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Waiting to die: Keith Nelson execution

News 10's Alia Blackburn served as a media witness for Keith Nelson's execution.

Posted: Aug 29, 2020 12:02 AM
Updated: Aug 29, 2020 12:09 AM

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTHI) - Nine minutes was all it took for Keith Nelson to die.

A lethal dose of pentobarbital was released into his body around 4:23 Friday afternoon. He was officially declared dead at 4:32.

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Who is Keith Nelson? 

In his mid-20s, Nelson grabbed 10-year-old Pamela Butler off the street and threw her into his truck in broad daylight on Oct. 12, 1999. The fifth-grade student had been returning to her Kansas City, Kansas, home on inline skates after buying cookies at a store. As he drove off, he made a rude gesture to Butler’s sister, who saw the attack and screamed.
Nelson, who didn’t previously know Butler or her family, told a co-worker a month earlier he planned to find a female to kidnap, torture, rape and kill because he expected to go back to prison anyway on other charges, prosecutors said.

After raping Butler, Nelson strangled her with a wire, then dumped her body in a wooded area near a Missouri church.

Nelson was sentenced to death in 2002 for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of 10-year-old Pamela Butler from Kansas. In October 1999, court documents say Nelson abducted Butler, while she rollerbladed outside, near her home. Witnesses, including her sisters, saw the kidnapping happen, but Nelson was able to get away.

A few days later, Butler's body was found in a wooded area, behind a church, in Grain Valley, Missouri. After a short manhunt, Nelson was captured and pled guilty to the crime.

I served as a media witness for Nelson's execution, which was scheduled to happen Friday, at 4 p.m. Eastern, at the federal prison facility in Terre Haute. 

I got there just after 2 p.m. as media witnesses needed to be there by 2:30 for processing. Processing was very simple. It included showing two forms of ID, answering COVID screening questions, and filling out paperwork. We were given face masks and media badges for the duration of our time there. 

Around 2:45, we had a media briefing with the prison's PIO (public information officer)

LINK | KEITH NELSON HAS BEEN EXECUTED, BECOMING THE 5TH FEDERAL INMATE TO BE PUT TO DEATH IN TERRE HAUTE THIS YEAR

During the briefing, we found out Nelson was notified of his execution date on June 15, 2020. While on death row, he also had access to his spiritual advisor (Sister Barbara Battista of Sisters of Providence), his defense attorneys, along with magazines and reading material.

As for his execution, Nelson was allowed to invite six people as witnesses. His list included Sister Barbara Battista, his two defense attorneys, and three family members.

While eight members of Butler's family were allowed to attend, I only saw three (her mother, sister, and niece). That's because they addressed the media shortly after the execution.

Shortly after 3 p.m., we left the media center to board the prison buses for another round of processing. Similar to an airport, it's exactly like going through TSA, but with face masks. We took off our shoes, jewelry, went through metal detectors, screening questions, etc.

After that, we boarded the buses again to head to the death chamber. We got to the road, leading up to the facility, around 3:30 p.m. That's where we sat, and waited, for about 45-50 minutes. 

It wasn't until just before 4:20 p.m. that we'd be able to leave the van and go inside the chamber.

The room for media witnesses is pretty small, with about 12ish chairs and two windows facing the execution room. I sat in the front row on the right side. 

Shortly after we arrived, the curtains went up and in our view was Nelson, covered up to his neck on a gurney, with two men in suits on both sides of him.

The execution room instantly reminded me of an old doctor's office. It's a very clinical setting with light green tiles and somewhat dim lighting. To the right of Nelson's head was a square hole in the wall, you could see the IV tubes running through it to Nelson.

Nelson's fingers were chunky and pale, but had a hint of pink in them, which showed life. He had a big, round belly and I saw it moving up and down through the pale green sheet that covered him. Nelson had on a white face mask, looked straight up to the ceiling and had both arms stretched out on each side. 

Prior to the execution's start, Nelson was asked if he had any last words. It was completely silent. I never actually heard him verbally say "No". 

LINK | COMPLETE EXECUTION COVERAGE 

Around 4:23 was when the execution started, I noticed Nelson's stomach quickly moving up and down, which, to me, seemed like nervousness. Within minutes, his breaths became more shallow, slower and eventually just pulsations in his stomach... then, nothing at all. From what I could see, Nelson kept his gaze up to the ceiling for the procedure. His fingernails went from a hint of pink to blue by the end. 

Around 4:29, a doctor came out, checked his pulses and officially declared him dead.

Just as quickly as we got there, the curtains came down, we boarded the buses again and headed back to the media center for a press conference with Butler's family.

The press conference was more so question and answer based, the Butler family did not have a statement to read.

We asked a variety of questions, including the family's thoughts on Nelson's last words, or lack thereof. 

Cherri West, Butler's mother, said: "He's never had no remorse for her this whole time. He's never had no remorse for what he did to her, so, therefore, I have no remorse for him." 

West has also been through her share of pain, as she violently lost another daughter, after Pamela's passing.

West said, "My heart has literally been ripped out. It can't be fixed, but I do have my memories of my girls, and that's why I go on."

West and her family have continued to fight for closure over the last 20 years. They say it's a relief to finally close this chapter of their lives. 

"Pammy's soul is at peace," said West, "That was my number one goal is Pammy to get her justice so that she can rest. I don't ever feel that she was at rest, I think she was always behind me and guiding me to keep fighting, and that's what I've done."

"I admire my mom," said Amanda West, Cherri's daughter, "She is my hero because I could not do what she did. I would not survive."

"I feel like Pammy was there with her," Amanda continued. "Pammy couldn't rest until she knew her mom got the justice she was fighting for her, and now I feel like she can rest because of her mom, her mom did it."

I asked Butler's family what's next for them now that this is over.

"I was talking about that, with the girls, I said I'm going to have to start a new hobby because I've focused so much on doing this for the last 20 years," West said, "We're going to sit down and figure out something."

West mentioned the family has talked about creating a foundation in Pamela's name. She says it would be based on helping kids in memory of Pamela's love for reading to and helping other children. 

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