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"All of his muscles tensed up and his body lurched forward in the chair," said execution witness and sister of the victim, Donna Standifier. "That was the moment he plunged into the burning fires of hell. That was the moment he felt the eternal fire."
Tennessee inmate David Earl Miller was put to death via electric chair on Thursday evening, December 6th, 2018. The 61-year-old, convicted of killing a 21-year-old Knoxville woman in 1981, was pronounced dead at 7:25 p.m. at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville, Tennessee.
Miller had chosen fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits and coffee as his last meal before his execution, according to the Tennessee Department of Corrections. He ate his final meal, alone, in a cell adjacent to the room known as the "death chamber."
After finishing his dinner, Miller met with Riverbend Prison Chaplain Mark Stiller. In the years following his conviction, Miller had become a "born again Christian" and spent several hours a day reading his bible.
"He felt like he was ready to meet his creator and stand before God almighty," said Chaplain Stiller. "His spirit had been bathed in the blood of Jesus and he was ready."
After being shackled at his feet and handcuffed, Miller was escorted the twenty-five feet from his holding cell to the room where he would be executed, a ten-by-eight foot, white-tiled room containing the electric chair.
Miller had been prepared the day prior by having his head and his right calf shaved. Once strapped into the chair at the wrists, waist, and ankles, a wet sponge was placed between the top of his head and the electrode that would soon deliver 2,450 volts of electricity. Miller reportedly grimaced as the water ran down his face.
The blinds to the witness room were opened at 7:23pm. After a routine check by a prison medical staffer, Miller's eyes were taped shut. During execution, a body can heat up to approximately 210°F — which often causes the eyeballs to melt or explode. Riverbend Warden Tony Mays, a ten-time veteran of the death chamber, somberly issued the death warrant.
"David Earl Miller, I am authorized by the State of Tennessee to carry out the penalty of death by electrocution for the murder of Lee Standifier. Do you have any last words?"
What Miller said next caused the witnesses in attendance to gasp...
The initial, fifteen-second surge of electricity stopped Miller's heart and induced unconsciousness.
"He shook around in the chair pretty good," said Allen Coleman. "That son-of-a-bitch killed my sister and I've been waiting 37 years to see him meet his maker. You could see the electricity in his facial muscles tensing up. Looked like it hurt."
After a ten second wait, the prisoner was examined by a coroner. The voltage was slightly lowered and the another jolt was sent through Miller's body. That cycle was repeated two more times.
Although death is supposedly instantaneous, some prisoners have been known to shriek and even shout while being executed in this way. Some skin is always burned off of the condemned. The charred flesh must then be scraped off the seat and straps of the chair before it can be used again.
Miller was the second electric chair execution in Tennessee in just over a month. He was only the third inmate in the state to be executed by electric chair since 1960.
Inmates have argued in court that the state’s current lethal injection protocol causes a “prolonged and torturous death,” citing the August execution of Billy Ray Irick. Irick reportedly coughed, turned “dark purple,” and died a harrowing 20 minutes after his injection.
David Earl Miller used his last statement to condemn the death penalty and the death row policies and procedures that govern the final years of those sentenced to die in the Tennessee Department of Corrections. But, that wasn't all he said...
"I want everyone in attendance to know that I am ready to die," Miller began. "I've made my piece with God and I want the family of my victim to know I am truly sorry for taking her away from you."
Miller reportedly paused to gather his words. That's when things took an unexpected turn for the worse...
"It's better to die now than spend another minute on death row. To keep someone segregated from human contact for years is cruel and inhumane. The treatment I received from the staff here at this prison is — well, criminal. They're a bunch of low-lifes and thugs."
Warden Tony Mays began to interrupt, saying, "That's quite —"
"I'm done, I'm done. I hope this gives you all closure," Miller said. "I hope my face melts off and you get to see that. I hope that makes you happy, you sick fucks. Let's rock. Throw the fucking switch."
Miller's execution came more than 37 years after he beat and stabbed Lee Standifer to death the night of May 20th, 1981.
"It was just a series of random events that led him to her and to her innocent life," said Jim Winston, a retired Knoxville Police Department lieutenant who worked the case. "She was just starting a life on her own, and he took all that away from her. What she could have been or what her future might have been if she could have lived — we'll just never know."
David Earl Miller was born July 16, 1957, in Bowling Green, Ohio. His mother met his father during a one-night stand at a bar, drank throughout her pregnancy, and was later diagnosed with brain damage from exposure to toxic fumes at her job in a plastics factory. Miller was 10 months old when she married his stepfather, an alcoholic who routinely beat him with boards, slammed him into walls, and dragged him around the house by the hair.
At the age of 6, Miller tried to kill himself by hanging and then later by trying to set himself on fire at the age of 10...
Miller told social workers that he had his first sexual experiences when abused by a female cousin at age five, by a friend of his grandfather's at age twelve, and then by his drunken mother at fifteen.
By his own admission, Miller began drinking, smoking marijuana, and huffing gasoline daily by the age of ten. At thirteen, he landed in a state reform school where counselors regularly whipped boys with rubber hoses and turned a blind eye to sexual abuse.
He later said he couldn't remember a single person from his early years ever telling him they loved him.
"Being beaten by his stepfather is the earliest memory that Mr. Miller can recall, and beatings are the rhythm of his childhood," a clinical psychologist wrote after a court-ordered examination. "Mr. Miller, from a very early age, harbored a simmering rage. He hated his stepfather for the brutality and humiliation he was subjected to, and he loathed his mother for first failing to protect him from his stepfather and later for turning him into her sexual plaything. His rage has also been enacted on many other innocent 'stand-ins' for his mother."
Miller joined the Marine Corps in 1974 at 17 and made it through boot camp, but deserted when he learned he wouldn't be sent overseas to fight in Vietnam. He came home to Ohio, got a girlfriend pregnant, and left again when she chose to marry another man.
He bounced between Ohio and Texas, working odd jobs as a welder and bartender. He was hitchhiking through East Tennessee when a car driven by Reverend Benjamin Calvin Thomas stopped on the shoulder of Interstate 75.
"You know, I would have liked to redeem him," the pastor later told police. "I just wanted to help him by showing that there was somebody in this world that cared for him. I am sorry that I failed."
But "Pastor Ben," as he liked to be called, was not what he seemed — and his offer of a ride wasn't exactly free. He wanted something in return...
Thomas, the principal of Sam E. Hill Elementary School and pastor of Thorngrove Baptist Church, took Miller into his South Knoxville home on Wise Hills Road in exchange for sex. He told neighbors that Miller worked as a handyman around the house and later insisted he'd treated Miller "like a son."
But Thomas' sister, Betty Anne Robinson, said that her brother regularly had live-in lovers under the guise of "spiritual counseling."
"It was a different time and my brother was never honest about his sexuality," she told the Knoxville Daily Register in 1999. "He wanted to help the guys, but he was lonely. It was a sad life for Ben."
The pair developed a daily routine: "Pastor Ben" would drop Miller off each morning as he drove to school near the Broadway viaduct downtown. Miller would give blood or work at a bus station cafeteria for enough cash to blow at the seedy pool halls downtown.
"Everybody that has ever seen him hates him yet," a vice squad detective said at the time. "A psychopathic misfit if you ever saw one."
Officers arrested Miller twice on charges of rape. In each instance, the women declined to prosecute and the charges were thrown out.
Defense lawyers argued in the Standifer case that he was venting the rage he still harbored for his mother. Prosecutors, however, said Miller was "working up the nerve" for the horrific crime that followed.
On a gorgeous May day in 1981, David Earl Miller met Lee Standifer...
Standifer, born with mild brain damage, was learning to live on her own at age twenty-three. She worked at a food-processing plant, stayed in a room at the YWCA on Clinch Avenue and called home every day to talk to her mother.
Just before her death, she told her mother she felt like she'd just started to live. She didn't tell her that she was going on a date.
"She was naive and trusting, like an innocent child," said newly-retired Detective Winston. "He was a handsome guy. They were about the same age. She would have had no idea who or what he was. A date to her was probably a walk around the mall, holding hands or him buying her a Coke — and him probably buying it with her money."
Standifer called her mother for the last time around 5:30 p.m. She walked out the door at 7 p.m. and met Miller at the corner of Clinch and Gay.
Police later retraced their steps: from the YWCA to the Hideaway Lounge, a favorite hangout of Miller's on Gay Street, now torn down; to the library on Church Avenue, where he checked out a book that included descriptions of murder during sex; to the bus station, where caught a taxi ride to the pastor's home on Wise Hills Road.
The taxi driver dropped them off just after 9:30 p.m. The pair had the house to themselves, with "Pastor Ben" at a Wednesday night prayer meeting...
Miller, who'd been drinking and taking LSD, claims not to remember what happened next. An autopsy determined that he struck Standifer across the face with a fire poker twice, using enough force to fracture her skull. He stabbed her over and over — in the neck, in the chest, in the stomach, and in the mouth.
Some of the wounds went so deep, the autopsy determined they could only have been made by driving the knife with a hammer.
The good reverend came home from church around 10 p.m. to find his carpet soaked with blood and Miller hosing out the basement. "Pastor Ben" would later tell police that Miller convinced him he had broken his nose in a bar fight, hence the blood. The clergyman ordered Miller out, but gave him until the next day to "hit the road."
The next morning, Pastor Ben Thomas drove Miller to a truck stop off I-75 and gave him $25 in traveling money. When he came home from dropping Miller off, Thomas' headlights caught the outline of a bloody T-shirt hanging from a tree. Standifer's corpse lay underneath.
Miller's run from the law didn't last for long. Police in Columbus, Ohio, arrested him a week later when he tried to pay a bar tab with a counterfeit $10 bill. He soon found himself sitting across the table from detectives in an interrogation room.
"He didn't really want to talk about it at first," Winston recalled. "He tried to deny it, but when he saw what kind of evidence we had, he knew he was just a caught rat."
What Miller told Detective Winston next was simply beyond belief...