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Witness to an Execution

NPR `All Things Considered 20oct00

JIM BRAZZIL: My name is Jim Brazzil. I am a chaplain with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Part of my responsibility is being in the death chamber at the time of execution. I have been with 114 people at the time of their execution.

KENNETH DEAN: My name is Kenneth Dean. I'm the Major at the Huntsville Unit. I've participated in and witnessed approximately 120 executions.

MICHAEL GRACZYK: I'm Michael Graczyk and I'm the correspondent in charge of the Houston bureau of the Associated Press. I've witnessed approximately 170 executions.

TERRY GREEN: I have been a participant in thirty-one executions.

LEIGHANNE GIDEON: I witnessed fifty-two executions.

LARRY FITZGERALD: Probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 115 executions.

LONNIE JOHNSON: Approximately 105, 110 executions.

KATHY WALT: Thirty-six or thirty-seven executions.

FRED ALLEN: 130 executions.

WAYNE SORGE: I've witnessed 162 executions by lethal injection in the state of Texas.

JIM WILLETT: I'm Jim Willett. I've overseen about seventy-five executions at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas.

(Music fades to sound of the Walls Unit.)

I started as a guard here twenty-nine years ago and have been warden since May of 1998. The Walls takes up almost two city blocks right in the middle of town. We're a maximum-security facility, home to 1500 inmates.

(Walls Unit fades to sounds of the death house.)

We also house the state's death house. Since 1924 all executions in Texas have taken place right here. We've carried out a lot of executions here lately, and with all the debate about the death penalty I thought this might be a good time to let you hear exactly how we do these things. Sometimes I wonder whether people really understand what goes on down here and the effect it has on us.

The death house sits in a corner of the prison. It's a small brick building with eight cells and a death chamber. Most days it's empty and quiet. Death Row is actually located about forty miles east of the Walls. But on execution day the condemned prisoner is transported here.

The inmate arrives at the death house early in the afternoon on the day of his execution and gets placed in a cell. He spends the afternoon with the death house chaplain . . . waiting. At 2:00 he's allowed a phone call, at 3:00 a visit with his attorney and his spiritual advisor, at 4:30 he's given his last meal.

But I'm gonna start our story where the execution process really begins. At five minutes to six, I'm sitting in my office. I get up from my chair, put on my jacket, and walk back to the death house. At this time the inmate is in his cell, talking with the prison's chaplain, Jim Brazzil.

BRAZZIL: I've had 'em where they wanted to sing. I had one offender tell lawyer jokes. That was his time during that five minutes right before he was executed -- wanted to tell lawyer jokes. And I've had 'em want to do exercises, do calisthenics sitting in there, you know, because it's such a nervous time. Because at that time reality has truly set in that in a few moments he's going to be dead.

WILLETT: One of my supervisors will get a call at 6:00 from the governor's office, and one from the attorney general's office, telling us that it's okay to go ahead with this execution. The inmate'll be in the second cell and I usually go down there and I call his name and tell him it's time to come with me to the next room.

BRAZZIL: He'll walk up to the cell where we are and he'll say 'It's time.' And so they will unlock the cell and he's not handcuffed or chained. He's just sitting there. And he and I will walk into the chamber.

WILLETT: When he gets into the chamber, I'll tell him to sit down on the gurney and then lay down with his head on pillow. At that time when he gets in there, all of the straps are undone. And within probably thirty, forty-five seconds the officers have him completely strapped in.

DEAN: My name is Kenneth Dean and I've participated in approximately over a hundred executions as a member of the tie down team. Each supervisor is assigned a different portion -- like we have a head person, a right arm, left arm, right leg, left leg. And the right leg man will tell him 'I need you to hop up onto the gurney. Lay your head on this end, put your feet on this end.' Simultaneously while he's laying down the straps are being put across him.

GREEN: I'm Captain Terry Green. I'm a member of the tie down team in the execution process. What I do, I will strap the offender's left wrist. And then there are two belts -- one that comes across the top of his left shoulder -- and then another goes right straight across his abdominal area.

DEAN: Some of them are very calm. Some of them are upset. Some of them are crying.

GREEN: Some of them have been sweating. Some of them will have the smell of anxiety, if you will. Of fear.

DEAN: Usually within about twenty seconds he's completely strapped down. Twenty to thirty seconds. I mean, it's down to a fine art.

GREEN: It's basically a situation where we just make sure he is secure. That he won't be jumping up, that he won't be able to squirm out of the restraints themselves, and that the job can be done -- the job being the execution itself.

DEAN: After all the straps are done they will look at you and they'll say 'Thank you.' And here you've just strapped them into the table. And they look at you in the eye and tell you 'Thank you for everything that you've done.' And, you know, that's kind of a weird feeling.

(Music fades in.)

DEAN: It's kind of hard to explain what you actually feel, you know, when you talk to a man and you kind of get to know that person, and then you walk him out of a cell and you take him in there to the chamber and tie him down. And then a few minutes later he's . . . he's gone.

GREEN: Just another part of doing what I do as a correctional officer. It's something that the vast majority of the people want done. And so I am one of the few people in the state that is able to play a part in the process.

DEAN: It's a very unique job. Very unique. Not many people are willing to do this or can do this. I . . . I do believe in what I do. If I didn't and I felt that it was morally wrong or ethically wrong, then I wouldn't participate in it. And that's something we are not required to do --  is participate in it. But I do this voluntarily.

GREEN: One thing I am glad of is that we're not using electric chair. I don't think I would want to be part of that. This process here, it's clinical. The inmate, other than the fact that he's expired, you don't know anything has happened to him. And, you know, that's good.

DEAN: You know, it's something that everybody has to deal with it in their own way. You know, some people they might like to drink and forget about it. I can take my mind off things when I go fishing. I like the outdoors and that's just how I cope with it.

(Music fades out.)

WILLETT: At 6:05 the medical team inserts the needles and hooks up the IVs. Chaplain Jim Brazzil.

BRAZZIL: After they are strapped down then all the officers will leave. And then it's the warden and myself in the chamber with him, and there'll be a medical team come in and they will establish an IV into each arm.

WILLETT: I have been somewhat surprised. It never crossed my mind that some of these people are just like the rest of us and are scared to death of a needle. Usually, if it goes right, and normally it does, usually in about three minutes they've got this guy hooked up to the lines. And at that time the inmate's lying on the gurney and myself and Chaplain Brazzil are in the execution chamber with the inmate.

BRAZZIL: I usually put my hand on their leg right below their knee, you know, and I usually give 'em a squeeze, let 'em know I'm right there. You can feel the trembling, the fear that's there, the anxiety that's there. You can feel the heart surging, you know. You can see it pounding through their shirt.

WILLETT: I've seen them so nervous they get one of these twitches in their leg or something and can't stop it. And I've seen the opposite. I've seen people lay up there, hooked up and waiting for the witnesses to come in. I believe I could say they were more calm than I am with you right now.

WILLETT: At 6:09 my staff escorts the witnesses into two small rooms adjacent to the death chamber. They push up real close to the windows to get a view. Larry Fitzgerald is our public relations officer. He's witnessed about 120 executions.

FITZGERALD: Once the IVs are established, then we bring the witnesses in,  and in Texas the inmate is allowed five witnesses plus a spiritual advisor. The victims are allowed five witnesses. Plus there are five media witnesses.

SORGE: I'm Wayne Sorge, news director of KSAM in Huntsville, Texas. Well when we're brought into the room, the inmate is already strapped to the gurney and the tubes are inserted in each wrist.

GIDEON: My name is Leighanne Gideon. I am a former reporter for the Huntsville Item. The gurney -- I mean it takes up almost the entire room. And it's just sitting there right in the middle: a big silver gurney with white pads and the big brown leather straps. With huge silver buckles.

GRACZYK: I'm Michael Graczyk from the Associated Press. When they're on the gurney they're stretched out. His arms are extended. I've often compared it to almost a crucifixion kind of activity. Only as opposed to having the person upright, he is lying down.

JOHN MORITZ: I'm John Moritz. I'm a reporter with the Fort Worth Star Telegram. The warden will stand at the head of the condemned man and the chaplain will generally be standing with his hand on the condemned person's knee. The warden will ask if the condemned man has any last words he'd like to say. A boom mike will come down from the ceiling and sometimes you can see the man who's strapped in with probably eight to ten straps across his body -- he'll struggle to get his voice close to the mike. It's not necessary, but he does it anyway.

GRACZYK: And the inmate either declines to speak or says nothing or says a lot or sings or prays or does any number of things.

MORITZ: Generally the voice is emotional, nervous, cracks a little bit.

GIDEON: A lot of inmates apologize. A lot of inmates will say that you're executing an innocent man. And then there have been some men who have been executed that I knew, and I've had them tell me goodbye.

WILLETT: I will have talked to him at least once and somewhere in there found out how I'm gonna know when he's through with his statement. And most of them will tell me 'This will be my last line.' Or some of them just say 'Warden, I'll tell you,' and they will literally just turn to me and say 'Warden that's all.'

MORITZ: The warden will remove his glasses, which is the signal to the executioners behind a mirrored glass window. And when the glasses come off, the lethal injection begins to flow.

(Music fades in.)

GIDEON: I was twenty-six years old when I witnessed my first execution. After the execution was over, I felt numb. And that's a good way to explain it. And a lot of people will tell you that, that it's just a very numb feeling afterwards.

MORITZ: The first execution I did, I was wondering how I'd react to it. But it's like any other unpleasant situation a reporter is asked to cover. At some point there's a detachment. You realize that it's not about you; it's about the guy who's about ready to be put to death.

GIDEON: I've walked out of death chamber numb and my legs feeling like rubber sometimes, my head maybe not really feeling like it's attached to my shoulders. I've been told that it's perfectly normal, everyone feels it, and that after a while that numb feeling goes away. And indeed it does.

SORGE: I wrestle with myself about the fact that it's easier now, and was I right to make part of my income from watching people die? And I have to recognize the fact that what I do for a living is hold up a mirror to people of what their world is. Capital punishment is part of that, and if you are in the city where more capital punishment occurs than any place else in the civilized world, that's got to be part of the job.

(Music ends.)

WILLETT: At 6:12 the executioner -- a member of my staff whose identity is kept secret -- begins to administer the chemicals. This is public relations officer Larry Fitzgerald again.

FITZGERALD: Texas doesn't use a machine. Some states use an actual injection machine. We use a syringe that is administered through an IV tube from another room.

BRAZZIL: This is Chaplain Brazzil again. The first chemical that's used is a drug called sodium pentathol, okay, and sodium pentathol is the same chemical that they use on you whenever you are going to have surgery, and it works very quick.

WILLETT: I know that at times they know when it's happening to 'em. One in particular I can remember, he said 'I can taste it.'

BRAZZIL: Had one man who wanted to sing "Silent Night." He made his final statement and then after the warden gave the signal he started singing "Silent Nigh," and he got to the point 'Round yon virgin mother and child' and just as he got 'child' out was the last word.

MORITZ: The people inside the room watching it are invariably silent. Sometimes you find people holding hands, maybe a mother and father of a murder victim or friends of the condemned man.

GIDEON: It's very quiet. It's extremely quiet. You can hear every breath everyone takes around you. You can hear the cries, the weeping, the praying.

FITZGERALD: The second chemical is pan chromonium bromide, which is a muscle relaxant. It causes the diaphragm and the lungs to collapse.

WILLETT: It's usually a real . . . real deep breath. Just seems like they draw in all the air they can.

GIDEON: And then whenever that breath goes, it's like a snore. I mean it's like (makes sound) -- kind of like taking a balloon and squishing that balloon and the sound that a balloon makes when you're squishing the air out of it.

MORITZ: Generally there is some erratic movement on the part of the inmate, some coughing, sputtering, occasionally a gasp. Then there's quiet.

BRAZZIL: I've had several of them where watching their last breath go from their bodies and their eyes never unfix from mine. I mean actually lock together. And I can close my eyes now and see those eyes. My feelings and my emotions are extremely intense at that time. I've never . . . I've never really been able to describe it. And I guess in a way I'm kind of afraid to describe it. I've never really delved into that part of my feelings yet.

FITZGERALD: The third chemical actually stops the heart.

WILLETT: At that point, and it's just something out of tradition -- and I certainly haven't messed with it because it's worked -- I was told to wait three minutes from that point and I have kept it to a tee, three minutes.

GIDEON: You see no more breathing, you hear no more sounds. It's just waiting.

GRACZYK: I had a mother collapse right in front of me. We were standing virtually shoulder to shoulder. She collapsed, hit the floor, went into hyperventilation, almost convulsions.

GIDEON: I've seen family members collapse in there. I've seen them scream and wail. I've seen them beat the glass.

SORGE: I've seen them fall into the floor, totally lose control. And yet how do you tell a mother that she can't be there in the last moments of her son's life?

GIDEON: You'll never hear another sound like a mother wailing whenever she is watching her son be executed. There's no other sound like it. It is just this horrendous wail. You can't get away from it. That wail surrounds the room. It's definitely something you won't ever forget.

(Music fades in.)

PICKETT: My name is Reverend Carroll Pickett. I'm a Presbyterian minister. I'm retired from the Walls Unit where I was chaplain for the death house. And I walked with and stood by and witnessed the execution of ninety-five inmates, from the first one that was done in 1982 until the end of August, 1995.

In the beginning days of executions in Texas we were faced with something that nobody had ever done before. Nobody had ever been executed by lethal injection. It was a brand new concept of humane execution. And we were to do the very first one. It was a new -- almost a new world. In the beginning everybody was a name, but as it got on they just started doing it bam bam bam. You do three a year is one thing. You do thirty-five a year, that's a lot.

I've had guards -- lots of guards quit. Even those tough guards you talk about. A lot of those quit. Some of them couldn't take it. Some of them couldn't take it.

After they're strapped down and the needles are flowing and you've got probably forty-five seconds where you and he are together for the last time, and nobody -- nobody -- can hear what goes on there. And the conversations that took place in there were, well, basically indescribable. It was always something different. A guy would say 'I want you to pray this prayer.' One of 'em would say 'I just want to tell you thank you.' One of them would say 'Don't forget to mail my letters.' Another one would say 'Just tell me again, is it gonna hurt?' One of them would say 'What do I say when I see God?' You've got forty-five seconds and you're trying to tell the guy what to say to God?

(Music fades out.)

WILLETT: At 6:20 I call in a doctor to examine the inmate and pronounce death. This is Mike Graczyk from the Associated Press.

GRACZYK: The physician will take a stethoscope, look for a heartbeat or a pulse, shine a light in their eyes, and look at his watch and decide what time it is, and pronounce the time of death. And the warden repeats the time of death. We turn around, the guard opens the door, and we file out.

BRAZZIL: At that point all of the witnesses are escorted out immediately and the medical team will then come in and take the IVs out.

GREEN: And then we, the team members including myself, go in and unstrap him and then assist in putting him on the funeral home gurney until such time as he's wheeled out and that's the end of the process.

WILLETT: The procedure is almost always over by 6:25, and we're free to go. The executions seem to effect all of us differently. Some get quiet and reflective after, others less so, but I have no doubt that it's disturbing for all of us. It always bothers you. It does me.

Fred Allen, who used to be part of the tie-down team, participated in about 120 executions before he had to stop. This is the first time Fred has ever talked about his experience publicly.

FRED ALLEN: I was just working in the shop and all of a sudden something just triggered in me and I started shaking. And then I walked back into the house and my wife asked 'What's the matter?' and I said 'I don't feel good.' And tears -- uncontrollable tears -- was coming out of my eyes. And she said 'What's the matter?' And I said 'I just thought about that execution that I did two days ago, and everybody else's that I was involved with.' And what it was was something triggered within and it just everybody -- all of these executions all of a sudden all sprung forward.

WILLETT: Three years later, Fred can still see the eyes of the men he helped tie down.

ALLEN: Just like taking slides in a film projector and having a button and just pushing a button and just watching, over and over: him, him, him. I don't know if it's mental breakdown, I don't know if . . . probably would be classified more as a traumatic stress, similar to what individuals in war had. You know, they'd come back from war, it might be three months, it might be two years, it might be five years, all of a sudden they relive it again, and all that has to come out. You see I can barely even talk because I'm thinking more and more of it. You know, there was just so many of 'em.

WILLETT: After sixteen years in the prison system, Fred resigned. He now works as a carpenter.

ALLEN: My main concern is right now is these other individuals. I hope that this doesn't happen to them -- the ones that participate, the ones that go through this procedure now. And I will say honestly -- and I believe very sincerely -- somewhere down the line something is going to trigger. Everybody has a stopping point. Everybody has a certain level. That's all there is to it.

WILLETT: I don't believe the rest of my officers are going to break like Fred did, but I do worry about my staff. I can see it in their eyes sometimes, particularly when we do a lot of executions in a short period of time. So far this year we've done thirty-three, and I'm guessing we'll get some place close to fifty by the end of 2000. That'll be a record.

I'll be retiring next year and to tell you the truth this is something I won't miss a bit. There are times when I'm standing there, watching those fluids start to flow, and wonder whether what we're doing here is right. It's something I'll be thinking about for the rest of my life.

(Music fades in.)

I'm Warden Jim Willett in Huntsville, Texas.


Producers: Stacy Abramson and David Isay / Production Assistant: David Miller / Narrator: Jim Willett / Editor: Gary Covino / Supervising engineer: Caryl Wheeler / Music: Bob Mellman / Music Coordinator: Henry Sapoznik / Executive Producer for All Things Considered: Ellen Weiss / Special thanks to: Larry Fitzgerald, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice / Photography: Andrew Lichtenstein/Open Society Institute. / Funding provided by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Open Society Institute.

Witness to an Execution premiered October 20, 2000, on All Things Considered. Copyright 2000 Sound Portraits Productions. All Rights Reserved.

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