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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

In the End, All Build Up, No Execution

February 26, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Dead man missing.

As a proponent of executing serial killer William G. Bonin, I wanted to watch the miserable creep die shortly after midnight Friday. Really! I couldn't have cared less what he ate for his last meal. Or that he spent some of his last evening watching "Jeopardy!" Or that his cell on San Quentin's death row was 13 steps from the former gas chamber where he was to depart for the big dumper via lethal injection. Or if reporters invited to witness his death were jittery. Or if he said anything quotable before dying. Or whether he was remorseful, defiant or just didn't give a damn as he took his last breath.

I didn't care one hoot.

He wasn't a lab specimen beneath a microscope. He was a confessed "freeway killer" and sadist.

I just wanted to see him go out, see it with my own eyes instead of getting it secondhand through television, radio or newspaper reports. Not because I expected that it would be pleasant--I didn't--but because I needed to know if I still could favor capital punishment in limited cases after seeing the ritual of state killing carried out, needed to know if I truly had the guts of my convictions.

That would be possible if executions were televised (yes, here I go again)--as they most definitely should be, with certain restrictions. But they aren't and may never be, thanks to most of society, in this case Californians, being too squeamish about confronting the prospective nightmare of the killing policy they endorse.

So instead we get theater.

"The countdown to death is on!" Paul Moyer announced from Burbank on KNBC-TV Channel 4 at11 p.m.

TV formats intervened, though, so the countdown on Channel 4, KCBS-TV Channel 2 and KABC-TV Channel 7 ended shortly after 11:30 p.m., when their local newscasts ended, about 40 minutes before Bonin himself ended at 12:13 a.m.

The countdown on Los Angeles airwaves had begun much earlier, and ticked especially loudly at 10 p.m., when independent stations ran live reports from their reporters at San Quentin. (Each major Los Angeles station posted at least one reporter outside the prison, and a couple also had reporters on the official observer list.)

"His final words, his last words--you'll hear what he has to say," Hal Fishman proclaimed on KTLA-TV Channel 5 before throwing it to Ron Olsen outside San Quentin.

Those "final words," those "last words," came in a phone interview Bonin had done with KQED-FM radio in San Francisco and that now resonated in newscasts everywhere, assigning undeserved importance to the thoughts zooming the freeways of his mind as he faced the big needle. Did he seek forgiveness for his murders? Did he forgive us for killing him? How was "Jeopardy!"?

On Channel 4, meanwhile, Moyer was mentioning "a date with the executioner." A graphic bannered "Dead Man Walking." Outside San Quentin, demonstrators against capital punishment were titled "Dreading the Moment," while supporters of executing Bonin were titled "Awaiting the Moment."

Channel 4's Rick Chambers was about to witness the moment. As Kelly Lange asked him to assess "the mood inside" San Quentin, competing Channel 2 was showing Bonin's execution chamber with the graphic: "Date With Death. Where He'll Die." Later it was "Date With Death. The Final Hour."

Much more striking on several stations was a juxtaposition of pre-execution coverage with commercials for the movie, "Dead Man Walking," whose ad buyers obviously knew they'd have a natural tie-in with what was predictably that night's big story.

Talk about your life/art blurs. Although it wasn't Sean Penn getting strapped in at San Quentin, the nearing execution of Bonin was helping sell the movie that brought the actor his present Oscar nomination. Weird.

Only minutes after Jay Leno's last one-liner on "The Tonight Show," Channel 4's Kim Baldonado reported from San Quentin that Bonin had completed his 13 steps to death. And Friday morning, the eyewitnesses weighed in on station after station like veterans of the surreal.

"When the curtain first opened, he was lying on his back."

"There were two major lunges of his stomach, then immediately after that there seemed to be something around his mouth, some movement. That was it."

"It was amazingly calm. The guy looked like he was asleep."

"This is the easiest, most clean way to go."

"About two chest heaves, he turned purple, that was it."

Just how calm and how clean, and what shade of purple Bonin turned, we'll never know. But thank goodness for movies, for we'll always have Sean. And they still televise the Oscars, don't they?

*

DON'T ASK: He wasn't asked during his recent interview on Black Entertainment Television. Nor is he asked by hired interviewer Ross Becker during the 90-minute interrogation segment of his mail-order video he's now pitching, even after he says, "I didn't need to take the witness stand. I had a constitutional right. [But] I wanted to take the witness stand."

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