Killing Time | The Nation


Killing Time

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About the Author

Mary Mapes
Mary Mapes is an award-winning television producer and reporter based in Texas. In a twenty-eight-year career spent...

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The caucus was raucous and the rancor will continue for weeks. But if you're a Democrat in the Lone Star State, these are good times, baby.

Deep inside The Walls in a bare cell, Turner had already polished off his last meal: three omelets, a pizza, two cheeseburgers and a chocolate cake. With the court ruling, he was escorted back to his cell to spend the night stretched out on his own bed instead of on a slab.

In a state unaccustomed to standing down on the death penalty, Turner's last-minute reprieve was met with stunned disbelief. Witnesses flew out of the building as though they had been shot from a cannon.

Outside the prison, the protesters were flabbergasted. A band of Europeans who had chosen to spend their vacations in Huntsville visiting death row pen pals were shocked and overjoyed. A German film crew scrambled to capture the rare celebration. During the hubbub, the vigil candle burned out. No one really noticed.

In the parking lot a prison employee and a longtime protester exchanged "Praise the Lord" salutes as they passed each other.

The heavy load of executions in this state is uniquely difficult for the people who work in the Huntsville prison. Beginning officers earn less than $24,000 a year, and they don't make extra money to participate in executions. But for decades, these people have repeatedly volunteered for the tough duty; to be part of the team, to be professionals, to feel they are protecting the public. They often end up paying for the privilege.

They are met by distraught protesters on execution nights. When they go home, they have to live with what they've seen.

Corrections officers have counseling available, but few seem to take part. Expressing any concerns or doubts about the death penalty gets them moved off the team. Most often, they are left to the cold comfort of Lone Star beer and the company of people in the same position.

Former warden Jim Willett every day ponders his own morality while he putters around the prison museum. Retired prison spokesman Larry Fitzgerald says he still supports capital punishment in some cases but concedes that he lives with what he calls "the sorrow."

On the other hand, the politicians who have pushed--and profited from--the death penalty in Texas are still loyal to lethal injection. Yet most of these folks have never made the short trek from the state capitol to the prison to see their policies in action.

George W. Bush approved 152 executions and never deigned to watch one.

His successor, Rick Perry, has given the go-ahead to 166 executions, more than any governor in modern times, but he has never been around when the deed has been done. He has visited the death chamber, but only when it was empty. He was simply a well-heeled tourist taking in the sights.

The elected judges who rule so imperiously in favor of execution can't clear their calendars to watch one, either. Judge Sharon Keller, who closed the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rather than wait for a life-or-death argument, has never come to Huntsville to see the results of her rulings. Neither have any of the other judges on the state appeals court who decide these cases on a regular basis.

The US Supreme Court does its work in splendid isolation, a world away from the smell of the chemicals, the pain of the evening, the pangs of conscience the workers in Huntsville carry out of the death chamber with them.

After years of performing executions at a pace that scares the bejesus out of the rest of the civilized world, Texas finally has had to put the brakes on its machine. At least for now, the state's politicians and legal potentates are not in charge. Like the corrections officers and the condemned, they can do little but wait for a court ruling.

In the death chamber tonight, for the first time in a generation, the engine has been left idling.

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