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At the roadblock

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Dusk comes to the State Police roadblock on Arkansas Highway 388, about a half-mile from the Cummins Unit, where two men will be put to death tonight. A cool spring evening here, the broad acre of Delta dirt near the turnoff to the prison as manicured as a golf course, other than the occasional fire ant mound, which the reporters step around like landmines. The two protester pens, pro- and anti-death penalty, are made up of steel fence posts driven into the ground and strung with yellow caution tape. They face each other from opposite corners of the lawn, separated by 100 yards of grass and a wide gulf of belief. In one corner: The state shouldn't kill. In the other: an eye for an eye.

A pride of state trooper prowlers lounge at the roadblock in the shadow of the tidy brick sign that announces you have arrived at the prison. They are clustered around the mothership: a State Police Mobile Command Post built on a semi-truck frame, topped with a mast topped, in turn, by flashing blue lights. A green Army tent is set up nearby, cooled by whirring fans until the chilly dusk sweeps purple over the countryside. Later, several of the prowlers will rush away inexplicably into the night toward the distant highway, taillights trailing out like afterburners, Detroit V-8s growling across the fields in a dragstrip dream: BWAAAAAAAAAA ...

The state boys in their smart blue uniforms, stiff hats and shades, stand outside the tent as evening comes, chatting amiably. Occasionally, one breaks off to head to the port-a-potty at the edge of the field, roughly at the midpoint between the two protester pens, like a border patrol shack regulating travel between two countries. Through an iron gate near the pen for those here to protest the executions of Jack Jones and Marcel Williams, a helicopter, blades drooping, awaits orders in the same livery as the prowlers. Occasionally, the pilots, both in green jumpsuits, stroll to the helicopter from the Army tent as if to check on their charge. The Observer can't help but imagine them whispering to the bird, stroking its aluminum hide, stilling the temperamental beast.

There will be no protesters to cheer on the execution of Williams, but before the execution of Jack Jones, the family of Mary Phillips and her daughter Lacy assembled in the pen nearest the highway. In 1995, Jones entered the Bald Knob accounting office where Mary Phillips was working as a bookkeeper. He tied Lacy, then 11, to a chair before taking her mother into another room. There, Jones raped Mary Phillips before strangling her with a cord from a coffee pot. Then he came back, strangled Lacy unconscious and pistol-whipped her until her skull was fractured and he thought she was dead. The police who arrived at the scene thought the same until they started taking crime scene photos and the flash from the camera caused her to stir.

At the moment Jones is scheduled to die, those there to protest his death begin to toll a bell on a post, hitting it with a five-pound sledge. Across the lawn, members of Phillips' family appear to form a circle to pray. In a nearby car, Jones' sister, Lynn Scott, sits with a friend, crushed and weeping. Later, when she learns that witnesses said her brother's lips moved for up to two minutes after the drugs hit his system, she will stand in the road that curves toward the prison, and cry, and shout into her friend's face that her brother was suffocated by the paralytic vecuronium bromide, that he died in agony. The attorney general will dispute this. True or not, though, that will always be a part of Scott's memory of this night: her brother dying, gasping for breath like a fish yanked up from the deep. On her wrist, where she will see it every waking hour for the rest of her life, is a tattoo that is a copy of the way her brother signed his letters to her.

For now, though, the bell tolls, and the cruisers lounge, and the reporters scribble in the gloaming as the sound of the bell spills out onto the fields to be found by distant ears. Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, a protester says into a megaphone. It tolls for thee.

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