By Chiara Eisner The State
Many of those who helped execute people in South Carolina have never spoken publicly about their job’s toll, until now. The State spoke with 10 people involved in the work who described some of the consequences of their profession.
The first time Craig Baxley executed a man for the state of South Carolina, he wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do. He slipped the surgical gloves on anyway at around 6 p.m. Behind the one-way mirror that hid his face from the others in the death chamber, a heart monitor beeped a reminder. Still alive, it told him. That person you’re supposed to kill is still alive. By then, Baxley was no stranger to death. Straight out of high school, he had enlisted with the Marines and trained at Parris Island next to friends who would be blown up in one of the deadliest attacks against the service since World War II, the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks bombing. Soon after he was discharged, at age 21, Baxley signed up to work for the S.C. Department of Corrections — and right away saw several men stabbed to death in prison. He was later tapped to lead a team that responded to similar crises behind bars with lethal force when necessary. He was trained to fight, but he wasn’t prepared for this. Hands shaking and palms drenched with sweat, he picked up a plastic tube connected to a man he did not know and slowly pushed into it the vials of drugs to stop his heart. Baxley did not look away as the lethal cocktail did its job. He watched as the light of life left the condemned man, whose head was on a gurney just a few inches in front of him. And then it was finished. Where there once was a face, there was suddenly just a corpse, left with a frozen expression of anguish. “Time of death, 6:18,” someone spoke into their radio. Baxley didn’t wait to hear more. Within seconds he was in a bathroom around the corner, ripping the gloves off and trying to wash himself clean. He scrubbed his hands hard and asked God to forgive him for what he had done. But it wasn’t enough. I need to get down on my knees, he thought.