A Friend in the Execution Room
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Was anybody willing to be a spiritual adviser to a Muslim man on death row? That’s the question that went out by email to a local group of interfaith leaders in Indiana. Nobody answered.
After a week without responses, the management professor Yusuf Ahmed Nur stepped forward. A Somali immigrant who volunteered at his local mosque, Nur would counsel Orlando Hall in the weeks leading up to his execution. But Nur didn’t expect he’d end up standing beside Hall in the execution chamber as he was put to death.
“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 at the center of our legal system, and witnesses what gets sacrificed in the pursuit of justice.
This episode of The Experiment originally ran on March 18, 2021.
Further reading: “Trump Is Putting the Machinery of Death Into Overdrive”
Be part of The Experiment. Use the hashtag #TheExperimentPodcast, or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This episode was produced by Alvin Melathe, Gabrielle Berbey, and Julia Longoria, with editing by Matt Collette and Katherine Wells. Fact-check by William Brennan. Sound design by David Herman. Special thanks to Katie Bishop and Najib Aminy.
Music by water feature (“double blessing ii”), Keyboard (“Being There,” “More Shingles,” “My Atelier,” “Small Island”), and Parish Council (“Heatherside Stores”) provided by Tasty Morsels.
A transcript of this episode is presented below:
(Ethereal, airy electronic music plays, then stops.)
Julia Longoria: Alvin, I don’t think I’ve ever said your last name out loud. How do I say it?
Alvin Melathe: It’s Mel-eth.
Longoria: Am I doing that right?
Longoria: So, Alvin Melathe, why are we here today?
Melathe: (Laughs.) Why … [Both chuckle.] Why are you using my government name like that? (Both laugh.)
(Quiet, gentle background music plays. It’s reflective and solemn, and it fades out almost imperceptibly.)
Longoria: Alvin Melathe, one of the founding producers of The Experiment, was reading a lot about death last year.
Melathe: I saw that the federal government had executed someone.
Melathe: And I remember reading about it in the news at the time, and being a little surprised by it because, you know, there are states that do executions regularly, but the federal government hasn’t actually executed someone in—The last time was in 2003. There were none in the ’70s and the ’80s and the ’90s. Like, it’s just not a thing that we do very often.
Longoria: Huh. I didn’t fully realize it had been that long.
Melathe: Yeah, I hadn’t either. And I think I was, like, actually trying to make sense of how to feel about it. And then, two days later, they executed someone else.
(New music comes in. It’s still solemn, but it makes itself known—it’s a little louder, and rings more.)
Melathe: And then, a day after, they executed someone else. And then two more in the next month. And then two more the month after that.
And I just couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that the federal government says they do this on our behalf.
(The composition becomes fuller, more lush, but still just as solemn.)
Melathe: It’s just a weird thing to have the government kill someone on your behalf. Like, war and the death penalty, right? It’s, like, the two times that someone does violence in your name.
(The music plays for a moment with no narration, a cascade of distant percussion.)
Melathe: I just felt really far away from it, and I wanted to try to get closer to it—or at least try to understand exactly what’s being done in my name. So I started reading about each of the executions.
(Slowly, the background music fades out.)
Melathe: And one of the things I found out was that these killings were all actually happening in the same room in the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. And at each of the executions, there would be the person being executed, and the prison officials—you know, one with a stethoscope to declare the time of death.
But the eighth execution was for a man named Orlando Hall.
Longoria: This week actually marks one year since Orlando Hall was executed for murder in that same room in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Melathe: And, for him, there was one other person in the room. He wasn’t a prison official. He had nothing to do with the case. He was just a civilian. And so I called him.
Yusuf Ahmed Nur: My name is Yusuf Ahmed Nur. I am a professor at the business school, Indiana University Kokomo. And I teach strategic management and international business.
Melathe: He’s a [Intonation rises in surprise.] business professor?
Longoria: What was a business professor doing in a death chamber?
Melathe: He answered an email [“Email” is said with a rising intonation, emphasizing the absurdity of the connection. Longoria chuckles lightly.] to be Orlando’s spiritual adviser.
Melathe: I didn’t know about this at first, but in the U.S. we’ve decided that the First Amendment gives people on death row the right to a spiritual adviser from whatever religion they belong to. And so Yusuf, who wasn’t paid to be there, just sort of stepped into this whole thing. He volunteered to do it, actually.
And I think I wanted to know what kind of a person does that—and what he saw.
Nur: I never thought I’m an emotional person, but every time I remember and I talk about my experience in the death chamber … I become emotional. Every time I talk about it, I feel emotional about it.
Melathe: Well, if there’s a point where it just feels like you need to take a little break, that’s completely okay.
Nur: Yeah, it’s—it’s going to be just a pause. I’ll be quiet maybe for a few seconds.
Melathe: That’s okay.
Nur: (After a brief pause.) Yeah.
(After a beat, the ethereal music plays in again. Bells ring; an organ sustains a chord.)
Longoria: This week, a conversation with a man who got very close to the death penalty in the United States. Producer Alvin Melathe brings us the story of a man who couldn’t look away.
I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.
(The music swells, and stays at that level for a long moment before fading away.)
Nur: You know, I’m of a nomadic background. I was born in the nomadic area of Somalia.
Melathe: Yusuf Ahmed Nur grew up in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.
Nur: It was one of the quietest town right on the Indian Ocean. I grew up swimming. Just warm weather, humid, but absolutely gorgeous. I loved it.
Melathe: Outside of the water, though, Yusuf said he had a pretty unhappy childhood. Both of his parents died when he was 5 years old. He was raised by an aunt in a country that was under a military dictatorship. He spent a lot of time by himself. One of the only ways he found to escape was through books.
Nur: There are so many things that are unexplained things. Reading makes you … It broadens your mind. It broadens your horizon. It makes you think about things.
Melathe: He got a membership to the American library to practice his English, and he started reading all these books about the U.S.
Nur: I read almost everything about the United States. You know, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I remember reading Roots. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Margaret Mitchell’s [Chuckles.] Gone With the Wind. To Kill a Mockingbird. And so I guess they were popular at the time. And, uh, I absolutely did not get it. [Laughs.] I totally missed the message and the nuances, because—coming from Somalia with … You know, nothing like that exists. Somalia is very homogeneous. The concept of “Black”—it doesn’t exist in Africa, you know? [Laughs.] This color that Americans are so fixated on … doesn’t exist. People don’t think they’re Black there. The first time you hear that you’re Black is here in America when people describe you, and then you look around—“Are they talking about me?” You know, something like that. [Melathe laughs.] And so you don’t—It doesn’t register with you.
Melathe: In some ways, Yusuf has always been an observer of the U.S.—on the outside, looking in. He first came here in 1986 to do an MBA program. He never actually intended to stay.
Nur: It was purely accidental. I was going to go back, but then things were getting worse.
Melathe: Back in Somalia, Yusuf’s friends were starting to agitate for democracy. The military dictatorship there arrested a lot of them, even threatened some with execution. Yusuf thought that if he went back, he’d be in the same boat. So he applied for political asylum in the U.S. and got it. He got married to a white woman from the South, and suddenly found himself with two American kids.
Nur: What really surprised me was that … I have two sons. They don’t take the kind of risks that I take. To give you an example, my—my son and I went to get a motorcycle. He—he’s trying to get me into motorcycle riding. So we went to a town that’s about two hours’ drive from here. And he wanted to pee. And, you know, I ride bikes, and if I need to pee, I just stop and go behind a tree. I don’t give a second thought at all, you know? [Chuckles.] But he was very careful.
(Slow, weighty music plays.)
Nur: He was thinking, I don’t know how people will react to me if they see me there. And my son could easily pass for an Arab. You know, he’s mixed. He would blend in. He doesn’t stand out as, you know, Black.
So it really surprised me, that—his attitude about what he can do and how worried he is about how people would view him and how they would react. And we went back and forth and back and forth. And [Exhales.] it never really crossed my mind that he developed that kind of attitude. And it’s because he was brought up here! He’s hearing everything, you know, all the racial issues and all the racial ramifications.
That kind of attitude of taking risks and not worrying about how people will react or what they would say and just … It—it may be part of the Somali character, I don’t know. But I still have that Somali attitude. And I find it’s really strange, the kind of risks—quote-unquote “risks”—that I take.
Melathe: Throughout his career, Yusuf ended up teaching all over the country. But no matter where he went in the U.S., he always made it a point to find a mosque.
Nur: I have always been—since I came here—I’ve always been involved in the Muslim communities. Wherever I go, I’ve always been very active.
Melathe: He’d gone to Muslim elementary schools and high schools. He’d grown up reading the Quran. So when he finally landed in Bloomington, Indiana, he did what he always did: He got involved with his local mosque.
Nur: I’m one of the elders. And I’m also involved in the multi-faith movement in Bloomington. We do a lot of interfaith things with them. And so, the—a minister of the Unitarian Universalist church emailed us about Orlando.
Melathe: And what did the email say?
Nur: It said that there’s a man who was on death row, and he needs a Muslim person to be his, uh, counselor—his spiritual counselor.
Melathe: The execution was slated to happen in a few weeks at the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, just an hour’s drive from Bloomington. They needed someone familiar with Islam to counsel the man. But the mosque in Bloomington is all-volunteer. There’s no paid clergy who would be the sort of default person to do this.
Nur: So it’s kind of a very democratic religion in that respect. So, after maybe a week, I didn’t see any response to that. So I asked if anybody responded to that email, and they said, “No, nobody has responded.”
Melathe: So Yusuf Googled the man on death row. His name was Orlando Hall. In 1995, Orlando was convicted of the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a 16-year-old named Lisa Rene. He and another man drove Lisa from her home in the back of a car. They poured gasoline over her, and then they buried her alive. Orlando was 23 at the time. When Yusuf got the email, Orlando had been on death row for more than 20 years.
Melathe: When you had gotten the email, originally, and read it, what was your feeling? Was your feeling “Someone else is going to do this”?
Nur: Yeah. I was thinking that [Laughs.] somebody would do it, but, deep down, I knew that, in general, things that are unpleasant—it usually falls on me. [Melathe laughs.] So I decided to do it the moment I realized that nobody else was going to do it.
Melathe: Why not just let the email go?
Nur: You know, you have a fellow human being who is on death row, and they are going to kill him. And so it was—it was … I didn’t really think about it. It’s just like, this guy needs help, and he’s seeking somebody to talk to, and that’s the least you can do. It entails some sacrifice, it’s not a—compared to what he’s going through, what I’m going to do is a piece of cake.
Melathe: So Yusuf decided to meet Orlando. He drove about an hour to Terre Haute, went in …
Nur: And I was accompanied by this prison official, who took me through multiple heavy metal doors, through an elevator, and finally to the visitation room, where I was on one side of the room, and he’s on the other side of the room, and we’re separated by a glass wall.
Melathe: So what do you first say to Orlando?
Nur: Well, you know, greeting—Muslim greetings—“Peace be with you,” in Arabic. That was our first exchange.
Assalamu alaikum, brother. Wa alaikum assalam.
The allocated time is from nine ’til three. And I spent those six hours with him that first time.
But one thing that I wanted to know was—whatever he did—that he was contrite, that he was sorry, that he was regretful, and so it’s one of the first things that we talked about. And it was very clear to me that he regretted what he did, or the role he played in the killing of that young woman. Whether he was guilty or not, I decided that that part was not my job. That was not my role.
Right away, I could see that he was already, you know, reconciled to his fate. He was not nervous. He was ready. Part of Islamic teaching is that everybody’s going to die. It’s not about how you die. It’s everybody has a time and a day and an hour where they die, and you just accept it. And so he was reconciled, despite the fact that he didn’t believe that he should die.
Melathe: And what kinds of questions did he have for you?
Nur: We talked about Islam in general. He studied, thoroughly, Islam. He knew a lot. He brought his books. He brought a copy of the Quran in English. And so we talked about, you know, religious concepts, religious philosophy. We talked about the death penalty in Islam.
And so we also talked about the political side of American executions and the fact that the rate of executions is much higher, and the rate of incarceration in America is much higher. You know, more African Americans are incarcerated, percentage-wise, than whites.
And, you know, he even mentioned the fact that this string of executions—they started with a white guy. And he said, you know, “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 said, “they’re not fooling anybody.” “Two-thirds of the people there in death row in Terre Haute,” he said, “were nonwhite.”
(A droning sound plays, giving way to soft background music.)
Melathe: Yusuf met with Orlando two more times. And, through his lawyer, Orlando asked Yusuf for one final favor: If Yusuf would be in the room with him when the execution happened.
Nur: And I said, “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 plays for a moment with no narration.)
Melathe: The day of the execution, Yusuf made the long drive to Terre Haute through the changing leaves on State Road 46. He met with Orlando first thing in the morning, and they went over last rites.
And then he waited.
Later that night, a guard brought him into the execution room.
Nur: The victim is lying down on the gurney, right in the middle of the room, closer to the wall—the opposite wall. One of the long walls, the opposite wall, is where the windows are, glass windows. And so I could see the windows that are the media and the family room. And Orlando could see them because the gurney—the torso part—is raised a little bit. So you can see that he can see them while lying down there, strapped to the gurney.
Melathe: And where are you standing?
Nur: I’m standing right beside him. And on each side of the gurney are the executioners, one on each side. And by the time we got there, he was already strapped on the gurney. He was covered with what looked like a hospital blanket. It’s like it was deliberately designed to make it look like a benign surgical operation in a hospital. And, uh, so I was not allowed to approach him before they started releasing the poison. I have to stand—keep a distance from the gurney. Orlando and I’m talking, and I would—you know, I’ve already explained to him what we will be doing, the last rites that he would recite. And he—on his own—I mean, he started doing it on his own. I really didn’t have to help him in any way. He just started reciting on his own. And he kept reciting even after they started 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 long hallway. Music plays up for the duration of a breath before the narration resumes.)
Melathe: How did you know when he was gone?
Nur: He stopped reciting.
And then, within seconds, his mouth opened, wide, like he started yawning. And later on, I—I read: Yawning, that’s an indication that they can’t breathe. They’re trying to breathe, but they can’t. So it’s like drowning. And so he yawned a number of times—at least three times—and then he was gone.
(A moment of no narration, just music.)
Nur: The time that you are waiting, that’s the most difficult time. That’s when you start thinking. That’s when it hits you. You know, it’s quiet. Nobody’s saying anything. Everybody’s waiting. Waiting for the doctor to come and pronounce him dead. That’s when you—it hits you how surreal it is. How absurd it is.
Melathe: Back when Yusuf first took the assignment—to counsel Orlando—it felt simple to him. Instinctual, even. He saw a fellow human being in need, and he decided he would help. But that moment after Orlando died, the whole thing stopped feeling so simple.
Nur: I’m in this room, and I am participating in the killing of a fellow human being that just a few hours ago was healthy. They assign you a role to play in this execution. That’s when all of these thoughts crowd into your mind.
(Another moment without narration, only music.)
Melathe: The aftermath, after the break.
(The music ebbs and flows, like an electronic tide. Then the break.)
(A muted ringing, as if of oversize wind chimes, plays, and then goes quiet.)
Melathe: A little before midnight on November 19, the United States executed Orlando Hall. Yusuf was standing right beside him.
Nur: And, you know, it’s all of these thoughts that crowd your mind.
Melathe: Yusuf looked around the room. Once Orlando was gone, it was just him and the executioners.
Nur: You just … How surreal it is, how … Like, we are the high priests of this sacrifice. That we’re sacrificing—It, you know, it makes you go back thinking about, you know, when people used to sacrifice humans to their gods. It’s like that, that we are the high priests, and we are sacrificing this human being to satisfy some kind of a not, you know, religious rite, but a secular rite.
Melathe: Did you feel like one of those high priests too?
Nur: Yeah, exactly. You know, it hits me that I am participating in this, and I am playing a role that they assigned me to kind of legitimize what they’re doing, or furnish this religious, spiritual side, where they are providing the secular side of the sacrifice. When you’re left to your thoughts, you say, “Ah, see, that’s exactly how they planned it.” But then I will correct 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, that’s when it hit me why he wanted me to be there, because, in that room, I was the only friend he had. The other people there came to kill him. I was the only one he could look [at] and say, “You know, that person doesn’t intend any evil towards me.”
(Music enters, light, almost hopeful. It slowly fades out.)
Melathe: What were you thinking on your drive back?
Nur: Oh, before I went home, I was, uh … I did not expect it to affect me the way it did.
[After a long pause, Nur clears his throat, then speaks.] It was really traumatic. And I was really angry. I was very angry.
I was angry at the whole—the whole system that brought us to that point. It’s the system that allows them to do that. It’s the system that segregates people. It’s the system … That—that’s what you need to tackle, is the system that allows that to happen time and time again. And those who perpetuate it, and those who support it, and those who benefit from it. And you have to address that if you want this to change.
Despite the trauma and the anger and … Uh, I—I’m glad I did it.
Melathe: I mean, I think I was just trying to think about your choices here—your decision to opt in. ’Cause you’re not actually doing the executing, but it does strike me that you made a choice here to involve yourself in something you didn’t have to.
Nur: Well, you know, you can’t solve a problem if you run away from it. You know, that’s what I tell my children, because [Chuckles.] they’re disgusted with the system here. My son—that I told you we went to get the motorcycles—he talks about all the time, “I want to move out of here. I want to, you know, move to Canada or New Zealand or …” And I said 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 have lived here, in Bloomington—forget about anywhere else—longer than I lived anywhere else. So although I would enjoy being back in Somalia, my children are here, and my grandchildren are here. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll contribute to the—to the struggle as much as I can.
(A lush soundscape enters, like electronic handbells.)
Melathe: Not long after Orlando was killed, Yusuf got another call. There was another Muslim man on death row, named Dustin Higgs. Dustin, it turned out, needed a spiritual adviser too.
Nur: I just felt obligated, you know? Uh, this guy who’s going to be executed, he wants you to be there. That’s the least you can do. What else can you do? You can’t say no. I mean, how can you say no?
(The music plays up, then fades out.)
Melathe: On January 16, 2021, Yusuf was present at the execution of Dustin Higgs.
Nur: Yes, I guess it’s human nature to become inured to things. We can get used to almost anything. You know, like those guys whose job is to execute people. They get used to it. So, uh, [Sighs.] I hope I never get used to it. But I wouldn’t change what I did. I would—I would do it again.
(The music plays on a loop.)
Nur: Let’s hope, let’s hope.
(Again on a loop, the music plays for several seconds before the credits begin.)
Tracie Hunte: This episode was produced by Alvin Melathe, Gabrielle Berbey, and Julia Longoria, with editing by Matt Collette and Katherine Wells. Fact-check by William Brennan. Sound design by David Herman. Music by Tasty Morsels. Special thanks to Katie Bishop and Najib Aminy.
Our team also includes Natalia Ramirez, Emily Botein, and me, Tracie Hunte.
If you like what you heard in today’s episode, tell a friend to listen to the show. And don’t forget to rate and review 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, plays up and then—slowly—out.)
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