The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

The Witness to the Execution: Whose Justice Is the State Serving?

I had never been to one of these before. One hadn't happened in the last 11 months; 11 months ago I wasn't really sure if I cared. Now I do. I don't know why I really got involved, even though I supposedly cared about justice. Of course, the definition of justice varies from person to person. Now I know how to define it. Many would call what I witnessed justice, a punishment befitting of the actions of Michael Sexton. You see, 10 years ago, Michael Sexton killed someone. Thursday, Nov. 9, the state killed him.

I paced around outside the prison with dozens of others, some holding candles, others engaged in strained conversation, still others sitting in silent prayer. We were of different backgrounds, different faiths, different cities and from different organizations. Yet as the hours slowly dragged by and the clock inched toward the hour of two, we were as one, united in indignation and sadness over the human life that was to be ended only several hundred yards from where we stood.

Upon my arrival at the prison I was restless and uncertain, filled with dread over the impending act, yet still in denial that it really would happen. I didn't know exactly where to go, and my cousin and I drove around in circles. Every wrong turn seemed to run us into more police. Twice, we were stopped by cops for unknowingly turning into the wrong area. A third time, we ventured across the street from the prison only to run into a dozen cop cars shrouded by fog. That image stuck with me for the night and is still vivid at the time of this writing.

After much trepidation and no small amount of fear and discomfort, we arrived at the vigil. A prayer was being read over a bullhorn. We stopped and listened. Still, the impending execution was still hard to comprehend. Surely, the governor would realize the unfairness and finality of the act and call it off, or at least grant a reprieve. Yet, as the minutes ticked by, I realized with discomforting certainty that my optimism was ill-founded.

The time neared 12, and more prayers were set to be read. The reading began over the bullhorn, and the crowd gathered in attention. Soon after, the street sweeper came rolling down Western Boulevard. At first, I was annoyed at the noise. But moments later I became angry. The street sweeper represented a normal activity, a normal activity that went on even though a man was to be put to death. The sweeper went on up the road following the route that it probably takes every night. It was sterile and systematic, just like the illusion perpetrated by the Department of Corrections.

Another hour of waiting ensued. I milled around the crowd without any real direction. For reasons I'm still not completely sure of, I didn't want to sit down. So I kept walking around, occasionally talking to others, friends and allies in this fight of utmost importance, all the while waiting for the last minutes of Michael Sexton's life to slip away.

One o'clock came, and we gathered together for another prayer, the last public prayer of the night for Sexton. As if on cue, the street sweeper came down from the other side of the street. At this point, I was too numb to really care, although I could feel the anger rising inside of me. At the conclusion of the prayer, we set out for an hour of silent mediation. Some congregated together; others went and secluded themselves. I was in the latter group and went to the far edge to experience solitary sadness for the tragedy that was about to unfold.

About half an hour later, I walked back toward my friends, not really knowing what to do. I just wandered around. As the hour approached, several of us stood together, facing the prison, the place where Michael Sexton spent his final moments on this earth. We watched together as the fog I saw upon my arrival descended upon the complex.

The appointed hour came and went as we waited, arms around each other, each dealing with this in his or her own way. I brushed several tears aside, but steeled myself, wanting to appear strong in the face of this adversity. I was filled with anger and rage, those feelings suppressing the extreme sadness I feel as I write this. I couldn't then, and still can't now, absolve my own feelings of guilt over the fact that this was allowed to take place. Others cried openly, hung their heads, bowed in prayer or lay in crumpled heaps upon the ground. The support I felt from those around me helped me through.

The minutes dragged by with no announcement; veterans of the anti-death penalty movement said it had never taken this long. Shortly after 2:30 a.m., a full 30 minutes after the initial poison entered the veins of Michael Sexton, he was pronounced dead. The ambulance carrying his body out weaved through the parking lot. Prison officials and guards cascaded out of the building, the sounds of laughter emitting from a few.

The fog had lifted. I am not a religious person, but on this night I hope Michael Sexton went on to a better place. The crime he committed was terrible, none of us deny that, but the way he went was just as terrible. The state had committed murder and those responsible refused to address the issue. My only solace is that Michael Sexton knew that people out there cared about him when he went, more than anyone cared about him in his entire tragic life. This experience has shaped me in many ways, many of them negative.

Yet I will be out at the prison on Wednesday when the state executes Marcus Carter.

Nick Wood is a senior communications major from Richland, Va. Reach him at

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

Special Print Edition
The Daily Tar Heel Victory Paper for November 20, 2023