Poorly executed: Murderer’s final words contained secret message about problematic Az execution
People have asked me many times if I was scared when I interviewed convicted murderers. My answer is that the scariest thing about most murderers is that they aren’t scary. They committed horrible acts, but they don’t usually look like crazed killers in movies. They look and talk like anyone else, which makes you realize how fine the line is between us and them.
The attorney Dale Baich, who represented death row prisoners at the federal level for nearly 30 years, looks at these mostly broken people and sees humanity in them.
I can think of two serial killers I covered as a reporter at The Arizona Republic, who, if they sat down next to you at a bar, might engage you in pleasant conversation and buy you a beer.
Correctional officers have told me that they would rather have duty on death row than in the general prison population. Unlike the gangsters and career criminals out on the prison yard, many men on Arizona’s death row (there are only three women) committed one-off crimes. There was a day when things went terribly wrong. There were drugs involved, and they sobered up in jail and realized what they had done.
In 2017, in response to a lawsuit, the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Re-entry (ADCRR) moved most death row prisoners from solitary confinement at the Eyman Prison to a less restricted unit in the old Central Unit at the Florence prison. There, the prisoners could eat together and socialize in a common area, and even go out on the yard. I asked to visit.
Fifteen or so death row residents gathered around as I sat at a table with an interviewee, a man who had committed two cold and cruel murders. Nearly 20 years after the crime, he was calm and reflective. Another prisoner, whose case I had written about — another multiple murder — invited me into his cell to show me his drawings and a poster over the door that said, “Due to budget cuts, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off.”
A woman who had spent 25 years on death row, before her conviction was thrown out because of prosecutorial misconduct, described to me in an interview at her house how she had to adapt to the outside world after spending half her life in a cell the size of a bathroom. The first time I met her, we were in an elevator in the courthouse, and she was so frightened by a stranger in close quarters that she pressed herself into the corner.
They all went to prison for a reason. But after 20 or so years there, they were not the same people as when they committed their murders.
Robert Towery was executed in 2012. As a young man in 1991, he killed a man during a robbery in Paradise Valley. It was not Towery’s first offense. He had already done prison time for running a chop shop, and in the days before the murder, he and his girlfriend robbed a restaurant.
The murder victim was a well-loved philanthropist — who also liked to hire young men to do jobs around his house and then paid them for sex or to photograph them having sex with each other. Towery, a mechanic by training, was introduced to the man by mutual friends, ostensibly to work on his cars. He decided instead to rob him.
Towery’s accomplice turned state’s evidence, and was out of prison 10 years before Towery was put to death. The accomplice told police and prosecutors that Towery tried to kill the man by taking a syringe from the house and filling it with “acid” from a car battery. Maricopa County prosecutors ran with that story — even though it was wrong. In fact, Towery strangled the man with a zip tie.
Twenty years later, as he waited to be executed, he told of his remorse in a letter to Dale, his attorney from the Federal Defender’s Office in Phoenix.
“I feel like a true monster for putting my kids through this,” he wrote. “When I think about what I put (the victim’s) family through 20 years ago, I’m right where I should be. I literally destroyed two families with what I did.”
When the Arizona Supreme Court returns a warrant for execution, the condemned prisoner is put on what is called “Death Watch,” separated from the general population and placed under close observation, ironically, to make sure he can’t commit suicide and cheat the state of the chance to kill him.
When Towery went into Death Watch, he said he would write a letter to Dale every day. The night before he was executed, he told Dale that he didn’t mind if the letters were made public. He even wrote one on the morning of his execution.
Many of the letters are mundane, many are ironic. The correctional officers won’t allow Towery to have a brush or conditioner for his long hair, so he asks them to shave his head. That brings visits from the prison psychologist asking if he’s suicidal. He’s about to be killed, and yet he frets about his weight and blood pressure every day, and he asks the COs to bring him cleaning supplies because he is disgusted by the communal shower.
And he worries about the well-being of his guards, and a fellow prisoner on Death Watch, Robert Moormann.
Moormann was executed a week before Towery, and the two men talked as they sat in their cells. They were very different people. Towrey was outgoing and intelligent. On the other hand, during his clemency hearing, a forensic psychiatrist described Moormann as “the worst piece of protoplasm you will ever see.” Towery described Moormann as childlike and “two IQ points” above the level where he would be considered mentally disabled and not eligible for execution.
But they had something in common: abuse at the hands of a cruel mother.
Towery’s sister, Christine, told me how their mother would fly into rages. She and a sister would hide in forts they made in their closets, but “Robbie” would be viciously beaten. When he wet the bed as a child, his mother would hang the sheets out where Towery’s friends would see them as they walked home from school.
Moormann was adopted, and his adoptive parents owned a fleet of taxis. One of the former cab drivers told me that they hated having to drive “Bobby” anywhere because of how odd he was — like the killer doll, Chuckie, in the movies. When Moormann was a teenager, his father died. His mother told him he had to fulfill his father’s duties and took him into her bed.
In 1972, Moorman became fixated on the wife of one of the cab drivers. But he couldn’t get near her, so he kidnapped their young daughter. He drove her in his mother’s big car toward Las Vegas, but mired it in sand near Hoover Dam. He raped the girl and only decided not to kill her because she cried.
A family driving an RV home to Nevada from Puerto Peñasco picked them up hitchhiking and realized something was off — especially when Moormann took the bullets out of his pistol and laid them on the table in the RV. The mother of the family stayed calm, and offered to drop him in Vegas. They did, right in front of the police station, then drove around to the back of the building and called police.
Twelve years later, in 1984, he was granted an off-site, overnight family visit with his mother.
It was, in fact, a conjugal visit. Moorman put a pillow over her head during consensual sex at the Blue Mist Motel, across the street from the prison, to quiet her the way his stepfather had, he said. She suffocated. So he cut up her body, flushed her fingers down the motel-room toilet and dumped other pieces in garbage cans around Florence, even bringing some bones back to the prison for the dogs on the yards to chew.
While on Death Watch together, Towery tried to calm Moormann, noting several times in his diary that Moormann couldn’t comprehend what was going to happen. Moormann became sick and had trouble breathing, sometimes in panic, and was taken to a hospital overnight.
In the last years before his execution, he suffered a stroke and underwent a quintuple bypass. The state of Arizona paid six figures to keep him alive to make sure they could kill him themselves.
Among the other ironies of execution is that there is a defibrillator in the death chamber. In the event that a prisoner has a heart attack in the final moments, the medical crew would be able to revive him so that they could kill him again.
On the last day of Moormann’s life, the correctional officers took Towery to another room so that he wouldn’t see them take Moormann away.
“Bob is gone,” he wrote in the letters. “May God forgive them.”
(I witnessed Moormann’s execution. He looked around the room at the witnesses, then apologized for his crimes in his last words and hoped his death would bring closure. He died with his eyes open and a smile on his face.)
When they came for Towery a week later, he still managed to write a letter. He described one of the officers using “what I assume is an i-Phone.” He savored his last meal of steak and mushrooms. On the morning he was killed, March 8, 2012, he marveled at the taste of the orange juice they gave him for breakfast. And he ended his letter with this:
“As this is my last entry, I just want to say thank you. Thank all of you for the kindness you have given me! I am not worthy, but I accept it humbly. Please give everyone my best and know that I will carry your names on my lips to God.”
Cut-downs and catheters
Arizona executed 10 men in 2011 and 2012, and the Federal Defender’s Office, under Dale Baich’s guidance, routinely filed lawsuits about dubious practices and an ever-changing protocol. The executioners for Moormann and Donald Beaty substituted drug combinations at the last minute, partly because of oversight, but still too late to effectively litigate. ADCRR, citing state law protecting the identities of the executioners, refused to provide information about the drugs.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a ruling called it an “ad-hoc approach.”
But there were also problems with the personnel performing the executions. The doctors and assistants were consistently unable to set catheters into the person’s arms, though it is a common medical procedure. So, the physician executioner would instead cut deep into the prisoner’s thigh near the groin to set a central line in the femoral vein, an invasive and painful procedure that requires using a guide wire and a long catheter. It was a legacy of Dr. Alan Doerhoff, the outed executioner who performed the first execution I witnessed in 2007.
But Doerhoff was a vein surgeon. Suddenly, if the executioner is, say, a cardiologist moonlighting for cash (as they are paid to avoid a paper trail), it’s like having an electrician install the plumbing in your house.
According to autopsies, executioners went for the femoral vein in 11 of 16 executions. And in six of those cases, the executioner had to make more than one attempt to set the line.
But ADCRR refused to give any information about the training and credentials of its execution teams.
One filing from the Federal Defender’s Office noted, “Recent reporting revealed that in the past, the execution team members responsible for setting IVs and administering drugs were not medically trained or qualified. Due to the secrecy that surrounds the execution process in Arizona, it is not clear whether these issues have been remedied or whether the continued issues with setting functioning peripheral IV lines are the result of untrained and/or unqualified personnel.”
The night before Towery was to be executed, Dale Baich met with him in the death house.
Dale told Towery that there was a history of problems setting the catheters for executions. Towery made fists and flexed so that the veins popped on both his arms.
“With veins like these, how could they miss?” he said.
Dale told him that if there were problems with the procedures, he should ask to speak to his attorney. And if they would not allow it, Dale said, he should say so during his last words.
Towery said he was afraid to, because he had been warned that if he said anything inappropriate during his last words, the microphone would be cut off. They agreed on a code, and it would include the word “mistake.”
The next morning at 8:15, Dale and another attorney from the Federal Defender’s Office met again with Towery. They were escorted out at 9. The execution was supposed to start at 10. The witnesses were not brought into the room until after 11.
Towery broke down as he gave his last words before he was killed.
“I would like to apologize to (the victim’s) family and friends for what I did to them,” he said through tears. “I would like to apologize to my family.
“So many times in my life, I went left when I should have gone right, and I went right when I should have gone left. Mistake after mistake. In the end, I should have called you, Dale.”
“Potato, potato, potato.”
Reporters puzzled at the last line. Dale knew that it was a message to Towery’s nephew, who was among the witnesses. Both were Harley-Davison buffs, and that is how they described the noise its engine makes.
The rest, reporters assumed, was Towery talking about the bad decisions he made in his life. And it may have been, in part.
But it was also the code that he and Dale had worked out ahead of time. And it was about whether the executioner had done a cut-down. An autopsy later showed that the executioner had cut into the femoral vein on his right thigh. It also signaled that Towery had asked to call his lawyer during the time it took to insert the IV lines and was denied.
A 9th Circuit judge later wrote:
“The March 8, 2012 execution of Robert Towery is perhaps the starkest example of Arizona’s flawed procedures. [ ] Towery remained strapped to the table for over thirty minutes, while the execution team made ‘multiple attempts’ to insert left and right peripheral catheter IV lines. These attempts were unsuccessful. [T]he IV Team Leader recommended a right femoral catheter as the primary IV line. This procedure required the use of a larger needle, a scalpel, and a ‘guide wire’ to thread the needle into Towery’s central femoral line….
“Because Towery is dead, we do not know how much pain he suffered during the hour that he was strapped to the execution table. What we do know, however, comes from his attorney, Dale Baich. . . . Towery and his attorney devised a ‘code’ system for Towery to communicate to his attorney if he experienced pain during his execution or was denied access to counsel. Under this code system, if Towery was denied access to his counsel, he would say during his last statement, ‘Hey Dale I should have called you.’ If there were problems with the insertion of the IV lines, or if Towery suffered pain during the insertion of the IV lines, he would utter the word ‘mistake’ as part of his last statement. During Towery’s last words, he said, ‘In the end, I should have called you Dale.’ Towery also said that he had made ‘mistake, after mistake, after mistake.’”
Femoral vein cut-downs are still the norm in Arizona executions. But the protocol was rewritten after litigation so that the witnesses can watch lines set on closed-circuit TV, something the courts strongly suggested be done after Towery’s execution.
An aside: In 2014, there was a horribly botched execution in Oklahoma. The director there, Robert Patton, was a former deputy to then-ADCRR Director Charles Ryan, and he had brought the cut-down method with him. The intent was to use it with a three-drug protocol. But the person inserting the IV into the femoral vein didn’t have a long-enough catheter in the medical kit, so they used a shorter one.
The first drug sedated the man, as it was supposed to. But then the catheter slipped out of the vein and the second two drugs were injected into tissue. It was so painful that the man raised his head, according to witnesses, and was heard to say, “Man! This shit is fucking with my mind.” He mumbled, “Something is wrong,” and, “The drugs aren’t working.” Prison officials lowered the blinds into the execution chamber.
The man died of a heart attack.
Shortly after, I was talking to then-Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, who assured me such things couldn’t happen in Arizona, because they inserted their catheters into a vein in the groin. Horne didn’t realize that the Oklahoma execution had been botched because of the procedure preferred by ADCRR.
Arizona was about to have a botched execution of its own.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.