We all sat, separate but together, watching the clock and waiting to be summoned. Would-be witnesses were confined to an office; the warden and the guards gathered not far from the gurney; the victims’ family was in a meeting room, the killer’s friends were sequestered by the Coke machines. The anonymous executioner waited inside the prison to take his position behind the death chamber’s two-way mirror. The condemned was alone in his cell.
Four hundred and five times in the past twenty-five years, the call had come for all to assemble and enter the Texas death chamber. The ritual had nearly always ended the same way–the dead in a hearse pulling away from Huntsville’s old brick prison, the living left in search of a stiff drink.
On this night, however, the evening would end with a beginning, with what appears to be the start of a nationwide moratorium on execution. Even in Texas.
When the Supreme Court agreed on September 25 to consider whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, it triggered a brand new avenue of appeal for inmates on death row. Most states quickly decided to hold off on executions until the Court reaches a decision.
But in Texas, the free world’s epicenter of execution, the state vowed to press on, sticking to its plan to execute at least four men in September.
I was on hand in Huntsville because I believed that after more than twenty years of covering capital punishment, I should follow the system to the bitter end, to the execution itself. I’d arrived at the prison complex at 4:30, an hour and a half before I was to witness the state-ordered demise of Carlton Turner. A 28-year-old high school dropout who coldly shot to death his adoptive parents nine years ago, Turner had stuffed his parents’ bodies in the garage and was using their car and credit cards when police arrested him.
He spent nine years on death row before being brought to Huntsville to be executed.
The prison here is referred to as The Walls, an apt name for the massive brick fortress, which stands forbiddingly just off the city’s quaint downtown, like a monster in a cottage backyard. Ancient and imposing, it looks like the kind of place where someone could get killed.
The opposite is true of the prison’s administrative offices. It would be easy to mistake the place for some kind of bland marketing distribution center. Dilbert would feel at home here amid the cubicles.
A few windows and doors are decorated with pictures of newborns, Halloween posters or funny notes. Much of the office is bare. The real business of this business is buried, hidden inside the stacks of paper and digital databases that indicate where an inmate will be housed, what he will be fed, whether or when he will be put to death.
Proponents of Texas’s tough system have known for years about the growing concern among the faint of heart elsewhere over whether the condemned suffered when killed with chemicals or whether the training of the team inserting the I-V was adequate, whether the dosage was correct or even whether the inmate died slowly or swiftly. That didn’t matter in Texas.