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NPR Investigation Reveals Supplier of Texas Execution Drugs Has Multiple DEA Violations; provided TDCJ with pentobarbital for more than 20 executions

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A July 10, 2024, National Public Radio (NPR) investigation has revealed that Rite Away, a small chain of pharmacies located around San Antonio and Austin, Texas, compounded and provided pentobarbital for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) between 2019 and late 2023 to carry out lethal injection executions. 

Reckoning With Death Row: Former penitentiary pastor relives his days as a spiritual advisor

Former Virginia State Penitentiary chaplain Russ Ford, co-author of the book “Crossing the River Styx: The Memoir of a Death Row Chaplain,” can rightly be considered a victim of Virginia’s death penalty.

Ford, however, did not die from having 2,200 volts of electricity sent through his body, boiling his blood and roasting his internal organs. He also did not endure the pain and suffocation of a three-drug cocktail while strapped to a hospital gurney. Ford instead walks around today carrying the humbling baggage of ministering to condemned inmates in the 1980s, in the worst circumstances imaginable, before accompanying them to the death chamber to pray with them just before the state ended their lives.

“I was with 28 men when they were taken into the chamber and put to death,” he recounted at a Carole Weinstein Author Series presentation at the Library of Virginia on Sept. 14 with fellow co-author Todd Peppers, a public affairs professor at Roanoke College. The experiences in that process were brutal on the young pastor — today, 40 years later, he walks with a cane and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ford explained that during his tenure as chaplain from 1984 until his retirement in 2001 after suffering a severe brain injury, he kept notes and journals of his experiences on death row. “I thought I would do something with them eventually,” he recalled, “but I had to earn a living, so nothing came of them.”

Then he met Peppers, who used some of Ford’s recollections for his 2017 book, “A Courageous Fool,” about the work of Marie Deans, who founded the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons in 1982. Peppers agreed there was a book in Ford’s unflinching notes, so they embarked on a “long and complex” project with the University of Virginia Press to bring Ford’s story to life.

Ford’s experiences were harrowing and frequently gruesome. He describes how, after corrections officers strapped Ricky Boggs into the electric chair in 1990, there was a delay from the governor’s office. “Should we start raising hell or celebrating?” Ford asked. During the nine-minute lull, he got approval from Warden Raymond Muncy to be with Boggs. “So, I went over, and I’m holding Ricky’s hand; I got my hand wrapped up around his shoulder, and I’m whispering in his ear. He’s got the mask on and all the equipment and everything. And I hear someone yell, ‘Russ, no!’ I lifted my hands off Rick, and the electricity went right through his body. Because it was so crowded in that room, Muncy couldn’t see me.”

Ford and Peppers insisted that their goal for the book was not to “coddle” or paint overly sympathetic portraits of the inmates, who admittedly committed horrific crimes. “These were some terrible men,” Ford admitted, singling out inmate Alton Waye especially as “a really bad guy.” Still, the authors reiterated that spiritual guidance was such a crucial part of an inmate’s time on death row, and that many experienced profound and, most importantly, sincere spiritual conversions while waiting to die. They also made it a point to name the victims in their crimes.

Peppers recalled the story of Michael Smith, who underwent an intense religious conversion before he was executed in the electric chair in 1986. “He wanted to have a Bible in his lap, and the warden refused because he was afraid the Bible would catch on fire,” Peppers explained. “He wasn’t worried about Smith catching on fire, but he was worried about that Bible.”

Perhaps he knew the optics of a Bible bursting into flames during an execution could be a troubling metaphor.

Ford stated that he was not alone in ministering to death row inmates during those early years, and gave credit to people like Deans, along with Marge Bailey, Bishop Walter Sullivan, Father Jim Griffin and others.

Virginia abolished the death penalty in 2021, putting people like Ford out of a job, but he is circumspect of its ability to return. “The legal mechanism that grew to oppose capital punishment became so effective that it made it tough on the prosecutors,” he recalled in a 2021 interview. “And the price tag for executing somebody is enormous. I wouldn’t think it’s going to be overturned anytime soon. But you know how prosecutors can be.”

“Crossing the River Styx: The Memoir of a Death Row Chaplain” is available from the University of Virginia Press and other online retailers.

Source: richmondmagazine.com, Dale Brumfield, September 18, 2023


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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."


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