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Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

My grandfather was a death row doctor. He tested psychedelic drugs on Texas inmates.

An Austin-based writer's quest to learn his grandfather's story leads to death row — and a little-known series of experiments that involved giving hallucinogens to inmates in the early 1960s.

Editor's note: In this special contribution to The Texas Tribune, Austin writer Ben Hartman tells the story of his search for the truth about his late grandfather, a prison psychiatrist on Texas' death row who performed little-known medical experiments on inmates in the 1960s.

Eusebio Martinez was polite — even happy — as he entered the death chamber that August night in Huntsville in 1960. He may not have understood his time was up.

A few years earlier, Martinez had been convicted of murdering an infant girl whose parents had left her sleeping in their car while they visited a Midland nightclub. He’d been ruled “feeble-minded” by multiple psychiatrists and had to be shown how to get into the electric chair.

As he was strapped in, a priest leaned in and coached him to say “gracias” and a simple prayer. Just before the first bolt knifed through his brain, Martinez grinned and waved at the young Houston doctor who would declare him dead a few minutes later.

That doctor was my grandfather.

For three years at the end of his life, Dr. Lee Hartman worked as a resident physician and psychiatrist at Huntsville’s Wynne Unit. From 1960 to 1963, he witnessed at least 14 executions as presiding physician, his signature scrawled on the death certificates of the condemned men. All of them died in the electric chair – “Ol’ Sparky” – a grisly method that left flesh burned and bodies smoking in the death chamber as my grandfather read their vital signs.

I had always known from my father that his dad, who died before I was born, worked for the prison system as a psychiatrist.

But I had no idea that he’d worked in the death chamber, witnessing executions. Or that he’d been involved in testing psychedelics on prisoners to see if drugs like LSD, mescaline and psilocybin could treat schizophrenia. Or that he’d been hospitalized repeatedly during his lifelong struggle with depression.

And I didn’t know the truth about his death at age 48, when he was found on the staircase of his house in Houston’s exclusive River Oaks neighborhood.

My obsession with my grandfather’s life grew from my father’s sudden death from a stroke at his Austin home in 2014. Last summer, I came back to Austin after 14 years overseas and began searching for clues about my grandfather – in the state archives, in Huntsville and in boxes of old family keepsakes kept by my aunts.

I reported on crime and police and prisons for several years as a journalist in Israel, and now I wanted to investigate a mystery in my own family tree. I wanted to learn about the man whose story had always seemed more literary than real – a Jewish orphan from the Deep South who fought in World War II, sang in operas and became a successful doctor before tragedy cut the story short.

I wanted to know the man my father was named for, and to use the search as a way to beat a path through my grief over my own father’s death.

Through my grandfather’s personal papers, newspaper clippings and long-buried state records, I found a man – brilliant, thoughtful and sensitive – who witnessed great human drama and suffering in the Death House, and in the process became a determined opponent of capital punishment. He outlined his thoughts in a collection of diary entries and a 19-page handwritten treatise I found in my grandmother’s old keepsakes.

“The death penalty,” he wrote in 1962, “is irreparable.”

For three years my grandfather shuffled back and forth between Huntsville and Houston, where he’d established a part-time psychiatry practice in Bellaire and in his spare time sang on stage as part of the chorus of the Houston Grand Opera.

Early in my research, I was searching an online newspaper archive for my grandfather’s obituary when an unrelated article stopped me.

The United Press International wire report from May 1962 is headlined: “Stickney Dies In Electric Chair.”

“At 12:26 a.m. Stickney was strapped into the chair. He made no last statement, so to speak. Three charges of 1,600 volts charged through his body. At 12:30 a.m. Dr. Lee Hartman, the prison doctor, pronounced him dead.”

Twenty executions were carried out in Huntsville in the three years my grandfather worked there, and he wrote about the 14 he presided over.

He has the same erudite, wordy writing style of my father, peppered with historical references and written in handwriting eerily similar to that of his son. Each entry begins with the date and the dead man’s name, race, crime and victim. In small print above the list, he wrote “1500 volts X 15 sec – 200 volts X 30 sec – 1000 volts X 15 sec – 200 volts X 30 sec” — a morbid list of the fatal series of shocks in the death chamber.

➤ Click here to read the full article

Source: The Texas Tribune, Ben Hartman, July 5, 2017

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