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How Did This Professor End Up Witnessing an Execution?

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Was anyone prepared to be a non secular adviser to Orlando Hall, a Muslim man on demise row with a fast-approaching execution date? That’s the query that went out by e-mail to an area group of interfaith leaders in Indiana. Nobody answered.

After every week with out responses, the administration professor Yusuf Ahmed Nur stepped ahead. A Somali immigrant who volunteered at his native mosque, Nur would counsel Hall within the weeks main as much as his execution. But Nur by no means anticipated to face beside Hall within the execution chamber as he was put to demise.

“That’s when it hit me,” Nur says. “You feel like you’re complicit, that you are cooperating with the system. They assign you a role to play in this execution.”

This week on The Experiment: One man finds himself on the middle of our authorized system, and witnesses what will get sacrificed within the pursuit of justice.

Further studying: “Trump Is Putting the Machinery of Death Into Overdrive”


Be a part of The Experiment. Use the hashtag #TheExperimentPodcast, or write to us at theexperiment@theatlantic.com.

This episode was produced by Alvin Melathe, Gabrielle Berbey, and Julia Longoria, with enhancing by Matt Collette and Katherine Wells. Fact-check by William Brennan. Sound design by David Herman. Special due to Katie Bishop and Najib Aminy.


Music by water characteristic (“double blessing ii”), Keyboard (“Being There,” “More Shingles,” “My Atelier,” “Small Island”), and Parish Council (“Heatherside Stores”) supplied by Tasty Morsels.


(Ethereal, ethereal digital music performs, then stops.)

Julia Longoria: Alvin, I don’t suppose I’ve ever stated your final identify out loud. How do I say it?

Alvin Melathe: It’s Mel-eth.

Longoria: Mel-eth. Am I doing that proper?

Melathe: Mhm.

Longoria: So, Alvin Melathe, why are we right here right now?

Melathe: Why … [Both chuckle.] Why are you utilizing my authorities identify like that? (Both snicker.)

(Quiet, light background music performs. It’s reflective and solemn, and it fades out virtually imperceptibly.)

Longoria: Alvin Melathe is a producer at The Experiment. And we began speaking about one thing he’s been enthusiastic about for some time now.

Melathe: So this summer time, in July, I noticed that the federal authorities had executed somebody.

Longoria: Hmm.

Melathe: And I keep in mind studying about it within the information on the time, and being just a little shocked by it as a result of, , there are states that do executions usually, however the federal authorities hasn’t truly executed somebody in 17 years. The final time was in 2003. There had been none within the ’70s and the ’80s and the ’90s. Like, it’s simply not a factor that we do fairly often.

Longoria: Huh. I didn’t absolutely notice it had been that lengthy.

Melathe: Yeah, I hadn’t both. And I believe I used to be truly making an attempt to make sense of easy methods to really feel about it. And then, two days later, they executed another person.

(New music is available in. It’s nonetheless solemn, but it surely makes itself identified—it’s just a little louder, and rings extra.)

Melathe: And then, a day after, they executed another person. And then two extra within the subsequent month. And then two extra the month after that.

And I simply couldn’t cease enthusiastic about the truth that the federal authorities says they do that on our behalf.

(More devices be part of the background music.)

Melathe: It’s only a bizarre factor to have the federal government kill somebody in your behalf. Like, battle and the demise penalty, proper? It’s, like, the 2 occasions that somebody does violence in your identify.

(The music performs for a second with no narration.)

Melathe: I simply felt actually far-off from it, and I needed to attempt to get nearer to it—or a minimum of attempt to perceive precisely what’s being achieved in my identify. So I began studying about every of the executions.

(Slowly, the background music fades out.)

Melathe: And one of many issues I came upon was that these killings had been all truly taking place in the identical room within the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. And, at every of the executions, there can be the individual being executed, and the jail officers—, one with a stethoscope to declare the time of demise.

But the eighth execution was for a person named Orlando Hall. He was a Black man from Arkansas who was discovered responsible of homicide by an all-white jury. And, for him, there was one different individual within the room. He wasn’t a jail official. He had nothing to do with the case. He was only a civilian. And so I known as him.

Yusuf Ahmed Nur: My identify is Yusuf Ahmed Nur. I’m a professor on the enterprise faculty, Indiana University Kokomo. And I train strategic administration and worldwide enterprise.

Melathe: He’s a [Intonation rises in surprise.] enterprise professor.

Longoria: What was a enterprise professor doing in a demise chamber?

Melathe: He answered an e-mail [“Email” is said with a rising intonation, emphasizing the absurdity of the connection. Longoria chuckles lightly.] to be Orlando’s non secular adviser. I didn’t learn about this at first, however within the U.S. we’ve determined that the First Amendment provides folks on demise row the correct to a non secular adviser from no matter faith they belong to. And so Yusuf, who wasn’t paid to be there, simply form of stepped into this entire factor. He volunteered to do it, truly.

And I believe I needed to know what sort of individual does that—and what he noticed.

Nur: I by no means thought I’m an emotional individual, however each time I keep in mind and I speak about my expertise within the demise chamber … I grow to be emotional. Every time I speak about it, I really feel emotional about it.

Melathe: Yeah.

Nur: Yeah.

Melathe: Well, if there’s a degree the place it simply seems like that you must take just a little break, that’s fully okay.

Nur: Yeah, it’s—it’s going to be only a pause. I’ll be quiet perhaps for a number of seconds.

Melathe: That’s okay.  

Nur: (After a quick pause.) Yeah.

(After a beat, the ethereal music performs in once more.)

Longoria: This week, a dialog with a person who acquired very near the demise penalty within the United States. Producer Alvin Melathe brings us the story of a person who couldn’t look away.

I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment, a present about our unfinished nation.

(The music swells, and stays at that degree for a protracted second earlier than fading away.)

Nur: You know, I’m of nomadic background. I used to be born within the nomadic space of Somalia.

Melathe: Yusuf Ahmed Nur grew up in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.

Nur: It was one of many quietest city proper on the Indian Ocean. I grew up swimming. Just heat climate, humid, however completely beautiful. I liked it.

Melathe: Outside of the water, although, Yusuf stated he had a reasonably sad childhood.  Both of his mother and father died when he was 5 years outdated. He was raised by an aunt in a rustic that was beneath a navy dictatorship. He spent a variety of time by himself. One of the one methods he discovered to flee was via books.

Nur: There are so many issues which might be unexplained issues. Reading makes you … It broadens your thoughts. It broadens your horizon. It makes you concentrate on issues.

Melathe: He acquired a membership to the American library to apply his English, and he began studying all these books in regards to the U.S.

Nur: I learn virtually every little thing in regards to the United States. You know, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I keep in mind studying Roots. The Autobiography of Malcolm X,   Margaret Mitchell’s [Chuckles.] Gone With the Wind. To Kill a Mockingbird. And so I suppose they had been well-liked on the time. And, uh, I completely didn’t get it. [Laughs.] I completely missed the message and the nuances, as a result of—coming from Somalia with, , nothing like that exists. Somalia could be very homogeneous. The idea of “Black”—it doesn’t exist in Africa, ? [Laugh.] This coloration that Americans are so fixated on … doesn’t exist. People don’t suppose they’re Black there. The first time you hear that you simply’re Black is right here in America when folks describe you, and then you definitely go searching—“Are they talking about me?” You know, one thing like that. [Melathe laughs.] And so that you don’t … It doesn’t register with you.

Melathe: In some methods, Yusuf has all the time been an observer of the U.S.—on the skin, wanting in. He first got here right here in 1986 to do an MBA program. He by no means truly meant to remain.

Nur: It was purely unintended. I used to be going to return, however then issues had been getting worse.

Melathe: Back in Somalia, Yusuf’s mates had been beginning to agitate for democracy. The navy dictatorship there arrested a variety of them, even threatened some with execution. Yusuf thought that if he went again, he’d be in the identical boat. So he utilized for political asylum within the U.S., and acquired it. He acquired married to a white lady from the South, and immediately discovered himself with two American youngsters.

Nur: What actually shocked me was that … I’ve two sons. They don’t take the form of dangers that I take. To offer you an instance, my son and I went to get a bike. He’s making an attempt to get me into bike using. So we went to a city that’s about two hours’ drive from right here. And he needed to pee. And, , I experience bikes, and if I have to pee, I simply cease and go behind a tree. I don’t give a second thought in any respect, ? But he was very cautious.

(Slow, weighty music performs.)

Nur: He was pondering, I don’t understand how folks will react to me in the event that they see me there. And my son may simply move for an Arab. He’s combined. He would mix in. He doesn’t stand out as, , Black.

So it actually shocked me, that—his perspective about what he can do and the way apprehensive he’s about how folks would view him and the way they’d react. And we went forwards and backwards and forwards and backwards. And [Exhales.] it by no means actually crossed my thoughts that he developed that form of perspective. And it’s as a result of he was introduced up right here! He’s listening to every little thing, , all of the racial points and all of the racial ramifications.

That form of perspective of taking dangers and never worrying about how folks will react to or what they’d say and simply … It could also be a part of the Somali character, I don’t know. But I nonetheless have that Somali perspective. And I discover it’s actually unusual, the form of dangers—quote-unquote “risks”—that I take.

Melathe: Throughout his profession, Yusuf ended up educating everywhere in the nation. But irrespective of the place he went within the U.S., he all the time made it a degree to discover a mosque.

Nur: I’ve all the time been—since I got here right here—I’ve all the time been concerned within the Muslim communities. Wherever I am going, I’ve all the time been very lively.

Melathe: He’d gone to Muslim elementary colleges and excessive colleges. He’d grown up studying the Quran. So when he lastly landed in Bloomington, Indiana, he did what he all the time did. He acquired concerned together with his native mosque.

Nur: I’m one of many elders. And I’m additionally concerned within the multi-faith motion in Bloomington. We do a variety of interfaith issues with them. And so, a minister of the Unitarian Universalist church emailed us about Orlando.

Melathe: And what did the e-mail say?

Nur: It stated that there’s a person who was on demise row, and he wants a Muslim individual to be his, uh, counselor—his non secular counselor.

Melathe: The execution was slated to occur in a number of weeks on the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, simply an hour’s drive from Bloomington. They wanted somebody accustomed to Islam to counsel the person. But the mosque in Bloomington is all volunteer. There’s no paid clergy who can be the form of default individual to do that.

Nur: So it’s form of a really democratic faith in that respect. So, after perhaps every week, I didn’t see any response to that. So I requested if anyone responded to that e-mail, they usually stated, “No, nobody has responded.”

Melathe: So Yusuf Googled the person on demise row. His identify was Orlando Hall. In 1995, Orlando was convicted of the kidnapping, rape, and homicide of a 16-year-old named Lisa Rene. He and one other man drove Lisa from her house at the back of a automobile. They poured gasoline over her, after which they buried her alive. Orlando was 23 on the time. When Yusuf acquired the e-mail, Orlando had been on demise row for greater than 20 years.

Melathe: When you had gotten the e-mail, initially, and browse it, what was your feeling? Was your feeling Someone else goes to do that?

Nur: Yeah. I used to be pondering that [Laughs.] someone would do it, however, deep down, I knew that, normally, issues which might be disagreeable, it often falls on me. [Melathe laughs.] So I made a decision to do it the second I spotted that no one else was going to do it.

Melathe: Why not simply let the e-mail go?

Nur: You know, you could have a fellow human being who’s on demise row, and they’ll kill him. And so it was—it was … I didn’t actually give it some thought. It’s identical to, This man wants assist, and he’s looking for someone to speak to, and that’s the least you are able to do. It entails some sacrifice, however in comparison with what he’s going via, what I’m going to do is a chunk of cake.

Melathe: So Yusuf determined to satisfy Orlando. He drove about an hour to Terre Haute, went in …

Nur: And I used to be accompanied by this jail official, who took me via a number of heavy metallic doorways, via an elevator, and eventually to the visitation room, the place I used to be on one facet of the room, and he’s on the opposite facet of the room, and we’re separated by a glass wall.

Melathe: So what do you first say to Orlando?

Nur: Well, , greeting—Muslim greetings—“Peace be with you,” inArabic. That was our first change.

Assalamu alaikum, brother. Wa alaikum assalam.

The allotted time is from 9 ’til three. And I spent these six hours with him that first time.

But one factor that I needed to know was—no matter he did—that he was, contrite, that he was sorry, that he was regretful, and so it’s one of many first issues that we talked about. And it was very clear to me that he regretted what he did, or the position he performed within the killing of that younger lady. Whether he was responsible or not, I made a decision that that half was not my job. That was not my position.

Right away, I may see that he was already, , reconciled to his destiny. He was not nervous. He was prepared. Part of Islamic educating is that everyone’s going to die. It’s not about the way you die. It’s everyone has a time and a day and an hour the place they die, and also you simply settle for it. And so he was reconciled, although he didn’t consider that he ought to die.

Melathe: And what sorts of questions did he have for you?

Nur: We talked about Islam normally. He studied, completely, Islam. He knew loads. He introduced his books. He introduced a replica of the Quran in English. And so we talked about, , spiritual ideas, spiritual philosophy. We talked in regards to the demise penalty in Islam.

And so we additionally talked in regards to the political facet of American executions and the truth that the speed of executions is far larger, and the speed of incarceration in America is far larger. You know, extra African Americans are incarcerated, percentage-wise, than whites.

And, , he even talked about the truth that this string of executions—they began with a white man. And he stated, , “Who do they think they are fooling? They started with a white guy just to show that they’re not targeting African Americans. But,” he stated, “they’re not fooling anybody. Two-thirds of the people there in death row in Terre Haute,” he stated, “were nonwhite.”

(A droning sound performs, giving approach to delicate background music.)

Melathe: Yusuf met with Orlando two extra occasions. And, via his lawyer, Orlando requested Yusuf for one ultimate favor: If Yusuf can be within the room with him when the execution occurred.

Nur: And I stated, “I don’t want to do that. I really don’t want to be there. But, if he wants me to be there, I am going to be there. That’s the least I can do.”

(The music performs for a second with no narration.)

Melathe: The day of the execution, Yusuf made the lengthy drive to Terre Haute via the altering leaves on State Road 46. He met with Orlando very first thing within the morning they usually went over final rites.

And then he waited.

Later that night time, a guard introduced him into the execution room.

Nur: The sufferer is mendacity down on the gurney, proper in the midst of the room, nearer to the wall, the other wall. Oone of the lengthy partitions, the other wall, is the place the home windows are, glass home windows. And so I may see the home windows which might be the media and the household room. And Orlando may see them as a result of the gurney, the torso half, is raised just a little bit. So you may see that he can see them whereas mendacity down there, strapped to the gurney.

Melathe: And the place are you standing?

Nur: I’m standing proper beside him. And on both sides of the gurney are the executioners, one on both sides. And by the point we acquired there, he was already strapped on the gurney. He was coated with what regarded like a hospital blanket. It’s prefer it was intentionally designed to make it seem like a benign surgical procedure in a hospital. And, uh, so I used to be not allowed to strategy him earlier than they began releasing the poison. I’ve to face—preserve a distance from the gurney. Orlando and I’m speaking, and I might—, I’ve already defined to him what we might be doing, the final rites that he would recite. And he—on his personal—I imply, he began doing it on his personal. I actually didn’t have to assist him in any method. He simply began reciting on his personal. And he stored reciting even after they began releasing the poison. He was reciting, uh, the prayers that he knew in Arabic.

(Al Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Quran, is recited. The prayer fades out, as if echoing down a protracted hallway. Music performs up at some point of a breath earlier than the narration resumes.)

Melathe: How do you know when he was gone?

Nur: He stopped reciting.

And then inside seconds, his mouth opened, broad, like he began yawning. And afterward, I learn: Yawning, that’s a sign that they will’t breathe. They’re making an attempt to breathe, however they will’t. So it’s like drowning. And so he yawned a lot of occasions—a minimum of 3 times—after which he was gone.

(A second of no narration, simply music.)

Nur: The time that you’re ready, that’s probably the most troublesome time. That’s once you begin pondering. That’s when it hits you. It’s quiet. Nobody’s saying something. Everybody’s ready. Waiting for the physician to return and pronounce him useless. That’s when it hits you the way surreal it’s. How absurd it’s.

Melathe: Back when Yusuf first took the project—to counsel Orlando—it felt easy to him. Instinctual, even. He noticed a fellow human being in want, and he determined he would assist. But that second after Orlando died, the entire thing stopped feeling so easy.

Nur: I’m on this room, and I’m collaborating within the killing of a fellow human being that just some hours in the past was wholesome. They assign you a task to play on this execution. That’s when all of those ideas crowd into your thoughts.

(Another second with out narration, solely music.)

Melathe: The aftermath, after the break.

(The music ebbs and flows, like an digital tide.)

(A muted ringing, as if of oversize wind chimes, performs, after which goes quiet.)

Melathe: Just a little earlier than midnight on November 19, the United States executed Orlando Hall. Yusuf was standing proper beside him.

Nur: And, , it’s all of those ideas that crowd your thoughts.

Melathe: Yusuf regarded across the room. Once Orlando was gone, it was simply him and the executioners.

Nur: You simply … How surreal it’s, like we’re the excessive clergymen of this sacrifice. That we’re sacrificing … It, , it makes you return enthusiastic about, , when folks used to sacrifice people to their gods. It’s like that, that we’re the excessive clergymen, and we’re sacrificing this human being to fulfill some form of a—not spiritual ceremony, however a secular ceremony.

Melathe: Did you are feeling like a type of excessive clergymen too?

Nur: Yeah, precisely. You know, it hits me that I’m collaborating on this, and I’m enjoying a task that they assigned me to form of legitimize what they’re doing, or furnish this spiritual, non secular facet, the place they’re offering the secular facet of the sacrifice. When you’re left to your ideas, you say, “Ah, see, that’s exactly how they planned it.” But then I’ll appropriate myself and say, “The only reason I’m there is because—if it were not for him wanting me to be there, I wouldn’t be there.” And by the way in which, that’s when it hit me why he needed me to be there, as a result of, in that room, I used to be the one buddy he had. The different folks there got here to kill him. I used to be the one one he may look [at] and say, “You know, that person doesn’t intend any evil towards me.”

(Music enters, mild, virtually hopeful.)

Melathe: What had been you pondering in your drive again?

Nur: Oh, earlier than I went house, I used to be, uh … I didn’t anticipate it to have an effect on me the way in which it did.

[After a long pause, Nur clears his throat, then speaks.] It was actually traumatic. And I used to be actually indignant. I used to be very indignant.

I used to be indignant on the entire system that introduced us to that time. It’s the system that permits them to do this. It’s the system that segregates folks. It’s the system. That—that’s what that you must sort out, is the system that permits that to occur time and time once more. And those that perpetuate it, and people who assist it, and people who profit from it. And you need to handle that if you would like this to alter.

Despite the trauma and the anger and … Uh, I—I’m glad I did it.

Melathe: I imply, I believe I used to be simply making an attempt to consider your decisions right here—your determination to choose in. ’Cause you’re not truly doing the executing, but it surely does strike me that you simply made a selection right here to contain your self in one thing you didn’t must.

Nur: Well, , you can not resolve an issue should you run away from it. You know, that’s what I inform my kids, as a result of they’re disgusted with the system right here. My son—that I instructed you we went to get the bikes—he talks about on a regular basis, “I want to move out of here. I want to, you know, move to Canada or New Zealand, or …” And I stated to him, “Look, during all the struggle—African Americans’ struggling here, all of the people who were killed, during the civil-rights movement—look how much they accomplished, those who stayed put, those who worked hard. Some of the rights we enjoy here is because of their sacrifice. You were born here, you belong here, and—and things are going to get better.” I’ve lived right here, in Bloomington—neglect about wherever else—longer than I lived wherever else. So though I might get pleasure from being again in Somalia, my kids are right here, and my grandchildren are right here. I’m not going wherever. I’ll contribute to the wrestle as a lot as I can.

(A lush soundscape enters, like digital handbells.)

Melathe: Not lengthy after Orlando was killed, Yusuf acquired one other name. There was one other Muslim man on demise row, named Dustin Higgs. Dustin, it turned out, wanted a non secular adviser too.

Nur: I simply felt obligated, ? Uh, this man who’s going to be executed, he needs you to be there. That’s the least you are able to do. What else are you able to do? You can’t say no. I imply, how will you say no?

(The music performs up, then fades out.)

Melathe: On January 16, 2021, Yusuf was current on the execution of Dustin Higgs. Dustin was the thirteenth and ultimate individual executed by the Trump administration.

Nur: Yes, I suppose it’s human nature to grow to be inured to issues. We can get used to virtually something. You know, like these guys whose job is to execute folks. They get used to it. So, uh, [Sighs.] I hope I by no means get used to it. But I wouldn’t change what I did. I might do it once more.

I hope I by no means do it once more. I hope that Dustin will make historical past and be the final individual executed by the United States authorities.

(The music performs on a loop.)

Nur: Let’s hope, let’s hope.

(Again on a loop, the music performs for a number of seconds earlier than the credit start.)

Tracie Hunte: This episode was produced by Alvin Melathe, Gabrielle Berbey, and Julia Longoria, with enhancing by Matt Collette and Katherine Wells. Fact-check by William Brennan. Sound design by David Herman. Music by Tasty Morsels. Special due to Katie Bishop and Najib Aminy.

Our staff additionally consists of Natalia Ramirez, Emily Botein, and me, Tracie Hunte.

If you want what you heard in right now’s episode, inform a buddy to hearken to the present. And don’t neglect to charge and assessment us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listened to this episode.

The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.

(The looping music, now overlaid with the sound of waves of static, performs up after which—slowly—out.)

Copyright © 2021 The Atlantic and New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our web site phrases of use at www.wnyc.org for additional info.

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