The wind chill was unforgiving in McAlester, Oklahoma, when word arrived outside the state penitentiary that Scott Eizember was dead. The announcement came on the morning of January 12, his official time of death 10:15 a.m. By 10:25, cars were exiting the prison parking lot, rolling by police vehicles and the activists who stood vigil in the bitter cold. Inside, local news reporters heard from the family of Eizember’s victims, A.J. and Patsy Cantrell.
“It’s not a good day for everybody, but it was a good day for victims,” said the Cantrells’ 47-year-old grandson, Justin Wyatt. He did not know whether the execution had brought justice or closure. “I do know that I’m glad that our enemy is dead.” Debra Wyatt, his mother, rejected the notion of closure. “I don’t like people to use that word to me. Because the only way that we would ever have closure is if they came back to us — and we know that’s not gonna happen on this earth.” The Cantrells’ nephew Johnny Melton urged society to address the factors that lead to fatal violence, like mental health problems and domestic abuse. He said he prayed for Eizember’s family. “It is our understanding that he has adult children … and we recognize that they are victims today too.”
Families of the people Oklahoma puts to death are not given a platform to speak. While a victim services representative accompanied the Cantrells’ loved ones, 25-year-old Emily Eizember sat in the car with her father’s attorneys. The three witnessed the execution together. From the gurney, Eizember had mouthed “I love you” to his daughter. Afterward, they drove past the protesters to a budget hotel, where Eizember’s 29-year-old son, Allen, was waiting to give his younger sister a hug. He’d wanted to attend the execution but missed the deadline to get on the witness list. Officials would not let him come inside the prison to say goodbye.
Eizember, who turned 62 just before his execution, was mostly estranged from his children in the nearly 18 years he lived on death row. But in December, Emily had traveled to McAlester to visit her father for the first and last time. She decided to attend the execution “to ensure that my dad’s last breaths were taken in peace,” as she wrote in a text message on her way home. She decried the death penalty as inhumane. “I had that opinion before watching my father’s execution this morning,” but it was even clearer to her now. People who commit such crimes should be in prison, “not strapped to a table at the mercy of another man.” Still, she wrote, “it was nice to see my dad one last time, for he is loved and many on death row are!!!”
For many relatives of the condemned, seeing a loved one before their execution can be prohibitively expensive. Emily’s December visit had been coordinated by Death Penalty Action, which supports death row families, as well as Eizember’s spiritual adviser, Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood. Eizember had made clear to Hood that reconciling with his children could bring him measure of solace that would otherwise remain out of reach. He carried a lot of rage, which he sometimes wielded against his own advocates and loved ones. Yet Eizember was also an important part of the death row community, according to Sue Hosch, the Oklahoma coordinator for Death Penalty Action. “When new people come in, he is one of the ones who helps get them kind of settled,” she said.
“I believe that everybody that saw that execution is gonna be traumatized.”
The days preceding the execution might have been a time when Hood could focus on helping Eizember shed some of his anger and prepare to die. Instead, he’d been embroiled in a lawsuit to force the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to allow him to carry out his duty as Eizember’s clergy of record. Under the state’s execution protocol, spiritual advisers are allowed to stand inside the execution chamber to accompany the condemned. But in early January, the department had tried to bar Hood from the space on the grounds that he was a security threat. On the eve of the execution, the department backed down. But the victory was bittersweet. “I feel good about it,” Hood told me. “But then I’m like, ‘OK, great. You get to watch someone die.’”
Around 10:35 a.m., Hood approached a small wooden podium outside the prison. In a long black robe and round tortoiseshell glasses, he was smiling but subdued, his easy Georgia drawl more muted than usual. Media witnesses described him as shaking inside the execution chamber, but now he was composed, searching for words to describe what he had seen. He kept coming back to “bizarre.” It was bizarre to watch somebody go from a “perfectly healthy human being to a dead human being” in a matter of minutes. He’d watched as Eizember’s face turned purple, as his breath became labored, as he appeared to gurgle, an image he wanted to push out of his mind.
“I believe that everybody that saw that execution is gonna be traumatized,” Hood said. “It’s pointless. Scott was not a threat to anybody.” The execution left him grappling with a feeling of complicity. “There was all of this fight to get me in there,” he said. Now he was questioning whether he had become part of the system he wished to dismantle.
The Serial Killer State
Eizember was the first of 11 people scheduled to be executed in Oklahoma this year. The state’s execution spree began in 2021, when officials broke a six-year moratorium that had followed a string of botched executions and the near-killing of Richard Glossip using the wrong drug in 2015. For the next several years, officials at the department of corrections and state attorney general’s office set about to improve the state’s execution protocol.
Yet Oklahoma restarted executions with few reforms in place — even as a federal lawsuit challenging the revised lethal injection protocol was set to go to trial. When the first execution, in October 2021, went awry, officials were undeterred, carrying out three more before the trial began last February. The court upheld the state’s protocol in June, sparking an onslaught of execution dates. As it stands, Oklahoma plans to kill 20 more people by the end of 2024.
Oklahoma plans to kill 20 more people by the end of 2024.
To Eizember’s longtime attorney Randall Coyne, the scheduled executions are a dark period in a state that has never made it easy to practice capital defense. Oklahoma is now “the serial killer state,” he said wryly. “Come for the executions, stay for the casinos.” In addition to Eizember, Coyne represents two other men slated to die.
The 2003 crimes that sent Eizember to death row were notorious in Oklahoma. The Cantrells, both in their 70s, were killed in their home in the small town of Depew, some 40 miles southwest of Tulsa, where Eizember had just gotten out of jail. He broke into the home because the couple lived across the street from the parents of his ex-girlfriend, Kathy Biggs, who had taken out a protective order against him. He planned to confront her. Although he was convicted for killing both of the Cantrells, Eizember always insisted that he and A.J. Cantrell struggled over a shotgun that he’d found in the house — and that in attempting to shoot Eizember, Cantrell accidentally killed his wife instead. Eizember then overpowered Cantrell, beating him to death.
According to Eizember’s clemency petition, the evidence supported his version of events and should have been critical to showing that he was not guilty of premeditated murder. Coyne emphasized that Eizember was unarmed when he arrived at the home. “Comparing Scott Eizember to the worst of the worst for whom the death penalty is supposedly reserved is not even a close case,” he said. But Eizember became despised as much for the couple’s violent deaths as for the out-of-control rampage that followed. He shot and wounded Biggs’s teenage son, beat her mother, and after running from the law for more than a month, terrorized a couple who offered him a ride, forcing them to drive at gunpoint and leaving them on the side of the road.
For his own part, Eizember maintained that he belonged in prison but that executing him would be nothing more than vengeance. In a series of phone calls with Hood, which he allowed him to release as a podcast, Eizember shared his life story, including his earliest memories. In Eizember’s appeal for clemency, his lawyers wrote that he had been profoundly impacted by childhood trauma, starting with his mother’s suicide (“I still have questions about that,” he told Hood; he suspected that she had actually been murdered) and continuing with emotional and physical abuse by his father, whom he would later discover was actually his stepdad.
Coyne’s contribution to the clemency petition was deeply personal. Although his upbringing was “substantially less dysfunctional” than his client’s, Coyne wrote, “Scott and I both were raised by alcoholic parents. We exchanged personal accounts of seeking the love and approval of parents whose addictions to alcohol rendered them at best remote and insensate, and at worst cruel and physically abusive.” Like Eizember, Coyne had developed a drinking problem and “wreaked havoc on my family.” While the toll of Eizember’s upbringing was obvious, “our friendship made me wonder what price I had paid,” Coyne wrote. “I still search for the answer, but with an acute awareness that but for the grace of God I could be confined to the cell adjacent to his.”
A Win and a Loss
Among the death penalty’s many hidden traumas is the rush of litigation that immediately precedes an execution. Although it can lead a court to spare a person’s life, last-minute stays are often granted only to be lifted shortly thereafter, yanking the condemned and their families through a cycle of terror, hope, and despair. On several occasions, people have laid on the gurney for hours while litigation is resolved, a particular kind of torture that scares people on death row almost as much as a botched execution.
With no remaining legal claims before state or federal courts, Eizember had appeared poised to avoid such chaos. But a week before his execution, a prison chaplain informed him that his request for Hood to accompany him inside the chamber had been denied on security grounds. Hood was on the phone with Eizember at the time and overheard the whole thing. “He said, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’” Hood recalled. Agitated, Hood called veteran capital defense attorney Gregory Gardner.
Gardner has litigated religious liberty claims on behalf of other people on death row. To him, it seemed immediately clear that Oklahoma was violating both Hood’s and Eizember’s constitutional rights. The state had altered its execution guidelines after the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a condemned man in Alabama who requested the company of his spiritual adviser in the execution chamber in 2021. The next year, in Ramirez v. Collier, the justices ruled 8-1 that a spiritual adviser should be allowed to “lay hands” on a person being executed.
Gardner spoke to Coyne, who found the whole thing absurd. Hood had been visiting Eizember for months. “And suddenly, he becomes a dangerous security risk inside an execution chamber that’s filled with guards,” Coyne said. The real problem was that Hood was a vocal anti-death penalty activist. “Our concern was that they were they were banning him because of First Amendment stuff that he had done outside the prison,” Gardner said.
At 5 feet, 7 inches tall, Hood is not what most people would consider menacing. The self-described pacifist and radical preacher had been arrested a handful of times for acts of civil disobedience. One arrest, in 2016, was for stepping forward with his hands up to breach the yellow caution tape that keeps protesters in Texas at a distance from the execution chamber. But Hood said he was loath to get arrested these days — let alone for disrupting an execution, which would involve serious criminal charges and be harmful to his wife and five kids.
Eizember’s lawyers filed a lawsuit against the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, accusing prison officials of violating the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. In response, department spokesperson Josh Ward accused Hood of disrespecting Eizember’s victims and the solemnity of the execution. “Out of respect for the families of victims, ODOC will not allow the outbursts of activists to interfere, regardless of that activist’s declared role in the process.”
Yet the department had not bothered to check with the Cantrells’ loved ones before invoking them. The family was unaware of the controversy until they were contacted by a reporter. “I don’t think we would have any heartburn over his spiritual adviser sitting in, but that’s really not our call,” said Melton, the Cantrells’ nephew.
“I think I will forever feel like an accomplice to a murder.”
After a series of negotiations between Gardner and Oklahoma’s solicitor general, the lawsuit was settled. Although the ODOC initially offered Hood access to the chamber if he would agree to post a $100,000 bond, officials soon agreed to a more rational compromise. In a six-page document, Hood vowed to keep his prayers to “a quiet volume” and not to touch Eizember or “disrupt, delay, or impede the execution.” If he violated the agreement, he would be banned from Oklahoma prisons forever.
Legally it was a victory, Gardner said, although he struggled to label it that way. If they had pushed forward with the lawsuit, “maybe we would have gotten an injunction. Maybe he would have lived another year.” But in the end, his clients were satisfied with the outcome. “You’ve got to see it as a win in that sense, but it’s difficult.”
On the day after Eizember was killed, Hood called sounding a little bit more like himself. He had arrived home to Arkansas in time to see his kids and get a good night’s sleep. Now he was driving to Goodwill to buy books, which he liked to do to take his mind off things.
Perhaps the best thing about the lawsuit, aside from reiterating the rights of all those facing execution in Oklahoma, was that it had shifted the narrative about Eizember. Twenty years of news stories repeating the details of his crimes had given way to articles about his desire to be accompanied in his hour of death. “That’s a very human need,” Hood said.
Still, he remained haunted by a sense of complicity. “I think I will forever feel like an accomplice to a murder,” he said. After all, he had stood quietly at Eizember’s feet while he was killed by the state, doing nothing to stop it. “I think I will forever feel like somehow I was a part of the machine.” People told him not to think of it that way, but he could not help it. “And I don’t know that that’s a bad thing. I think we should probably all feel like that.”