Dr. Bill Kimberlin, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Lorain County Community College, provides insight into his first hand accounts with death row inmates in his book “Watch Me Die”.
From an early age Kimberlin knew he wanted be a college professor, but not one who only taught from books. To educate his students in a manner befitting an expert in his field, he knew that he had to witness the subject matter first hand. “The reason I started was because everyone had an opinion on capital punishment but I found that nobody had really witnessed anything. Nobody had visited death row with death row inmates or witnessed an execution,” said Kimberlin “So in my mind I’m thinking, ‘How can you have an educated opinion if you’ve never seen or heard it first hand?’”
The Writing Process
Inspired by the lack of first hand occurrences, Kimberlin delved into the topic of capital punishment, leading him to witness multiple executions and learn as much as he could from inmates on death row.
During the conception of “Watch Me Die”, Kimberlin set aside three hours a day several times a week to pen his experiences with death row. “I had a secluded place where I had all of my files, paperwork, and my research in one condo that I had all to myself and some days I got a lot done and other days I would have writer’s block and just stare out the window,” said Kimberlin. He describes the writing process as lengthy due the compounding information he’s gathered during a decade worth of face-to-face interviews and letters exchanged with death row inmates. After submitting the first draft to publishers in February 2015 “Watch Me Die” landed on shelves a year later in February 2016.
Just like Kimberlin intended, the prologue of “Watch Me Die” is honest and factual. Recalling his first execution Kimberlin describes the event as very surreal and likens the bizarre appearance of the prison hearse driver to the movie “Deliverance”. He noted that from their cells the inmates could see the death house and witness the hearse waiting for the body to be brought out. “Those emotions albeit raw in the prologue are very real because I didn’t know what to expect,” said Kimberlin. Every execution he witnessed used lethal injections, but the style of lethal injections differed for each inmate due to varying drug cocktails. Sometimes he is the very last person they speak to before they die. Kimberlin admits being confused as to what to say to them for the very last time. “It’s not like you’re watching somebody in hospice where they are terminally ill and suffering. These people are vibrant and, for all intents and purposes, in good health and then you’re going to watch them strapped down and the life taken from them,” said Kimberlin
Despite dealing with death on a frequent basis, Kimberlin doesn’t consider himself desensitized to the process of execution. “If I ever did [become desensitized] I’d really worry about myself then, and that’s why there’s a fine line between education and obsession,” said Kimberlin
Respecting the Peace
Instead, he considers himself desensitized to the inmates themselves. “Most of my guys have killed multiple individuals, so none of their stories are shocking or grotesque to me anymore,” said Kimberlin. Choosing to learn from the inmates as a research subject, Kimberlin holds no bias for the inmates he interviews.
Even with a composed demeanor, Kimberlin admits he’s never relaxed on death row and that the element of respect he has with inmates keeps tension at bay. Despite their confinement, death row inmates know all about Kimberlin and his family. “I learned from the very beginning, I don’t disrespect them and the feelings are mutual because I respect them, they respect me and I just never lie to them. If they ask I answer,” said Kimberlin. That respect allows him to interview inmates face-to-face without the restraint of handcuffs or shackles. Sometimes he walks up and down death row with them for hours. To do so there has to be a certain amount of trust because Kimberlin knows the inmates have nothing to lose. “I don’t talk down to them. I don’t talk over them. I don’t talk above them. I don’t go by ‘doctor’ or anything like that and I joke with them as much as possible too,” said Kimberlin.
Among the many death row inmates to contact Kimberlin was Anthony Sowell, know as the ‘Cleveland Strangler’. “Watch Me Die” doesn’t go as far into Sowell’s case as both Kimberlin and Sowell had originally intended. “Every interview I did with him was very difficult to do because he wanted to be in control of it, like most serial killers do,” said Kimberlin.
Death row Amenities
“You’re never really going to see Ohio death row lockup on TV, because the fact that personally and professional it looks too good to put on TV, and that would outrage a lot of taxpayers because of what amenities they’re allowed to have,” said Kimberlin. He describes the living conditions of Ohio’s death row inmates as being better than of San Quentin’s death row in California, which is often seen on TV.
“Our death row is very lenient, very clean, it’s very quiet. The roommates get along and have a lot of amenities,” said Kimberlin. The inmates can purchase televisions, handheld video games and are allowed to order food boxes containing items easily found at Giant Eagle. Kimberlin knows first hand the range of art supplies available, as he has received everything from oil on canvas to a working wooden clock as gifts from inmates. Among other things, inmates get their own cells and have available to them several activities they can participate in during recreation time, like Wiffle ball and Cornhole.
Ohio’s death row provides more than just amenities by monitoring the health care of its inmates. They have access to the facilities needed to treat everything from mental health illnesses to diabetes. “The state of Ohio will go to extraordinary measures to keep them alive in order to execute them,” said Kimberlin.
Even though “Watch Me Die” portrays Kimberlin’s own personal and professional experiences, he wants the reader to formulate their own opinion. “I never set out to change people’s minds, never set out to change your beliefs, or get them to formulate an opinion around mine,” said Kimberlin.
Instead he would rather leave the reader to develop their own opinion on capital punishment. “I think if they read between the lines, and read the facts that really go on around the capital punishment debate and the politics that are involved with the process of taking a human life, leads me to think that they will be able to walk away from it with a very educated opinion formulated,” said Kimberlin.
For his next project Kimberlin is considering putting together a book of the artwork inmates have sent him through the years and aims to explain the individual behind the art.
Dr. Kimberlin will hold a book signing on May 3 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Commodore Books and More.