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Debate and discussion surround the scheduled execution of a 24-year-old for a brutal murder six years ago.

South Dakota One Day Away From First Execution In 59 Years

With a Sunday evening press release, South Dakota formally announced that 10 p.m. (CDT) Tuesday, August 29, is when the first execution in the state since 1947 will occur. Elijah Page, age 24, is set to die by lethal injection. Page pleaded guilty to first degree murder, kidnapping, robbery, burglary, and grand theft in connection with the brutal March 2000 beating death of Chester Poage in the Black Hills.

Under South Dakota law, the judge in a capital punishment case designates a week for the execution to occur, and the exact day and time of the execution is left to the warden's discretion. The warden is then required to publicly announce the day and hour of the execution not less than 48 hours prior to the execution.

Page's execution is on track because of a handwritten letter he sent state officials, lawyers and the media saying, "I have decided to end my appeals and face execution." He and another defendant, Briley Piper, pleaded guilty to Poage's murder and were sentenced to death. A third defendant, Darrell Hoadley, had a jury trial and was found guilty but the jury did not impose the death penalty. Page and Piper appealed their sentences, in part, on the grounds their fate was disproportionate given Hoadley's life sentence.

The death sentence was affirmed 3-2 in a lengthy opinion by the South Dakota Supreme Court on January 4. Piper continues to pursue his appeals but Page instructed his lawyers not to do so. Earlier this month, Page was determined competent to make that decision.

The last execution in South Dakota occurred shortly after midnight on April 8, 1947, two days after Easter Sunday. George Sitts was electrocuted for killing two South Dakota law enforcement officers after escaping from a Minnesota jail where he was being held pending transfer to prison on a life sentence for killing a Minneapolis liquor store clerk.

Page's execution will be by lethal injection. In announcing the date and time of the execution, South Dakota Corrections Secretary Tim Reisch said the penitentiary warden and staff "have spent countless hours preparing to carry out this court order." Reisch said the warden and "select staff" took a trip to Texas that "led to the development of long checklists of things that needed to be accomplished, culminating with numerous rehearsals that select prison staff participated in." Texas leads the nation in executions, with 372 having taken place since December 1982. The lethal injection reportedly will be administered by an emergency medical technician to avoid ethical problems such action poses for doctors and nurses.

South Dakotans are torn by the case. No one disputes the brutality of the murder. Poage was forced to drink a mixture of crushed pills, beer, and hydrochloric acid before he was taken to a remote wooded area in the Black Hills and forced to strip beside an icy creek. Page admitted he then repeatedly kicked Poage in the head so many times it "made his own foot sore." Page then stabbed Poage in the neck and head. About three hours after the beating started, Page and Hoadley dropped several large rocks on Poage's head.

"The amount of torture present in this case was unprecedented in South Dakota," the South Dakota Supreme Court said in its opinion.

Yet Page's sentencing hearing revealed a horrific childhood. Among other things, reports indicate Page was sexually abused by his mother as early as age two and that his mother sold her children to others in exchange for money and drugs. His stepfather also reportedly used Page as a shield when he thought he was being attacked by drug dealers. In addition, a Missouri court determined the stepfather had physically and sexually abused the children, including allowing others to sexually abuse them in exchange for drugs. This led even the judge who imposed the death sentence to say that Page's "early years must have been a living hell. Most people treat their pets better than your parents treated their kids."

The diverse feelings are also intertwined with another ongoing South Dakota debate. Voters will decide in November whether a law passed by the South Dakota Legislature and signed by South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds banning all abortions except those necessary to preserve the life of the mother will go on the books. As a result, Page's execution has also involved discussion on whether support for the death penalty is reconcilable with wanting to ban abortions.

Two possibilities could still halt the execution. First, Rounds could step in and commute Page's sentence. On August 20, though, he told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, "I don't have any plans to intervene."

The second rests with Page himself. According to South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long, Page can change his mind any time up until he is physically unable to do so. That is because Page, in essence, volunteered for execution by withdrawing any further legal challenges to it. Because Page still retains those rights, however, a request to stop the execution would be honored immediately, even if made while laying on the gurney in the execution room, according to Long.

Some death penalty opponents protested Sunday in Pierre, the state capital, and Sioux Falls, the site of the South Dakota Penitentiary, where the execution will take place. The South Dakota Peace and Justice Center plans a protest vigil near the penitentiary Monday and Tuesday.

About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.

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