New Bonne Terre execution area termed ‘ready’

The new chamber has many upgrades.
Wednesday, April 13, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:20 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

BONNE TERRE — Barring an appellate court’s intervention, within weeks, Donald Jones could make history as the first Missouri inmate to see a place few prisoners ever care to see — the state’s new execution chamber.

Previewed for reporters Tuesday, Missouri’s new execution area was termed ready at the maximum-security prison in this eastern Missouri town. Jones, convicted of killing his grandmother, is scheduled to die by injection April 27.

Missouri has executed 62 men — all by injection — since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1989, most recently putting Stanley Hall to death March 16. The first inmate executed in modern times — George “Tiny” Mercer — was put to death at the prison in Jefferson City. The other 61 executions were carried out at the Potosi Correctional Center, about 25 miles west of Bonne Terre and its Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center.

The correctional center opened in 2003 and houses roughly 2,500 inmates, just shy of its capacity of 2,684.

When it comes to executions, “it was built for this,” Department of Corrections spokesman John Fougere said of Bonne Terre’s death chamber. “At Potosi, we had to retrofit that area in.”

Condemned prisoners — of which there are now 54 in Missouri — will continue to be housed at Potosi and be brought to the Bonne Terre prison to wait out the days and hours before their execution.

Some things are unchanged: Viewing areas for reporters and other state witnesses, representatives of the inmate’s family, and witnesses on the victim’s behalf will be separated during the execution.

The table onto which the inmate will be strapped remains in the chamber’s center, near a hole in a cinderblock wall.

Upgrades include two-tiered viewing areas far more spacious than those at Potosi, where witnesses often were crammed elbow-to-elbow in plastic chairs on creaking wooden platforms.

A few paces from the new execution room is the inmate’s holding cell, measuring 12 feet by 12 feet. Unlike its Potosi predecessor, the new chamber is larger and now sports a shower. There’s also a metal cot and a toilet, shielded by a half partition.

While inmates put to death at Potosi often looked each of the reporters and other state witnesses in the eye during the execution, the inmate’s view of the media and the victim’s family will now be obstructed by mirrored glass.

Windows at each witness station are considerably larger than those at Potosi, though still with Venetian blinds.

Getting to the execution area also is less confusing. The death chamber at Bonne Terre is not far from the prison’s main entrance and next to the visiting area, far less of a walk than the Potosi site where witnesses were taken on a maze of a hike into that prison’s innards through a series of motorized steel doors.

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