The First and Only Time I Stood in an Execution Chamber

Death chamber, North Carolina (Photo: Center for Death Penalty Litigation)

This poem from Racist Roots: Origins of North Carolina’s Death Penalty, a comprehensive project by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. The project includes more than 30 pieces, including essays and opinion, interviews, poems and artworks. It also chronicles the death penalty’s evolution over time, and connects each piece to a broader historical framework. Please go to their site to see this piece in its original format and explore the ways it connects to the death penalty’s history.


The first and only time I stood in an execution chamber

all I heard was stillness and the soft

symphony of breath. We were a congregation

of lowered heads and sunken shoulders trying

to understand what gave this country the right

to kill someone in our name. The table was long

and blue, its leather upholstery covering

a thin layer of foam padding. There were seven

discolored brown and blue straps that stretched

across the width of the bed, each of them locked

and pulled tight. There was a small pillow at the top

of the table where the condemned was meant

to lay their head, and another set of straps that came

down over their shoulders. About a foot below

the pillow on either side of the bed was the place

where the soon-to-be-executed lay their arms.

On each of these arm-length extensions was a leather

strap meant to be tightened near the person’s elbow,

a faded blend of grey and brown, taut leather

that had cracked with age. The straps, and their

procession of small notches, dangled below the table.

At the foot of the table were two shackles, their silver

metal glimmering under the florescent lights.

I think of those sentenced to die by juries who looked

nothing like them. I think of those sentenced to die

who left their families behind. I think of those sentenced

to die for something they were too young to understand.

I think of those sentenced to die who did not do

what they have been told they did. I think of all

the ways this country failed them before they ended

up in this room. I feel the hot rush of blood behind my

ears, the shame of being alive in a room built to kill.

Clint Smith is a poet and scholar who works as a staff writer at  The Atlantic. He is the author of the award-winning book of poetry, Counting Descent, and a forthcoming non-fiction book, How the Word Is Passed, which explores how different historical sites reckon with, or fail to reckon with, the history of slavery.

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