Of the 1,099 people executed in the United States since 1976, 405 of them took their last breath on a gurney in Texas. The state's death chamber functions as a magnificently efficient engine. With an execution every couple of weeks, sometimes several a month, the Texas system is slick and smooth, fine-tuned and fast.
Execution teams at Huntsville are so well trained and so practiced that other states regularly came here to see how it's done. In at least one case, a Texas team was hired to work an out-of-state execution.
There is an odd, almost Orwellian process at play in this capital punishment capitol that keeps the people who do this work removed from it. You can hear it in the execution etiquette that defines conversations. No one here refers to witnessing an execution; instead people talk about "witnessing." The doctor doesn't pronounce the inmate dead; the doctor "pronounces."
But then Huntsville prison employees aren't participating in the state-ordered homicide of a human being; they're "working late." One longtime warden was known for initiating the short walk with an inmate to the death chamber by saying, "It's time to go to the next room."
People who work at the prison, many of whom have witnessed executions by the dozens, usually won't acknowledge, even when pressed, the actual number they have taken part in. That is considered bad form, at least until the person retires and they count up the final tally.
Then the numbers can be staggering.
Larry Fitzgerald, the prison system's now-retired public information officer, took part in 219 executions, more than double the number that have taken place in any state outside Texas. He admits that he occasionally needed "to crawl into a bottle of scotch" after some of the executions, particularly the days when two people were put to death. "Those two-a-days were tough," he told me. "Once they scheduled three in one day, and we were more relieved than the inmate when the last one was canceled."
Fitzgerald witnessed some of the most infamous executions and saw firsthand some of the system's occasional complications. He recalls a watching a "blowout" when the I-V burst free from the inmate's arm.
In 1988, one spectacular "blowout" resulted in the lethal chemicals being sprayed around the room. Even then Texas didn't call a halt and re-examine the lethal injection procedure. The one comfort for would-be witnesses is there is now a Plexiglas window in place so they are protected from such a mishap. Old hands at the prison say witnesses used to stand behind a simple rail, almost close enough to reach out and touch the gurney.
Former warden Jim Willett oversaw eighty-nine executions in his three years as head of the Huntsville prison. He now oversees the nearby Texas Prison Museum, a tourist attraction just outside the city with a world-class collection of lethal homemade shanks, old photos and Old Sparky, the state's out-of-commission electric chair.
The chair carried 361 inmates to their death before it was unplugged for the last time in 1964. When executions began again, the chair was replaced with a gurney, and a chemical solution did the work of the electric current.
Willett was in charge of the process as warden. He still speaks with awe about the efficiency of the Texas execution teams. "These guys are so well trained that it just goes like this." He snapped his fingers in cadence three times. "Every time."
Willett's job meant he stood in place at the head of the gurney, one of the last faces the condemned would see, signaling when it was time for the chemicals to begin pouring into the inmate's veins. Now retired, Willett seems chastened by his time in the death chamber. He says he has to "search my soul all the time about the morality--the morality of my participation. I was a participant."
When I told Willett, a sweet and perpetually teary-eyed man, that I would be witnessing the scheduled execution that night, he said with great sincerity, "Oh, you don't want to do that. Don't do that. Please don't do that. Once you've seen that it will always be with you. You're never gonna forget it. And you might want to."
Two days before my visit another execution had been scheduled here in Huntsville. The same kind of group had gathered at the prison: guards, witnesses, the victims' family and a lone villain.
This was the same day the Court had announced it would hear arguments on the humaneness of lethal injection. Seeing an opening, a team of anti-death penalty attorneys flew into action, preparing an appeal for the inmate based on the pending decision. Maddeningly, their computer crashed; and while they scrambled to fix it, one of the team called the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to advise that the appeal would be a few minutes late and to beg the court to stay open. They were told matter-of-factly that the court closed at 5 p.m. Period.
If the appeal didn't go through the Texas court, it couldn't go any further. The lawyers missed the deadline by twenty minutes. Their client was dead a few hours later.
The decision to close the court at its regular time was made by longtime Texas Appeals Court Judge Sharon Keller, notorious in anti-death penalty circles for her staunch support of the practice. She may be best known for her refusal to accept definitive DNA evidence to clear a man in a rape case. She didn't trust the science.
Rulings like that are just one of the reasons that death row inmates rarely live long enough to digest their last meal in Texas.