Danny Rolling was executed today and they want to know what I think about it.
It is 4:34 in the afternoon. I am in the office of Jeannette Westlake, acupuncturist and herbalist extraordinaire, when my cell-phone rings. Normally I would not bother to reach for it, sitting there having my pulse read, discussing how my week has been, how I’ve slept (very little), what my energy level has been (very little), and how much I like my job (very little), but I felt the need to answer it, knew I needed to, and reached for it. I did not recognize the number but it was a Gainesville area code. I flipped open the phone.
Is Adam Tritt there?
Yes. And who is this?
Miles Doren with AM850. I spoke with your wife earlier and was wondering if she got to you before I did.
Why, yes, she did.
Oh, good, then you know why we want to interview you. Is this a good time?
No, actually. I have no idea.
But I thought she got to you before I did.
She did. About twenty-five years before you. But I doubt you want what she wants. You don’t, do you?
Oh, I see… (pause, extra long) I wanted to ask you a few questions about the Student Memorial on the 34th Street Wall.
Again? Why? Have they measured how thick the paint is again?
No. They are executing Rolling today.
Are they? I don’t keep up. Why would I?
It is a reporter from Gainesville. It is a bad time. He wants to interview me about Danny Rolling. I have no desire to talk about him again. Again and again. Again.
I’ll have to call you back. Will a half hour be ok? Just in time? Oh, you want to talk with me before he dies. He has less than two hours. I see.
His death has been scheduled. I think of how some feel God calls a person home at a certain time, pre-determined. We do the same. At a little after six this afternoon, in Starke, Florida, we will do what some say only God should. We will commit the act profanus. We will be obscene.
My appointment has finished and I am in the truck and on my way to a peace rally. It is being held in front of a candidate meet and greet. It is at least twenty minutes away and I call the reporter back after plugging in my earphone.
Yes, I am the person who created the student memorial. No, I didn’t do it alone. Paul Chase lives in Gainesville still. Call him. No, I didn’t know Rolling was being executed today.
I have ceased writing. I feel teary and stop to call Paul. It is a few minutes after eleven and too late to be calling and I call anyway. I need to talk, vent. I feel he would understand. He painted the wall with me. I want to tell him how the interview was. How they talked of Rolling continuously. I want to tell him they didn’t understand how I could be against his death, any death. Treated me as though I, whom they had called, had suddenly blackened the names, darkened the day of their celebration. How the interviews ended in awkwardness and the semi-silence of the confusion of a person not hearing what they expected to hear and not knowing what to say in response.
He doesn’t answer and I leave a message. I write more and soon go to bed but it takes me longer than I hoped to sleep.
There were small memorials all over the city. Terse, frazzled, at once jangled and quiet with desperate attempts at safety, small rings of candles, tiny altars, flowers and wreaths were everywhere. People were doing their best to deal with the murders: five students in 48 hours – senseless, absurd, heinous, brutal, in-human.
We sat in an apartment in Corey Village, married student housing for the University of Florida. Paul and Dulce, Myself and Lee. Two couples. There is a wall nearby people had been painting on for years. Graffiti, signs, birthdays, slogans, political, social, comic. The 34th Street Wall was the city’s billboard and the police turned a knowing blind eye to the midnight artistry and the rest of the city stayed clean and clear. It was there we decided to place our memorial. It is there. The memorial is still there. That was 1990.
Somehow, after the memorial, people stopped arguing so much about whether the wall should exist. It was as if Tritt’s panel had become something the town needed.
When the city last resurfaced 34th Street, the plan to widen the bike lane would have required tearing out part of the wall. Instead, the DOT’s Busscher said, officials opted to narrow the median to protect the graffiti.
Sixteen years later, the black-and-white panel hasn’t changed much. New students, who were toddlers when the murders occurred, seem to know not to paint there, even if they don’t know why. (Kelly Benham, 2005. St. Peterburg Times)
We got flack from our wives. The expense. No-one had gas or grocery money. How long would it take? Do you know how? Isn’t it illegal? We don’t have money for food let alone bail. We took the flack. We also took the Honda Spree, both of us on it, to Wal-Mart at nearly eleven at night and bought mistake-paint of whatever colors were there for a dollar or two a gallon, some brushes, a roller and a pan. We spent $11.25, put it all in the milk crate behind us on the scooter and all of it 49cced back to the 34th Street Wall. It was nearing midnight.
More questions. All this is available in newspapers and on television. It was on CNN and 20/20, The St. Pete Times and Tampa Tribune, Miami Herald, Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, Gainesville Sun, The Orlando Sentinel, The Alligator (where it tore apart the staff and ended potential careers), manifold college newspapers. USA Today, Florida Today. It is in them again and again and again.
My son, 2006, at Palm Bay High School in Melbourne, learned about me in history class, in law class.
At the tenth anniversary, 2000, I was invited back to Gainesville by Keep Gainesville Beautiful and the Tenth Anniversary Foundation. I was thanked in public by officials, by Lt. Sadie Darnell, then spokesperson for the Gainesville police. Privately, later, I told Sadie (who is now running for Sherriff of Alachua County… You go Sadie!) it set a bad example, having me at a golf course function, thanking me in public for an act of vandalism. I was cried over by the families of the five. Why did I do it they wanted to know. It was the thing to do. There was no question.
It was just right. Our thought was the city needed a focus; one place for tears and altars and vigils, one place to pool energy. The wall was recognized and it would be. It would last a week, maybe, on this wall of the ephemeral and the transitory, before being painted over, reclaimed. Maybe not even that long. It would be enough.
We rolled on the black paint at the selected spot; the crest of the wall as it follows the hill at the south wall of the U of F Golf Course on one side, and, on the other side of that serenity, a main artery of the city and one of its busiest streets. Rolling on the midnight paint in the pre-morning darkness. We painted a twenty foot section. Occasionally a car would go by and we would lay low. We didn’t know there was no need.
Then, a large white heart on the right. A red heart in the center of that. The five names on the other half of the wall. It took us until nearly four in the morning before we finished our rough painting, under the heart, “We Remember.” We cleaned up and went home. Paul to Corey Village and me, taking my scooter back to my trailer at Windmeadows. It was the thing to do. There was no question. It was enough.
The next morning there were flowers at the wall. More by the end of the day. By the evening, there were wreaths, candles, altars. People taking pictures.
No. we didn’t expect it to stay. It never did, never does. In the space of a week, with the memorial still at the wall, part of it had been painted over with something rather callous telling us “People Die.” True enough. But, by mid-day, it had been repaired. People were taking it upon themselves to keep the memorial intact. We knew people who kept paint for just that purpose. Across from the wall was Spanish Trace apartments. Residents would notify the right people if the memorial was defaced. It would be fixed by day’s end. A month had passed. We were astonished. An actual group had been formed. They called themselves “Keepers of the Wall.”
In a year, we could barely believe it. Phone calls, interviews, pictures and I told one reporter I actually had thought of painting over it myself. Why? Time to move on, to not have murder as the central focus of the city. And who had a greater right to paint over it than me? But the wall belongs to the city and they had taken the memorial as their own. As long as they took care of it.
And every time they did, it was just a little different. Neater this time, an extra heart another, Always changing slightly.
Five years past. It was still there. People had come and gone, stewardship had passed from person to person, care was taken that care was taken. Fraternities took keeping it up as a social concerns project. Families made it their business to keep the area neat. And then, the father of one of the victims asked the city for permission to do what had never been done: make a portion of the wall permanent. It was granted.
A permit was issued to allow, actually allow someone to paint on the wall. And not just paint, but build. A coquina shell frame was created around the memorial. Our handiwork, the continued handiwork and labour of care was covered with a protective clear coating that would allow any paint put on it to be washed off. The ephemeral had become permanent. The transient, stagnant. That is never a good idea.
It cost quite a bit. And someone made more money off it than they should have and sold the family an inferior coating. It leaked. Water got in. In a few years, it was in need of repair. The Ten Year Anniversary Foundation was created. They needed money and lots of it. And this time it would be done right.
I was asked to take part in the repainting. They said they wanted the continuity of having me help strip the old paint and repaint the memorial anew.
I met some of the parents, grandparents and siblings and there were more pictures and interviews and scraping and chisels and the paint came off in sheets and chunks nearly an inch thick. How many layers of paint in the space of nearly forty years of constant covering and recovering? Well, for the central section, thirty years. Thirty. An inch thickness of paint, nearly two inches in some swollen sections, comes off and cover the sidewalk. Over the space of a weekend, done.
The wall is prepared. I am asked to take a brush and paint. I do, making a brushstroke, then another, then handing it off to a family member, a Paules, a Taboada. I have done what I was asked and I am finished, but for the new set of pictures and interviews.
Now it is sixteen years. The reporters are calling me again.
This is a radio interview.
How do you feel knowing Rolling is about to die?
I turn my phone over and look at the time. 6:10.
I feel terrible. No, I do not believe in the death penalty. It is not a deterrent. No, I feel it is an example of the power over structure and this is accepted so in our culture that those with more power feel it is acceptable to wield it over those with less, as Rolling did over those five students. Silence.
What he did is beyond horrific. And not one person would say he isn’t sick. Torturing someone and slowly bringing about their un-natural death as they wait, a passive participant in their own end. No good person would do what he did. No good person would torture someone with the fear and knowledge of impending, un-natural death. Worse yet to have that scheduled, planned. Who could live with that? A day? A year? Sixteen?
No, Ma’am, I’m not saying how could Rolling live with that. I am asking how could we? If no good person would do that, what are we? What are our laws? What does that make us?
So you don’t feel he should die?
I don’t believe we should kill him.
But what about the families?
She wants a specific answer. I am not following the script and she is pulling at anything she can to elicit the sound bite that will work for her; the one that will do the job. A place for my voice has been scheduled, blocked out, set aside and what I’m saying simply isn’t going to do. I does not fall within their plan and the reporter seems upset I am not validating her belief of what I should believe. And she sounds astonished I feel as I do. That I could feel as I do. Do I get angry? Yes. No, it should not have anything to do with my stance. We are to temper our feelings with knowledge. Why else be human?
Someone once told me something about the angels of our better nature. It stuck.
The families deserve more than revenge.
I tell her while I disagree, I hope it brings them closure. I hope it brings them peace.
Rolling has been in the execution chamber for some twenty minutes. Two intravenous tubes have been inserted into his arms by the execution team; one in each arm. These tubes feed through a wall into an anteroom where the executioner is located. He is on a heart monitor and strapped to a gurney as saline solution begins to flow through the tubes.
Sodium pentathol, at two grams, comes next. This is a short acting barbiturate. It is designed to render the inmate unconscious. Florida has had botched lethal injections. The best laid plans…
The warden gives a signal, the execution team begin with another flushing of saline and then pancuronium bromide is administered. This will paralyze the diaphragm and lungs.
More saline. Then potassium chloride. This interrupts the electrical signal of the heart and it stops beating. The syringes are numbered in order.
At 6:12 the reporter asks if I have anything else I’d like to add.
Yes. In the time I have been speaking with you, you have talked about no-one but Rolling. You talk as though it is wrong of me to not want his execution. The real shame is you keep talking about Rolling, but you never, not once, mentioned the names of the students. Not one time did I hear any of their names. You are more interested in celebrating his death than their lives.
Let us put their names here, right now. Sonia Larson, Christina Powell, Christa Hoyt, Tracy Paules and Manuel Taboada.
I am reminded that, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, recently, two students, Quakers, were murdered. Young children. The Quakers reached out not only to the families of the slain but to the family of the slayer. They honoured the lives of the children by supporting peace. This is not supporting peace. This is perpetuating violence and the students deserve more than that. They deserve better than that. Their families deserve better than that. They deserve better than a wall and vengeance.
“I feel like I should have a sign placed on me saying that I remember Christa, but not with this killing.” (Bonnie Flassig, Gainesville resident now and then and a neighbour of Christa Hoyt)
I turn over my phone to glance at the time. 6:14. At 6:13, Danny Rolling was pronounced dead. While I spoke. We killed a man while we talked of him. Obscene.
I think maybe that interview did not make it onto the air.
Good. Maybe they’ll stop calling.
October 28, 2006 at 5:23 PM
thank you for visiting my place and letting me know about you. i will certainly visit here again but i won’t read about rolling again. not anywhere. for lack of better words, thank you for what you and paul did at the wall…. because i never felt it something “planned” but rather something spontaneous, something without an agenda. i think from what i read here today, my thoughts then were right.i dunno, adam. something so much in the very core of what gville was died that summer. i never dwelled on it. shit happens but i didn’t know how much loss i actually felt. i didn’t know any of them but at the same time, i knew all of them, just like i know you, and you know me, as a member of a community, but not as an individual. they were part of our peer group and i suppose maybe those of us in school, etc. at the time felt it differently. but i watched that the community of my peers as their smiles turned tense, their dreams for “after” were somehow different. like a director altering the lighting in a film to create mood, after that terible week the sun had a kind of barely perceptible shadow that changed everything.and now we’re in our 40’s, an age i couldn’t even imagine not so long ago. but after so many years, so many tears, so much loss and grief and wounds kept hidden, i didn’t wake that day even knowing that rolling was set to die. i didn’t really care; the sick media hype years ago disgusted me and i wouldn’t watch it. but it was nearly impossible to escape the other day. i didn’t expect it; i was caught totally by surprise. without warning, the sobs began to pour out. i’m sad what gville was is gone… but nothing lasts forever. nothing lasts forever. thank you.
October 28, 2006 at 6:56 PM
Stunning. So glad to be able to read this. I grew up in the Church of the Brethren, and your words against the death penalty—without condoning actions of the victim in any way—are among the most clear I’ve ever heard. Well put.
October 28, 2006 at 7:59 PM
Boy you brought up old feelings. Rollings impacted us in that he destroyed Gainesville. The city cleared out after the killings and we were forced to move out with an infant and a small child. This man needed to die. He was guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt and was not rehabable. No question except one: Why did it take so long to kill him? 16 years. Isn’t that called cruel and unusual punishment?Your sweetie who is not feeling so sweet today.
October 28, 2006 at 8:20 PM
I can *almost* understand the media thinking their audience is too dumb to understand subtlety or complexity. They’re wrong, of course; they’ve always been wrong about the American people. But for the reporter not to understand how you could be against killing Rolling without blackening the memory of his victims is frankly shocking. It says something about the taste for blood our society has developed.More disturbing still is their (or at least this reporter’s) obsessive focus on Rolling without any mention of the kids or their families. Vengeance vs. compassion, that’s all this world knows. And yet I’m having trouble summoning up some compassion for the reporter in this case. So I guess I’m no better than she is.
October 28, 2006 at 9:24 PM
Adam, I I don’t know how to put into words the few things I desperately want to say, here. I will give it my best shot.Where I work I have heard several people volunteer to “throw the switch” on Rolling. I tell them time and again that I am not supportive of the death penalty, but perhaps Rolling needs to die. There was a small, impromptu party here, at work. I stood against the railing, silently smoking my own cigarette, and acknowledging the need for this meeting, but I wondered if I should say something about the barbary. I said nothing. I read your words, clearly explaining what I have been unable to explain, and a burden is somehow lifted from me. I can now reconcile within myself the difference between the easy solution of repeating what others feel and say and do, and the much more difficult path I have chosen, to stick by my own beliefs and convictions.In my own human arrogance, I think I may have missed that when Odhin said you were here to annoy the rest of humanity into doing…, He meant you will annoy me, too. Again I find wisdom in your words, and I wish for the same widom as we all wish for from time to time, for ourselves and for humanity.Thans, Adam.
October 29, 2006 at 4:43 AM
Indigo,I have been to such a Church as a guest and felt much more at home than I could have imagined in a Christian church. I feel fully at home in UU Churches as well and have found myself in more than one Quaker Meeting and happy to be there. Their stances on the topic at hand tend to be similar.I can remember one amazing broadcast, when America went into Afganistan, a Saturday morning listening to NPR when Scott Simon started his report by stating he was not an unbiased reporter. he had never done this before, but felt he needed to disclose he was a Quaker and a pacifist and was against what he was about to report and would do his best to be non-biased but knew he would fall short.I would as well. And would be proud of it.
October 29, 2006 at 4:58 AM
I moved back to Gainesville in the midst of the murders. My mother and many of my friends thought I was crazy to move back at this time. Ours was the only U-haul coming INTO town. The clerk who checked in the truck didn’t wait for us to sweep it out, didn’t wait for us to fill the tank, didn’t go through any of the officious little rituals involving paperwork in triplicate that such transactions usually entail. He just wanted to hand off the keys. There was a waiting room packed full of people trying to flee the town, people who had let the violence change their plans for the year, maybe for their lives. I did not want to give such things power over me, didn’t want be cowed, didn’t want to let the destruction spread any further than it had, so I had come back anyway, as I had been planning for a couple of months. I didn’t know you (or Paul) then, wouldn’t meet you for some time, and even then it would be a while before I knew that it was you who painted it, but I knew that section of the wall. We all did. The whole city had the names that really mattered etched before us in the stark and beautiful colors of life and death. I had lived in Gainesville before, back when we would walk at all hours of the night (or morning)from the campus all the way downtown, or to and from the Oak-less Mall without a care. So I knew the 34th Street Wall. I knew the utterly transient and ephemeral nature of all that graced or cursed its surface, be it declarations of undying love, or anatomically impossible suggestions directed at a hated rival (or professor). So I was, like you, suprised that the memorial lasted. Throughout the media circus that surrounded the search for their murderer, the memorial lasted, a way to remind us that the students and their families were the appropriate focus for our attention, not the unfortunate scapegoat who was tried and convicted in the press in their haste to 1) blame someone, and 2)make everyone feel safe again so the economy wouldn’t tank, nor the real murderer, when he was finally found.Four years later, when most of those who had actually known them had graduated and moved away, I thought that it was past time for the memorial to go. “We Remember” had ceased to be about them, and had become instead about their manner of death, or even worse, for some, a way of connecting vicariously with what they percieved as the glamour and excitement of a dangerous time. When it was finally made a permanent, state-sanctioned structure, I was horrified. The one thing that had justified its continuation had been the fact that it was being continually re-created out of love and devotion. When the will and love and devotion ceased to be enough to protect it, to recreate it, when it became a burden to be rid of rather than a gift to be given, I felt it should have been allowed to meet its fate along with the thousands of other intense declarations of feeling that had gone before and come after, interred beneath layers of paint, buried beneath the loves and hates and passions of those who never knew them, safely sealed away from the eyes of those for whom the names meant nothing real.And now, there is outrage heaped upon outrage. How is it moral, how is it ethical, for us collectively, as the state, to do what it is unthinkable for us to do individually? If it is wrong for one man to kill another with malice aforethought, how is it suddenly all right for a million men to plan to kill one man? Or for one man to plan to kill thousands? Murder is murder is murder is murder, and a corpse by any other name still stinks to heaven, and yet they call you in your healing time, in your healing space, to ask you to crow over the deliberate killing of another man. Sixteen years later, they plan to kill a man whose name was not worth memorializing, and they ask you to remember, and they ask you to approve. They call you on your way to try to save the lives of those endangered by the state to ask you to endorse state-sponsored killing. Outrage heaped upon outrage.I want you to know that there is at least one other person who thinks that the whole situation is as sick and crazy and bizzare as it seems to you.Peace be with you.
October 29, 2006 at 5:03 AM
Jason,I never forget that rune reading. What I do forget is that it includes me as well. I often annoy myself into doing what is right.There is so much wisdom in the teaching of the Norse. Funny, how I follow examples from two sources of the devine many see as polar opposites. But I do my best to follow the precepts of the Buddha as well. And he taught for us to show compassion.But what do I forget? Obvious, yes? To have compassion for myself.Perhaps I can annoy myself into showing myself more compassion?Maybe I can just have Odin talk with Buddha and they can get back to me.Stick with yoru path, Jason. It has much value and wisdom. As far as writing, Joan Didion said `I don’t know what I think until I write it down.’ Guindon, the cartoonist, said “Writing is nature’s way of letting us know how sloppy our thinking is.” Through writing we discover precisely how and what we are thinking. it is a cognitive activity as much as an artistic one.Finally, Peter Abelard: Against the disease of writing one must take special precautions, for it is a dangerous and a contagious disease.Catchy, eh?
October 29, 2006 at 5:16 AM
Jennie,I would never have a doubt you would understand and in that I find some solice and strength. In that I find the sense in the absurdity.And, I hope, when this essay is someday published, your comment, and what others have said here as well, will sit with it.
October 29, 2006 at 5:29 AM
Thanks for your kind words. I’m glad and honored any time I can manage to give you solace or strength. I’m pretty sure Smithcraft Press would accomodate your wishes regarding publication. What do you think, Sewa Yoleme?
October 29, 2006 at 8:15 PM
Adamus: The Church of the Brethren is an historic peace church, like the Mennonite and Quakers. I was lucky enough to grow in a congregation that had the more activist, less conservative bent. I’m no longer a Christian, but there’s no doubt that those early days seriously affected the way I think about the world. I’ve only been to a couple of UU services, but I felt comfortable there too.The Scott Simon story sounds vaguely familiar (but it may be power of suggestion). Thanks for telling it. I feel so lucky to have stumbled upon your blog at such a time–putting a headline into such first-person reality.
October 29, 2006 at 10:13 PM
Jennie: In a heartbeat. Or a hartbeat, since that’s even faster.
January 31, 2007 at 10:32 PM
First of all, I am not a reporter. I read the rest of the essay. Did you know the murdered studentspersonally? Also, though you may not be interested in this, I just wanted you toknow that my mom agrees with you 99.9%. She does believe the reportershould have cared more about the lives of the murdered than the death ofthe murderer, but she disagrees with you about your take on deathpenalty. You (according to the essay) do not believe you should kill themurderer, because then we would become that which we are trying todestroy. But, do you also believe that we should pay for the murderer tolive when they have enjoyed watching others die?Personally, I agree with you in saying we should not kill the killer,but I don’t think we should pay for them to live in prison. This may besaying I don’t know what to say about the argument, but as Woodrow T.Wilson said “We live in an age disturbed, confused, bewildered, afraidof its own forces, in search not merely of its road but even of itsdirection.”That was a very…moving (not the best word, but adequately describesit) essay. Thanks.
Adam Byrn "Adamus" Tritt
January 31, 2007 at 11:20 PM
One thing I have no problem doing is stating I do not know. There are many things I do not know.I do not know fully how I feel on this issue. I have feelings on it which are ambivalent, at best, ambiguous at worst. My overall feeling is we should not each others to kill and, therefore, should not give that example.Should we pay for him to live? My answer to this is thus: It is the position we set ourselves up in when we created a warehouse system for people who run afoul of the rules we create. So what is right to do? Not ask about the particulars of how the system we created should run but to question the system itself, down to the very basic, fundamental concept upon which it is built. Only when we have examined the foundation can we question the caretaking of the edifice constructed upon it.
September 25, 2010 at 4:19 AM
As usual a brilliant and insightful blog. I will never understand the hubris that allows mankind to believe that execution is anything less than murder. If we are to be judged by some Omnipotent God, I believe the first question he will ask is "why do you think you had the right to mess with my plan, the one you profess to believe? Do you not think that choosing the time of death for one soul was any less hateful than the crime that also used undeserved power to choose a time of death?" If, as I believe we will be judged by our own merits and Karma, then we will ask the same question of ourselves.As you pointed out, first we built the warehouses to keep our prisoners, then we complain about keeping our prisoners. In the huge cost of keeping the warehouse, keeping one more alive costs less than the millions spent on the appeals lawyers put forward and jokingly given as a right to the judged. Either way each person pays – we pay to kill him or to house him. The true cost is the belief that we, "the other", are less violent because we use a "kinder, gentler" way of murder. We the people are paying dearly for that belief, just look around at our youth, they are paying for the sins of the fathers with their own distorted sense of right and wrong. Yes, Karma is a bitch sometimes, and also deserved.