Institutions that carry out the death penalty in the United States tend to be very punctilious about it. Although condemned prisoners spend years, sometimes decades, in carceral limbo, often (as in Texas) under the most abominable conditions, when it comes to the actual killing, everything is neat and clean and proper and documented. All of them: Texas, Florida, Virginia, and the rest. On the killing day, things are orderly and recorded for posterity.
Texas even used to publish what the condemned requested for their last meal and whether or not they actually ate it. Then, a few years ago, as a cost-cutting measure Texas cut out the requested last meal and started giving the about-to-be-dead-men that day’s ordinary prison fare. Who cares what’s in the belly of a man or woman who will be dead before dinnertime?
Most states that kill have on-line sites with information about those waiting to die and those who have been put to death. Nebraska’s site, maintained by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, has a page for each prisoner formatted in red, white and blue. Each page begins, after the header (white letters on a blue field), with the condemned prisoner’s number and name (white letters on a red field).
That is followed by four boxes, all white letters on a blue field: Demographics (name, gender, race, date of birth), Sentence information (Sentence Dates, Parole Information, Release information), Offense information, and Alias Names.
The first man put to death by Nebraska in its current execution sequence was Harold Lamont Otey, whose DCS ID number was 31840. His gender was “Male,” and his race was “Black.” He was born August 1, 1951.
His offense was “Murder 1st Degree.” His Alias, according to the form, was “Walkin’ Willie.” That wasn’t an alias; it was a nickname he got when he was young and worked walking horses at a racetrack in Omaha. There is no field on the form for nicknames, so I assume they fudged on that one.
His sentence began June 20, 1978. His “Projected Release Date” in the Sentence Information block was “DTH.” His total sentence in that same block was “DTH Years Months Days.” His “Minimum Term” was “DTH”; his Maximum Term was “DTH.”
Harold Lamont Otey, according to the friend who brought his case to my attention, entered Death Row illiterate, but while he waited for Nebraska to kill him, he learned to read and write in four languages and published three books of poetry. The NDoCS form notes none of that. There are no fields for such items, and no fields like “Alias” you can slip them into even though that’s not where they really belong.
There are five fields in the “Parole Information” sub-block, but only two of Harold Lamont Otey’s are filled in: the “Next Parole Board Review Date” is “05/1997,” and the “Parole Eligibility Date” is “DTH.”
There are two fields in the “Release Information” sub-block: “Release Date” and “Reason for Release.” Harold Lamont Otey’s release date was “09/02/1994.” The reason for release was “Execution.”
I find many things curious about this document, starting with the fact that it is designed in patriotic red, white and blue. But that’s just design. There are also three more curious matters of substance.
The first is, Harold Lamont Otey’s “Next Parole Board Review Date” is set for two years and eight months after the State of Nebraska killed him. What, I wonder, did the Parole Board have in mind for that session? A coffee break? A séance?
The second is, the only word in the entire document that is not spelled out in full is “Death”: it appears six times as “DTH.” In all six, there is plenty of room for the two missing vowels. Why not spell it out in all six instances: Death, Death, Death, Death, Death, Death?
The third is, on the day of his execution, Harold Lamont Otey had accumulated 567 days of good time—time off for good behavior. What is the relevance of good time to a man whose maximum and minimum sentence is “DTH?”
The form spells out “Execution” as the “Reason for Release.” “Execution” has lots more letters than “Death” and three more vowels.
So it’s not the two vowels that engendered the bizarre spelling.
Perhaps it’s this: “execution” is abstract, and it means lots of things. Wills are executed, orders from a drill sergeant are executed, obligations are executed. It is, as in the three examples I just gave, nearly always passive.
“Death” does not mean lots of things. It is unambiguous and it isn’t in the passive voice. It is something that happens, either because one’s own body can’t hang on any more, because of accident or villainy, or because someone deliberately, consciously, and with forethought brings it about. Death is real and it is specific. Before it happens you are alive; after it happens you are not. It is irreversible and absolute.
That’s the state Harold Lamont Otey entered when he was in the custody of the State of Nebraska on the second day of September 1994: death. He entered it because they killed him.
And the consequence of that active verb—kill—is the word that the official agents of the State of Nebraska refused or could not bear to spell. Six times on a single page they spelled it DTH DTH DTH DTH DTH DTH. That’s not how you spell it. You spell it Death, Death, Death, Death Death. Death.
But we know what those missing vowels are. And we know what they did.
Bruce Jackson’s most recent books are Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prison (University of Texas Press, 2013) and In This Timeless Time Living and Dying on Death Row in America (with Diane Christian, University of North Carolina Press, 2012). The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services page on Harold Lamont Otey is online at http://dcs-inmatesearch.ne.gov/Corrections/InmateDisplayServlet?DcsId=31840