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.
Most other states handle only a few executions a year and sputter along, regularly stopping to tweak and tinker with the machinery of death. Texas is in a league of its own.
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.
As a first-time witness, I was an oddity at the prison that night. Everyone else in the witness room was a veteran. They’d seen dozens. One man, Michael Graczyk, had seen hundreds of men and women die.
An Associated Press reporter based in Houston, he sat quietly in the corner tapping out advance stories on Turner’s death. Graczyk is believed to have witnessed more state-run executions than any warden, any executioner, any guard or anybody in the modern Western world. He serves as a kind of living memory bank for the people working at the prison and a guide for those of us who hadn’t seen the death chamber in operation before.
While a string of sitcoms and a recap of the previous night’s vote totals on Dancing With the Stars played loudly on the TV in our waiting area, Graczyk pointed out the time and warned that traditionally, the longer the wait, the worse it looked for the inmate.
I told him I had never seen an execution. He grumbled that there wasn’t much to see. “It’s very uneventful. Very, very uneventful,” he said, “There’s virtually no reaction. He may snort or gasp very briefly, snore and that’s it. The doctor comes in, he pronounces him dead and we leave.”
Graczyk told me he’d lost count of the number of executions he had seen when “it became an issue” for death penalty opponents who accused him of regarding executions “like notches on the belt.” He says he attends because someone in the press has to. “If the state is going to take somebody’s life, I would hate to see that happen without someone watching.”
He’s right, of course, but there are few takers.
A young reporter from another paper offered me a tip. “I try not to think of them as people. Or it would make it really hard when you went home. You know?”
We waited for hours. The phone in the room rang regularly. Unlike in the movies, it was never the governor’s office on the line. Instead, the public information officer would bark into the phone “It hasn’t happened yet” or “We’re still waiting.” She dismissed the callers as “death penalty groupies,” people who phone constantly on execution nights to find out whether the inmate is dead. She said she’s never figured out whether they are eager for the execution or praying for a reprieve.
More than four hours after the execution was scheduled to start, not long before the death warrant ran out, the Supreme Court stepped in and stopped the execution of Carlton Turner.
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.