Outside the Texas Death Chamber

Outside the Texas Death Chamber

As Kimberly McCarthy was put to death—the 500th Texas prisoner executed since 1982—protesters and crime victims alike came to bear witness.


All photos credit: Alex Hannaford

Huntsville, Texas—At 4 pm on June 26, the road in front of the tall red brick perimeter walls of Huntsville’s prison is quiet, but Texas State Troopers begin to cordon it off with yellow tape in anticipation of what’s about to happen.

In an hour, some fifty men and women will have gathered at the western end of the road, waving banners that read “Stop Executions,” “Don’t Kill For Me,” and “Abolish the Racist Death Penalty.” By 6 pm their numbers will have swollen to around sixty and they’ll be shouting, some of them gathering by the yellow tape and causing the ranks of troopers to swell too.

At 6:37 pm the crowd will fall silent, while behind those prison walls Texas executes its 500th death row inmate since capital punishment resumed here in 1982: a gruesome milestone that focused renewed international attention on a state that executes more people than any other in the nation.

The woman who will be strapped to a gurney and killed using a single, lethal dose of the barbiturate pentobarbital is Kimberly McCarthy, a 52-year-old former occupational therapist from Lancaster, Texas, just south of Dallas.

McCarthy is the thirteenth woman to be executed since a nationwide moratorium on capital punishment ended in 1976, and one of more than 1,300 people have been executed since. More than a third of these executions have been carried out in Texas.

Kimberly McCarthy’s guilt was never in question, and her crime was particularly heinous. In 1997, high on crack, she entered the home of her 71-year-old neighbor, Dorothy Booth, a former college professor, claiming she wanted to borrow a bag of sugar. McCarthy then stabbed Booth to death with a butcher’s knife, severing one of her fingers in order to remove her wedding ring (which she later pawned) and stole her credit cards to buy drugs. Traces of Booth’s blood were later found in McCarthy’s home. (DNA evidence also implicated McCarthy in the similarly grisly murders of two other elderly women in 1988, but she was never tried for those crimes.)

There were problems with McCarthy’s trial. Her initial conviction was overturned because a statement she gave to police was improperly used against her in court. She was tried a second time, before a jury that included just one black member. In Dallas County where the trial took place, a quarter of the population is black.

McCarthy’s appellate attorney, Maurie Levin, a law professor at the University of Texas in Austin, claimed racism played a part in that decision. The court disagreed.

* * *

At the eastern end of the road outside the prison is another yellow police cordon, behind which a handful of pro–death penalty activists are trying to stay out of the scorching sun.

It’s the first execution that psychology majors Jennifer Jepson and Destiny Thompson have attended, and they say they’re here to be a part of history. Jepson says she realizes that the death penalty doesn’t deter people from committing murder. Wouldn’t you opt for life without parole instead, then, I ask, to which she answers, “They can still kill people in prison. They had their chance.”

Thompson, whose placard reads “Justice for the Victims,” tells me if a member of her family was murdered she’d want justice, by which she means the death penalty.

Opposite the prison, in a building housing the Texas Department of Corrections, McCarthy’s ex-husband waits to be led across the road to watch his former wife die. In a smaller, single-room brick building next door, members of the press await details of the execution: what time the lethal dose took hold, what McCarthy’s last words were, whether she made a last-minute admission; whether she looked anyone in the eye before she died.

Jennifer Emily, courts reporter for The Dallas Morning News, is on the media witness list—those with the dubious distinction of actually seeing McCarthy take her final breath. It’s not the first execution she’s seen. Emily witnessed the death by lethal injection of George Rivas, ringleader of the so-called Texas Seven, a group of inmates who staged an audacious prison escape in 2000, killing a police officer while on the run. “Executions are very clinical,” she tells me. “Much more so than I thought it would be.”

Witnesses, she says, stand in a private viewing area, separated from the death chamber by Perspex. “Even though you’re watching through a window, they seem very far away—about five or six feet. And once the lethal dose is administered, time goes by incredibly slowly. “It was the longest six minutes I’ve ever experienced. You’re standing there, the inmate starts breathing rapidly, then their breath slows. After that, you’re just waiting. My heart raced a little.”

Emily was anxious before she saw Rivas executed. This time, for the most part, she knows the procedure; she knows what’s going to happen. It’s just like watching someone fall asleep.

I ask whether there could be a last-minute reprieve for McCarthy. “The governor could do something,” she says. “But it’s unlikely.”

Among the crowd of protesters is a woman wearing a cassock and clerical collar, shielding a lit candle with her hands. Rev. Cheryl Smith has only lived in Huntsville for a couple of years—Methodist ministers are moved around from place to place by the church—but she’s been here long enough to know she needs to be outside the prison today, protesting what she feels is fundamentally wrong.

A few hours earlier, I had sat with Smith in her office at Wesley Memorial United Methodist, a church set back off a pine-fringed road not far from downtown Huntsville.

Her bookshelves were full and wooden angels took up a small table next to her cluttered desk. Smith wasn’t always opposed to execution. Turning up for jury duty in her early 20s, she was asked if she would support the death penalty and she said yes. “I was young and hadn’t thought it through,” she told me.

She once worked as a teacher, then she went to grad school and practiced clinical psychiatry for 20 years before going to seminary and then into the ministry.

“When I arrived in Huntsville I’d drive by the Walls [the nickname given to the prison] every day at least twice because it’s between the Parsonage and the church,” she said. “And execution became an issue that I could not longer put on the back burner. Five or six months later I went to a vigil.”

Smith has been to almost every execution since. Some of her parishioners now join her. “Not because I’ve pushed them,” she said. “It’s something that comes from within.”

I asked if she thought the families of the victims got closure from seeing the person who murdered their loved one executed. “There’s only closure if the motivation is vengeance,” Smith said. “And I can’t support that.”

Another person quietly protesting McCarthy’s execution is Rais Bhuiyan. Though he had a fleeting brush with international fame a few years ago, he blends in to the background—yet his presence is deeply poignant.In September 2001, days after the terrorist attacks, a man called Mark Stroman opened fire on three employees at separate Dallas convenience stores, claiming he was avenging the deaths of those who died. Bhuiyan was the sole survivor; Stroman spent a decade on death row for the murders. But rather than advocate for “justice” in the form of an execution, Bhuiyan poured all his energy into saving the life of his would-be killer. He was convinced that if Stroman was given a chance to live he would use his time to preach tolerance, not hate. On the eve of Stroman’s execution, Bhuiyan was in court in Austin pushing for a stay. He was unsuccessful, and today, as Texas prepares to execute its 500th death row inmate, he has come to the prison where Stroman lost his life, for the first time.

“I told myself I had to come to Huntsville one day,” Bhuiyan tells me. “But the feeling is sweet and sour. We have to be here. We have to make our voices heard. Because if we don’t, more people will end up on death row. And the death penalty doesn’t accomplish anything.

“Whatever happened to me—the pain and suffering I had—I can’t get that time back. I can’t do it over. So it’s better to release the pressure; the negative energy in my mind and body; the pain and suffering of the crime. And to do that you need to forgive—to do something positive.

“I respect the feelings of [McCarthy’s] victim’s family. But killing her will never get your loved one back. If you forgive you’ll help alleviate that pain and suffering you feel. Keep her behind bars and maybe tomorrow she’ll change. But if you take her life, you’ll never know.”

Sitting behind Bhuiyan is a elderly woman displaying a sign to passing cars inviting them to “Honk to stop executions.” Joanne Gavin, 82, has been protesting capital punishment outside the Walls Unit since 1982 when Texas executed its first inmate since the moratorium. “I spent fifty years in the civil rights movement,” she tells me. “That’s my background.”

I ask whether she thinks she’ll see the death penalty repealed in her lifetime. “My lifetime ain’t that long,” she says. “But some of these folks here will see it. I don’t get upset any more. Just angry.”

It’s 6.25 pm and a number of protesters have approached the yellow cordon and are facing a line of State Troopers on the other side. One lady begins singing, loudly: “Wade in the water, wade in the water children.” It’s a turn-of-the-century spiritual, and her voice carries all the way up the road to where guards are now standing outside the main prison doors and, opposite, members of the media have gathered by a small wooden podium waiting for news of the execution.

Ten minutes later there’s an eerie silence in this little corner of Huntsville. The media witnesses appear from the prison doors, stony faced, accompanied by guards. Maurie Levin, McCarthy’s attorney, emerges too and walks across the road before disappearing into the building opposite.

A Texas Department of Criminal Justice employee tells us that three witnesses that were supposed to be there for McCarthy didn’t show—including her son. He says Dorothy Booth’s granddaughter wept throughout.

Jason Clark, the public information officer, hands out copies of McCarthy’s last statement to the press. “She was pronounced dead at 6.37 pm,” he says.

Strapped to the gurney, a microphone dangling above her head, McCarthy thanked her supporters. “This is not a loss,” she said. “This is a win. You know where I am going. I am going home to be with Jesus. Keep the faith, I love y’all. Thank you Chaplain.”

Rebecca Lopez, of Dallas TV station WFAA, and one of the media witnesses, Tweeted: “Kimberly McCarthy said God is good just before she died.… Took about 20 minutes from time the injections started.” A witness from the Associated Press wrote that McCarthy “took hard, raspy, loud breaths for several seconds before becoming quiet. Then, her chest moved up and down for another minute before she stopped breathing.”

Donna Aldred, Dorothy Booth’s daughter, thanked friends, family, as well as the Dallas district attorney, police and investigators. Her mother, she said, was an incredible woman, and although they were grateful to see justice served, nothing could fill the hole in their hearts. Randall Browning, Booth’s godson, said the family needed closure “in whatever form that it comes,” but he conceded that his 87-year-old mother, Booth’s best friend, had looked at him earlier that morning like he was crazy. “She said she will never heal.”

By the time Browning finished speaking, the protesters and the yellow tape had already disappeared.

Texas’ next execution is scheduled for July 16. But it’s unlikely to attract the groundswell of protest or media interest that was here today. Rev. Cheryl Smith anticipates just four or five people holding a the vigil. John Quintanilla’s execution may warrant a brief mention in The Huntsville Item, the local newspaper, but number 501 is no milestone.

The road outside the main entrance to the prison falls silent again. If you look hard enough, you can make out inmates in their white prison-issue jump suits peering out of the foggy glass above the prison walls.

As I walk back to the car, I send Maurie Levin, Kimberly McCarthy’s attorney, a text message asking if she can speak. “Just not up for talking, sorry,” she texts back. Instead she sends me a statement: “Kimberly McCarthy went with the abiding faith that she was going to a better place. 500 is 500 too many. I look forward to the day when we recognize that this pointless and barbaric practice, imposed almost exclusively on those who are poor and disproportionately on people of color, has no place in a civilized society.”

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