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Texas: What I’ve learned about life, love and justice from watching 400 people die

Texas' Death HouseMichael Graczyk has witnessed hundreds of deaths at Huntsville prison in Texas

The command is simple and direct: 'Warden, you may proceed.' With those words from a Texas prison official, the process of capital punishment in the busiest death penalty state in America begins.

The colour of the room has changed since I first covered an execution 25 years ago. The room configuration has changed, as has the gurney – the bed the inmate is strapped on to with leather belts.

The inmate, of course, is always different. But those words to the warden have been a constant, as is the outcome – death. So, too, has been my presence.

As part of my job as a reporter for The Associated Press, I've been a witness to more than 400 lethal injections since I arrived in the Lone Star State in the summer of 1983. The exact number, I'm not sure. People tell me that's more than any other person in America. And since Texas carries out more of these punishments than any other state, that's likely to be true.

The AP is the world's largest news-gathering organisation and by Texas prison regulation it has a reserved spot in the death chamber in Huntsville, about 70 miles north of Houston.

I wasn't there for America's first lethal injection in December 1982, but I've been either present or involved in nearly every one in Texas since. That's a lot of death.

I've heard their last requests, seen their eyes and reported on their last meals. I've seen three women executed. Other than their gender, the process is the same.

All the cases are different, yet all had been convicted of killing at least one person and all were lying a few feet in front of me on a white sheet atop a stainless steel table bolted to the tiled floor awaiting a lethal injection.

James David 'Cowboy' Autry was my first. Scheduled for just after midnight, March 14, 1984, Autry's execution was unusually fraught and had been put off for a few months after the US Supreme Court halted his punishment minutes before he was to die.

Autry's initial reprieve came after he had been placed on the death chamber gurney, needles in his arms carrying a saline solution in preparation for a three-drug lethal cocktail intended to kill him.

The 29-year-old labourer had been sentenced to death for the 1980 murder of a convenience store worker shot during an argument over the price of a six-pack of beer.

Two other people present were also shot in the head. One of them – a 43-year-old former Catholic priest – was killed.

But Autry's lawyers and death penalty opponents argued the treatment violated his constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Their arguments were to no avail, but the effect of that night continues to this day: No Texas inmate is moved to the death chamber now until all appeals are resolved. 

Among the five witnesses Autry was allowed to invite to his execution was a woman who had befriended him by becoming a 'pen pal'. 

As the drugs took effect, she became distraught, weeping and crying out about his 'pretty brown eyes' – now closed. Minutes later, when his eyes apparently involuntarily popped open, her emotions reached a new crescendo.

My job was to write a first-person account of being in the death chamber and to provide a pool report for the several dozen reporters and camera crews who were not allowed in. That's where my focus was – doing my job. And that's where it remains today.

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Autry said nothing when asked by the warden if he had a final statement. Not all would be so silent.

Prisoners have cried, told jokes, spoken in foreign languages, recited poems, sung songs, used obscenities. They've maintained their innocence, expressed remorse, told people they loved them, thanked sports teams for providing enjoyment. One said he loved the people who loved him and 'the rest of the world can kiss my a**'.

There have been dramas.

Texas' death chamber
Ponchai Wilkerson defiantly spat out a handcuff key seconds before he was executed for murder on March 14, 2000. He had been convicted of killing Chung Myong Yi, 43, which capped a month-long crime rampage that included numerous auto thefts, robberies and drive-by shootings.

All that day the 28-year-old had struggled with prison guards, and refused to leave his holding cell near the death chamber. They ended up using a Mace-like gas on him and additional restraints to bind him to the gurney.

As the lethal drugs began taking effect, he spat out the key and it fell down the side of his face for a shocked warden to retrieve. It's unknown how he got it. A chaplain standing next to him said the inmate mumbled 'The secret, as of Wilkerson', though it was too quiet for us reporters to hear.

I'm often asked if I have nightmares or am haunted by witnessing so much death. I don't and am not. I do, however, remember Jonathan Nobles, convicted of knifing two young women to death, who sang Silent Night in his last seconds. He reached 'round yon virgin, mother and child' before slipping into unconsciousness.

At Christmas, when I'm in church and all the other people are singing Silent Night, I get a flashback to the execution chamber and Jonathan Nobles.

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A state execution should never be considered routine, but I do have my own personal routine, beginning with a request to speak with the inmate in the weeks before the scheduled punishment. Some prisoners agree to talk to me. Others don't. It's their decision.

I would hate to hear an inmate say from the gurney that they wanted to tell their side of the story but didn't have a chance. 

The Walls Unit, Huntsville, Texas, where executions are carried out.On execution day, reporters assemble across the street from the prison. At more than 100 years old, Huntsville Unit is the oldest state prison in Texas and takes up entire city blocks. It is remarkable for its high red-brick walls that have earned it the nickname The Walls Unit. A large clock stands above the glass front doors, which themselves are about a dozen steps above the road.

Those are the steps, bordered by a thick brass rail, that I walk up at 6pm, the time Texas law specifies executions may begin. The death warrant runs to midnight, but that wasn't always the case. For Autry and for many years after him, death warrants ran from midnight to sunrise.

That led lawyers for Raymond Kinnamon – who shot a man in the back – to keep arguing his case towards dawn, in an apparent attempt to reach sunrise and escape the executioner. His final statement rambled for perhaps 25 minutes, but it didn't work and he was put to death. His intentions will never be known. I couldn't ask him.

For decades, many inmates brought to the 'death house' holding cell at Huntsville spent their last hours a few feet away from crates holding a disassembled 'Old Sparky', the electric chair where more than 360 Texas prisoners were executed from the mid-1920s until the early 1960s when the death penalty was halted by the Supreme Court.

The same court nearly a decade later would allow capital punishment to resume. While electric chairs remain in some states in this so-called modern era of capital punishment, none is commonly used today. Texas switched to injection, and 'Old Sparky' is now housed in a prison museum a few miles away where visitors can, and do, pose for a picture.

By the time we journalists enter the death chamber through a small courtyard and steel door, the inmate has been prepared for the injection by a team of prison officers. Normally, two needles are inserted into his arms at the inside of the elbows. He, or she, is belted at their ankles, wrists, legs and chest. The inmate's arms are extended. From above, it would resemble a crucifixion, with the prisoner lying down.

Texas' death chamberThey are able to move their head, either lifting it or moving it from side to side. Over their head is a microphone, linked to speakers in each of two small viewing areas. The warden stands at their head. A chaplain stands at their feet.

In an adjoining room, up to five relatives or friends of the murder victim are allowed to watch. The inmate can also select five witnesses. We, the five media witnesses, are the last to enter one of the two rooms, which are so small you could probably touch both walls if you spread your arms out. This means you often have to peek around shoulders or between heads to get a view through jail bars set between two plastic windows.

There are no seats. We are allowed to bring in only a pen and writing pad. No photos are allowed. Once the command is given to proceed, the warden asks the inmate if they have a final statement. After that, the drugs are administered, carried by plastic tubes that originate in an adjoining room. The executioner is an unseen and unidentified prison agency official who can look into the death chamber through a window covered by one-way glass.

Typically, the prisoner takes some deep breaths, may gasp, begins to snore, the sounds diminish, then all movement stops. Less than a minute has gone by, often less than 30 seconds. On occasion, before slipping into unconsciousness, the prisoner may say that he can taste or smell the pentobarbital, the powerful sedative Texas uses as its execution drug. Some have said it is cold, others hot.

A few have been defiant. Gary Graham, executed for a killing at a Houston market, railed about the injustice of his punishment and unsuccessfully tried to wrest himself free. Others have been more accepting of their fate. Many, like Autry, say nothing.

Michael GraczykTwo inmates said hello to me by name as I walked in the chamber. The first was Robert Black, whom I had interviewed several times and was convicted of arranging the murder of his wife. After spotting me, he said: 'Hi, Mike! How you doing? I look like a stretched-out goose.' His greeting caught me totally by surprise. I said nothing.

Once the inmate is unconscious, and all movement has stopped, prison officials continue administering the drug until the dosage is exhausted. After 15 to 30 minutes, a physician arrives to pronounce the prisoner dead. He'll do a quick examination, listen for a heartbeat or breathing, shine a light into their eyes, then look up at a digital clock on the green brick wall and announce the time of death. The warden repeats the time and we file out.

As a reporter, you never want to treat any of these as commonplace. If there is a power the government has that is greater than the authority to take one's life, I don't know what that is. And that makes it vitally important for someone like me, with no personal stake in the outcome, to be present.

If the death penalty is going to be legal and be carried out, the people handling the process should do it properly in accordance with the law – and it's essential for people like me to make sure they do.

The Walls Unit, Huntsville, Texas, where executions are carried out.Certainly doubts have been raised about the safety of some of the convictions. The criminal justice system is not perfect, and while I will point out those doubts in stories, it has never been definitively determined that an innocent person has been put to death in Texas during my tenure. Although I retired this month after almost 46 years with AP, I'll continue to cover executions for the news agency in Texas. The stories, for me, remain compelling and interesting.

I have never expressed sentiment about whether capital punishment is good or bad. It serves no useful purpose and might compromise my impartiality as a reporter. Besides, I'm not sure I know.

What I do know is being a frequent witness to death has given me a great appreciation for life. You see the heroic legal measures taken by lawyers to spare the life of a prisoner whose execution is imminent. You see the violence that prompted the murder charges against the offender. You hear the grief from relatives of the victims. You see the inmate a few feet in front of you speaking, then minutes later, nothing.

You realise how precious life is. And how quickly it can be taken.

➤ Click here for more photos

Source: Mail Online, Michael Graczyk, August 4, 2018

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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