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Uncomfortable jokes about executing prisoners by former Texas Death House warden

Jim Willett at the door of Texas' death chamber
Joking about executions was more than some students and college professors were ready to hear, especially when the stand up comic was in charge of executing so many Texas prisoners.

The warden who oversaw the Walls Unit in Huntsville, giving the order to go ahead with 89 executions, joked about sending inmates to their death as he spoke to a University of Houston Downtown lecture Tuesday night, but some students and staff expressed discomfort as they talked about it outside the event.

Jim Willett had copies of his two books for sale as he addressed the UHD Criminal Justice Lecture Series.

Now head of the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, he never focused on one single theme or message as he addressed a room full of around 80 students, faculty and visitors. He began telling several stories and then stopped, midway, and told the audience he needed to back up or he had forgotten details.

In answering one student's question, Willett said an inmate had clearly told the prison chaplain minutes before his execution that he was innocent of the crime he was about to die for. As the audience sat and digested his statement, he said he meant to say that the inmate had admitted his guilt.

Willett was responding to a question about whether he ever gave the command to execute an inmate that he believed may be innocent. Willett said the inmate in his botched story had told the chaplain that he really was guilty, but he gave a final statement professing his innocence because he just couldn't stand the thought of telling his family he was guilty.

While joking or making fun may be an understandable part of on-the-job stress relief for prison workers when no one else is around, Willett's jokes about sending prisoners to their death took students, faculty and others in attendance by surprise.

He said that one inmate was strapped to the gurney and asked for a piece of gum because his mouth was so dry. In a move of compassion, the executioner stepped up and opened a piece of candy and plopped it into the inmate's mouth. The warden said that inmate just started chewing and chewing on that candy.

Then Willett said he stepped around to the inmate's other shoulder and asked the inmate if that happened to be a Livesaver.

While a few uncomfortable laughs were heard in the UHD auditorium, others looked to the floor.

Willett then continued his story and said the inmate replied that he was hoping that it was, indeed, a Lifesaver, but he didn't think it was working.

Willett also says he joked with another inmate who was about to die, over the gesture the warden would give to start the execution. He said that the inmate had heard a national radio interview, in which Willett said his signal to the executioner was to simply take off his reading glasses when the inmate's final statement was finished. When the glasses come off, the executioner starts the lethal drugs flowing through the IV.

Willett gleefully said he asked this particular inmate how he'd know when the final statement was finished, and he said the inmate replied that he would just tell the warden to take off his glasses.

But that joke wasn't over for the UHD crowd.

Willett said he sternly told the inmate not to say such a thing during his final statement to the witnesses in the execution chamber. He said he was very firmly telling him not to do something, but he chuckled with the UHD college crowd and said he found it strange that he was threatening an inmate who was about to die. After all, said Willett, what could he possibly threaten this person with anyway?

Willett's story about taking off his glasses to signal the executioner has been repeated many times since he started selling books. He told a KPRC Local 2 interviewer about his trademark move for a report that aired after his retirement from TDCJ. It was also immortalized in that radio broadcast that the now deceased convict had mentioned hearing, since that NPR broadcast received a Peabody Award.

At the UHD event, he admitted that he copied that move from the past warden. Perhaps that past warden didn't take so much joy in telling about this move, which is why it's ripe for this warden to use as new material.

Texas' death chamberWillett also said he followed the advice of that past warden by waiting exactly three minutes from the time the inmate appears to die before calling in the doctor to pronounce the inmate dead. He said the past warden had indicated this was 'just to be safe' so he figured he should follow that protocol.

On the first execution he presided over, he said it was the longest three minutes of his life.

Willett told several stories of how he was compassionate in the final hours or moments of a convict's life, almost as if he was bragging. In one case, he says he allowed a series of phone calls that are normally off limits, in other cases he says he allowed cigarettes for the condemned even though TDCJ has been smoke free since the 90's.

At first, Willett said there were almost never any problems in finding a vein to insert needles on both arms of the inmate. Then later, he was asked a specific question and he admitted one instance where veins could not be easily found so only a single needle was inserted in one arm. After he gave the order to start the execution, he said the inmate turned to him and announced the needle had fallen out.

Willett said he closed the curtains to shield the witnesses, and those witnesses were led out so that they could be led in to start all over again once the needle had been replaced.

He said he often tapped people who are not state employees to help him with the difficult task of starting the final IV's for executions under his watch. When pressed for exactly what he meant, he remained vague but he said he would sometimes find people who had experience in starting IV's during the Vietnam War since they would be perfect for the task in the stressful Texas Death Chamber.

On the subject of needing to round up help in executing convicts, Willett said several employees who executed Karla Faye Tucker asked to be removed from the execution detail. He said some called in sick the following day and others sought counseling, while others said it changed how they looked at executions.

Tucker was one of two women to be executed on Willet's watch. The other, he said, went smoothly. However, Tucker's was complicated by the immense national media attention since she had claimed to be a born-again Christian and shots of her praying were all over the national news as her execution approached in 1998. She was condemned for a barbaric 1993 drug-fueled pickax slaying of two people.

Willett said his entire 'strap down team' and anyone having any part of the execution always handled it with professionalism and that was always important to him. He said that he would watch carefully because anyone who seemed to enjoy executions had no place in the execution process.

He said he would quickly call them in and take them off the execution detail if they seemed like they'd be unprofessional about such a somber task.

In this reviewer's opinion, Willett should follow his own advice and take himself off the execution detail for his book tour.

From a reporter who has been an official witness of two executions and covered dozens more: This UHD book-selling lecture was likely the worst example of insensitivity and glee from a TDCJ Death House employee being on display in such a disturbing manner.

Source: examiner.com, October 20, 2009

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