Podcast 496: Witness to an Execution
Michael Garofalo (MG): Maybe you saw this in the news, late last week
The state of Arkansas announced that it plans to execute eight men over the course of 10 days between April 17 and April 27.
If this sounds like a lot to you, it is. Since the death penalty was reinstated in the late 70s, no state has ever executed this many people at this rate.
Why so many, so fast, right now? Arkansas’ current supply of one of the drugs used in lethal injections is set to expire at the end of April.
The death chamber is one of the darkest places in our country; no one is allowed to film, record, or photograph executions.
But there are witnesses. And in this episode we’re going to hear from some of them.
[TAPE tease MONTAGE]
MG: These voices come to us from a radio documentary produced in 2000 by StoryCorps founder Dave Isay and Stacy Abramson. It’s called Witness to an Execution. And the announcement about the executions in Arkansas’ made it seem like the right time to revisit this work and share it with you here.
From NPR this is the StoryCorps Podcast from NPR. I’m Michael Garofalo. Stay with us.
MG: Welcome back.
In this episode we’re revisiting Dave Isay and Stacy Abramson’s radio documentary, “Witness to an Execution.”
It tells the story of the men and women who participated in, carried out, and witnessed multiple executions as part of their jobs at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas.
Huntsville has been called the execution capital of the United States. In the year 2000, when this documentary was made, Texas executed 40 people there. That’s just about half of all the executions in the entire country that year.
Over the next 20 minutes you’ll hear about the impact of witnessing those executions on the people who take part in them. And you’ll learn exactly what takes place inside the Walls Unit when a person is put to death there.
[TAPE Witness to An Execution]
Narrator: “Witness to an Execution” tells the stories of the men and women involved with the execution of death row inmates at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas. Narrated by Warden Jim Willett, who oversees all Texas executions, “Witness to an Execution” documents, in minute-by-minute detail, the process of carrying out an execution by lethal injection. Most of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice employees interviewed have witnessed over one hundred inmates be put to death. One-third of all executions in the US have taken place in Texas, since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. The voices in Witness to an Execution tell a rare story. Major Kenneth Dean, a member of the ”tie-down” team, describes the act of walking an inmate from his cell to the death chamber. Jim Brazzil, a death house chaplain who has witnessed 114 executions, remembers inmates’ last words to him. Former corrections officer Fred Allen discusses his own mental breakdown, caused, he says, by participating in one too many executions. “Witness to an Execution” won a Peabody Award in 2000.
Jim Brazzil (JB): 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 (KD): My name is Kenneth Dean. I’m the Major at the Huntsville unit. I have participated and witnessed approximately 120 executions.
Michael Graczyk (MG): 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.
Jim Willet (JW): I’m Jim Willet. I’ve overseen about 75 executions at The Walls unit in Huntsville Texas. I started as a guard here 29 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. 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 40 miles east of the walls. But on execution day the condemned prisoner is transported here.
The inmate arrives at the death house early afternoon on the day of his execution and gets placed in his cell. He spends the afternoon with the Death House Chaplain, waiting. At 2 o’clock he’s allowed a phone call. At three a visit with his attorney and 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 Chaplain, Jim Brazzil.
JB: I’ve had more than one of them sing? I had one offender tell lawyer jokes. You know, that was his time during that five minutes. Right before he was executed he wanted to tell lawyer jokes. And uh I’ve had them wanna do exercises, do calisthenics sitting in there, you know? Because it’s such a nervous time. Because at that time reality is truly setting in that in just a few moments he’s going to be dead.
JW: One of my supervisors will get a call at 6 o’clock 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 will be in the second cell and I usually go down there and call him by his name and tell him it’s time to come with me to the next room.
JB: He’ll walk up to the cell where we are and 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.
JW: When he gets into the chamber I’ll tell him to sit down on the gurney and lay down with his head on the pillow. At that time when he gets in there all the straps are undone and within probably 30 to 45 seconds the officers have him completely strapped in.
KD: My name is Kenneth Dean and I’ve participated in approximately over 100 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 on 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.
Terry Graham (TG): I’m Captain Terry Graham, a member of the tie down team and 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 another goes right across his abdominal area.
KD: Some of them are very calm, some of them are upset, some of them are crying.
TG: Some of them have been sweating, some of them have the smell of anxiety if you will. The fear.
KD: Usually within about 20 seconds he’s completely strapped down. 20-30 seconds. I mean it’s down to a fine art.
TG: It’s basically a situation where we just make sure he’s secure. That he won’t be jumping up, that he won’t be able to squirm out of the restraints himself, and that the job can be done. The job being the execution itself.
KD: After all the straps are done they will look at you and they’ll say “thank you.” And here you just strapped them a man to the table and they’ll look you in the eye and say “thank you” for everything that you’ve done. And you know that’s kind of a, a weird feeling.
KD: 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 take him into the chamber and you tie him down. And then a few minutes later, he’s gone.
TG: Just another part of doing what I do as a correctional officer. It’s something that the vast majority of people want done. So I’m one of the few people in state that’s able to play a part in the process.
KD: It’s– it’s a very unique job. Very unique. Not many people are willing to do this or can do this. I believe in what I do. If I didn’t and I felt it was morally wrong, or ethically wrong, then I wouldn’t participate in it. And that’s something that we’re not required to do is participate in it. But I do this voluntarily.
TG: One thing I am glad of is we’re not using the electric chair. I don’t think I would want to be a part of that. This process here is clinical. The inmate, other than the fact that he’s expired, you don’t know anything has happened to him, and uh, you know, that’s good.
KD: You know it’s something that everybody has to deal with, in their own way. You know some people, they might like to drink and you know, forget about it. I can take my mind off things when I go fishing. I like the outdoors and you know, that’s just how I cope with it.
JW: At 6:05, the medical team inserts the needles and hooks up the IVs. Chaplain Jim Brazzil.
JB: After they’re strapped down, then all of the officers will leave and then it’s the warden and myself in the chamber with him and they’ll be a medical team come in. And they will establish and IV in each arm.
JW: I have been somewhat surprised that it’s 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 inmates lying on the gurney and myself and Chaplain Brazzil are in the chamber with the inmate.
JB: I usually put my hand on their leg right below their knee. And I usually give them a squeeze and let them know that 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.
I’ve seen them so nervous that they get one of these twitches in their leg or something and just 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 and I believe I could say they were more calm than I am with you right now.
JW: 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.
Larry Fitzgerald (LF): Once the IVs are established then we bring the witnesses in. In Texas the inmate is allowed five witnesses plus a special advisor. The victims are allowed five witnesses, plus there are five media witnesses.
Wayne Sorge (WS): I’m Wayne Sorge, news director of KSAM in Huntsville Texas. When we’re brought into the room the inmate is already strapped to the gurney and the tubes are inserted in each wrist.
Leigh-Anne Gideon (LG): My name is Leigh-Anne Gideon. I am a former reporter for the Huntsville Item. The gurney, I mean it takes up almost the entire room. 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.
Michael Graczyk (MG): I’m Michael Graczyk from the Associated Press. When they’re on the gurney they’re stretched out and 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 Maretz (JM): I’m John Maretz, a reporter with the Fort Worth Star Telegram. The warden will stand at the head of the condemned man and the Chaplain will be standing with his hands on the condemned person’s knee. The warden will ask if the condemned person has any last words he’d like to say. A boom mic will come down from the ceiling and sometimes you can see the man strapped down with 8-10 straps across his body, he’ll struggle to get his voice close to the mic. It’s not necessary but, he does it anyway.
MG: And the inmate either declines to speak or says nothing, or says a lot, or sings, or prays, or does any number of things.
JM: Generally the voice is emotional, nervous, cracks a little bit.
LG: A lot of inmates apologize. A lot of inmates will say “you’re executing an innocent man.” And then there have been some that have been executed that I knew. And I’ve had them tell me goodbye.
JW: 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. Some of them have told me “this will be my last line” and some of them say “warden I’ll tell ya” and then they literally turn to me and say “Warden, that’s all.”
JM: The warden will remove his glasses, which is a signal to the executioners behind a mirrored glass window, and when the glasses come off the lethal injection begins to flow.
LG: I was 26 years old when I witnessed my first execution. After the execution was over I felt numb. That’s a good way to explain it and a lot of people will tell you that, it’s just a numb feeling afterwards.
JM: 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.
LG: I’ve walked out of the death chamber numb and my legs feeling like rubber sometimes. Um, my head maybe not really feeling like it’s attached to my shoulders. I’ve have been told it’s perfectly normal, everyone feels it, and after awhile that numb feeling goes away. And indeed it does.
WS: 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 the living is hold up a mirror to people of what their world is. Capital punishment is a part of that and if you are in the city where more capital punishment occurs than any place else in the civilized world then that has to be part of the job.
JW: At 6:12 the executioner, a member of my staff whose identity is kept secret, begins to administer the chemicals. This is public relations office Larry Fitzgerald again.
LF: Texas has not used a machine, some states use an actual injection machine, we use a syringe that’s administered through an IV tube from another room.
JB: The first chemical that’s used is a drug called sodium pentothal, okay. Sodium pentothal is the same chemical that they used on you whenever you’re gonna have surgery, and it works very quick.
WS: I know that at times they know when it’s happening to them. One in particular I can remember where he said “I can taste it.”
JB: 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 Night. And it got to the part “round yon virgin mother and child” and just as he got child out was the last word.
JM: 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.
LG: It’s very quiet, it’s extremely quiet. You can hear every breath everyone takes around you, you can hear the cries of the weeping, the praying.
JB: The second chemical is pancuronium bromide. Which is the uh, muscle relaxant. It causes the diaphragm in the lungs to collapse.
WS: It’s usually a real. Real deep breath, it just seems like they draw in any air that they can.
LG: And then when that breath goes, it’s, it’s like a snore it’s like [Breathes]. Kind of like taking a balloon and squishing that balloon and the sound a balloon makes when you’re squishing the air out of it.
JM: Generally, there’s some erratic movement on the part of the inmate, some coughing, sputtering, occasionally a gasp. Then there’s quiet.
LF: I’ve had several of them where watching their last breath go from their bodies and their eyes never unfixed from mine, you know? Actually locked together. And I can close my eyes now and see those eyes.
WS: My feelings and my emotions are extremely intense at that time. 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.
JB: The third chemical actually stops the heart.
JW: 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 T on three minutes.
LG: You see no more breathing, you hear no more sounds and it’s just waiting.
MG: 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.
LG: I’ve seen family members collapse in there. I’ve seen them scream and wail. I’ve seen them beat the glass.
WS: I’ve seen them fall onto 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?
LG: You’ll never hear another sound like a mother wailing when she’s 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.
Reverend Carroll Pickett (CP): My name is Reverend Carroll Pickett. I’m a Presbyterian minister. I’m retired from the Walls unit where I was a chaplain for the Death House, and I’ve walked with and stood by and witnessed the execution of 95 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 uh, a new, almost a new world.
In the beginning, everybody was a name. But as it got on everybody started doing it just bam bam bam. You do three a year it’s one thing. Do 35 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, you got probably 45 seconds, where you can be together for the last time. And nobody, nobody, can hear what goes on there and the conversations that took place in there were basically indescribable. It was always something different. Like I would say, “I want you to pray this prayer,” and one of them would say “You know, I just want to tell you thank you.” One of them would say, “don’t forget to mail my letters.” Another would say, “Just tell me again, is it gonna hurt?” One of them would say, “what do I say when I see God?” You got 45 seconds and you’re trying to tell a guy what to say to God?
JW: At 6:20, I call in a doctor to examine the inmate and pronounce death. This is Mike Graczyk, from the Associated Press.
MG: Uh, the physician will take a stethoscope and look for a heart beat or a pulse. Sign 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 and a guard opens the door and we file out.
JW: At that point all of the witnesses are escorted out immediately and the medical team will then come in and take the IVs out.
TG: 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.
JW: The procedure is almost always over by 6:25, and we’re free to go. The execution seems to affect all of us differently. Some get quiet and seem to reflect afterwards. 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 publically.
Fred Allen (FA): I was just working in the shop and all of a sudden something just triggered in me and I started shaking. And 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 were 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, something triggered within and everybody, all of these executions, all of a sudden all sprung forward.
JW: Three years later, Fred can still the eyes of the men he helped tie down.
FA: Just 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 a mental breakdown, I don’t know if it probably would be classified more as a traumatic stress, similar to what individuals in war had, you know? They come back from the war and 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 were just so many of them.
JW: After sixteen years in the prison system Fred resigned. He now works as a carpenter.
FA: 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 gonna trigger. Everybody has a stopping point. Everybody has a certain level. That’s all there is to it.
JW: 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 33, and I’m getting we’ll get someplace close to 50 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 is right. It’s something I’ll be thinking about for the rest of my life.
I’m Warden Jim Willett, in Huntsville Texas.
Michael Garofalo (MG): You’ve been listening to Witness to an Execution. This documentary first aired on NPR’S All Things Considered on October 12, 2000. It was produced by Dave Isay and Stacey Abramson. David Miller was the Production Assistant. It was edited by Gary Covino. The music is played by Bob Mellman and Kenny Kosek and Henry Sapoznik was the Music Producer.
That’s it for this episode of the StoryCorps Podcast. Remember to rate and review us on Itunes, we read all your comments. Or you can give us a call at 301-744-TALK. That’s 301-744-T-A-L-K. And until next time, I’m Michael Garofalo. Thanks for listening.