is engaged in private practice. He writes about the law, rock’n’roll and politics. These articles are not designed to give legal advice, but are designed to inform the public about how the law affects their daily lives. Contact Kelly at to comment on this article or suggest articles that you’d like to see and visit his website at to view prior columns.

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