Just one of those last-minute things

by Brian Clarey

It’s just another sunny January morning, or so it seems through the sepia-tinted picture window of my cheap motel room – muted winter sunlight warming the kudzu and a circulatory hum of traffic emanating from the nearby city loop.

Just another morning in the Old North State, except I’m in this perfectly serviceable room with its thin queen-sized mattress and that print on the wall, a watercolor depicting a quiet pastoral scene in the foothills, a bare and gnarly tree dominating the foreground. It’s quiet and a little bit lonely – I sorely miss my wife and kids – and I’ve got a little pot of coffee brewing on the bathroom sink while I tap at the keyboard at this pre-fab desk with empty, shallow drawers.

And I’m washed in a feeling akin to sweet relief.

Because it’s just another Friday for me, close enough to the weekend that I can almost smell the bacon frying and looming deadlines causing mild anxiety. But it could have been something much, much worse.

I drove out on I-40 yesterday afternoon, a passage I know well from my days as a travel writer. I don’t hit the road so much these days, but this was an assignment I could not refuse.

Through a short chain of events I had obtained one of the toughest tickets in town: a seat in a room I imagine to be not much bigger than my modest temporary lodgings where I would bear witness to the last moments of Marcus Reymond Robinson as he carried out a sentence imposed on him in 1991. Death. By lethal injection.

Robinson was not a real good guy in those bad old days – even though he was just 18 he had piled up quite a stack of felonies including kidnapping, shoplifting, robbery with a dangerous weapon and, astonishingly, possession of a weapon of mass destruction.

So he and trouble were well acquainted when, with his equally loathsome pal Roderick Williams, he shanghaied Erik Tornblom in the parking lot of the Chi-Chi’s in Fayetteville, forced him to drive to another empty parking lot and then blew away his face with a shotgun.

Robinson and Williams each fingered the other for the actual shooting, but it was Williams who got the deal: a life sentence, while Robinson got a date with the needle.

And that’s today.

Or it was. Yesterday morning, as I readied an overnight bag with an outfit suitable for the event, a judge’s gavel put a stop to the madness.

It’s kind of a long story – the state requires a doctor to be present at all executions, but a few weeks ago the NC Medical Board stopped playing ball, proposing on Jan. 17 that doctors should not participate in the lethal injection process, effectively dropping a turd in the punchbowl of state-sanctioned death.

And with the pounding of that gavel, the three executions scheduled for this winter were put on hold until… I don’t know. Maybe we’re going to buy an electric chair or something.

But the upshot is that what’s just another January morning in the Triangle is the first day of the rest of Marcus Reymond Robinson’s life.

For now.

I do not support capital punishment for many reasons, among them the absolute fact that it’s possible to hang the wrong man. Daryl Hunt was but one of hundreds, if not thousands, who have had his murder conviction overturned.

But also I find the notion of the state committing murder in my name to be… distasteful. I don’t think any human has the right to hold sway over the life or death of another living human, no matter what.

Though Erik Tornblom’s family might disagree.

But when the assignment landed in my lap, I could not remit the opportunity to see the draconian measure go down.

It was a spooky notion and one that didn’t sit well with the inner recesses of my mind. I kept thinking about it, visualizing the sequence of events and trying to predict my reaction, both my immediate one and the eventual toll it would take on my psyche over the years. My wife, even, was having dreams about it.

All these years after the crime has been committed, Marcus Reymond Robinson is still, by most accounts, not such a good dude. He is known as an “active rioter” at Central Prison, just around the curve of I-440 from my modest quarters, where he is held. His prison sheet includes incidences of assault, gang involvement, various drug offenses, fighting, lock tampering and (yuck) throwing liquids.

Yesterday, when he sat in his cell in the deathwatch area of Central Prison, maybe thinking about his chances at the pearly gates or attempting to atone for his sins or maybe just thinking about the menu for his final meal, he was given another chance at life, though it’s likely only a temporary stay of execution.

It’s difficult to say whether he will make the most of it or not – his profile suggests he won’t, though I’ve never met the man and can’t presume how this brush with eternity will affect him.

But I know I’m breathing easier this morning, despite the deep infestation of tobacco smoke in my generic little room, because I too got a last-minute reprieve.

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