Sunday, February 21, 1999

Did Wilford Berry deserve to get his way?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A slice of moon, like a wry smile, cut the blackness of the night. Inside a low buff brick building, the killing had begun.

        Officially, it is named Building H in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville, but it's called the Death House. Even by officials.

        It is six hours after Wilford Lee Berry Jr. was served lasagna, garlic bread, Pepsi and cheesecake. The last meal is served early. “It cuts back on complications with any drugs that are administered,” an official told me during a rehearsal a year ago. Right. It would be unseemly to make the prisoner vomit before he dies.

Protesters' turf
        Separated by about four yards of grassy turf, the protesters on both sides of the death penalty debate have stopped milling and stomping their feet to stay warm. It is bitterly cold. I am holding a cup of hot coffee, trying to decide whether I would like to drink it or pour it into my boots.

        Someone begins singing “Amazing Grace.”

        The condemned man had already made his way down the short hall from one of two little cages where prisoners stay just before execution. Stainless steel sinks are furnished cheerily with red toothbrushes. In one cage, a shelf bolted to the wall holds a beautifully illustrated Bible. Next to it is a New Testament: “Property of the Gideons. Please do not remove from the room.”

        Not likely.

        Wilford Berry is lying on the “injection bed,” restrained with heavy black straps, buckled like old-fashioned seat belts, an intravenous needle dangling from the crook of his left elbow. Drugs are pumped into him from the adjoining control booth. One to put him to sleep, one to stop his breathing and the third to stop his heart.

        He took three breaths, then one more before the color drained from his face.

        A radio news report pronounced Wilford Berry dead several minutes before he actually took that last breath. Sister Alice Gerdeman of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center in Over-the-Rhine spoke over a microphone, “Let us hope we never have to meet again on this ground for this reason.”

        Not much chance of that, Sister.

        Ohio has 190 other men on Death Row, and many people believe the process will now be on a fast track. Fellow death row inmates beat Wilford Berry nearly to death during a September 1997 riot at the Mansfield Correctional Institution for that very reason.

Dubious moral authority
        Maybe Wilford Berry did not deserve to die. And I mean that in a completely unlovely way. He no longer has to face up to what he did. The attorney general said he was making a reasoned choice to die rather than live on death row.

        There was never any doubt of his guilt. He admitted killing a Cleveland baker in November of 1989. His voice, speaking on behalf of those who are in favor of the death penalty, is hardly persuasive. He is not qualified to enter into a moral or legal debate. Some people believe that he is not even qualified to die. His attorneys argued that he was too mentally ill to elect death.

        “Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong” read one sign on the apron of grass outside the prison.

        “An eye for an eye, a life for a life” reads another.

        So, is killing the answer? We know what the murderer Wilford Berry thought. He laughed as he shot Charles Mitroff in the back of the head with a sawed-off rifle. Then he begged — no, demanded — that we execute him.

        We obliged. Wilford Lee Berry Jr., who first tried to commit suicide at the age of 9, died at 9:31 p.m. Friday at the hands of the people of Ohio, a ritual killing before an audience.

        And on a black night, he had the last word.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail her at Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.