Tuesday, September 27, 2011

My personal eyewitness experience to an execution in Texas; it was no 'Dead Man Walking' scene

My personal eyewitness experience to an execution

Before March 25, 1999 I had never witnessed an execution. All I knew about an execution was what I had read, had seen in the movies. On TV and in some movies, an execution is more suggestive than the actual showing of it. Real executions are nothing like the scene in Dead Man Walking, where the condemned killer is strapped to an upright gurney so that he can face families and witnesses.

The above date was the year my cousin, Charles Henry Rector, was executed by the State of Texas.  He had been on death row since September 2, 1982. Today, twelve years later the memory is still lives with me. After Charles’ execution, his plea of innocence peeked my curiosity. I began a research journey into his case. I read everything I could find, including trial transcripts, police reports from Austin and Killeen, Texas, news stories, his appeals. I’ve pulled some of that information to help write his blog  But first, my one and only experience observing an execution.

The Texas execution chamber is housed next to this larger 
pink building.
The Pink Building

The Texas death chamber is housed in a building located in downtown Huntsville, Texas. The chamber is housed in a deep pink building that seem to stretch a couple of blocks. The actual execution chamber, located behind the pink building, is hospital sterile, with turquoise walls, gray tile floors and bright ceiling lights. In the center of the room is a gurney covered by an clean white sheet, a pillow and five straps to hold down the inmate’s arms,  legs and midbody section, just in case the condemned tries to get off the table. On each side of the gurney are two padded arms rests with thick straps on each side. (see photo below)

There is a slanted mirrored glass to the left in the 9 foot by 12 foot chamber. Tubes that carry sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride (this was the deadly cocktail in 1999) are fed through the small square opening in the wall. Relatives of the condemned and those of the victim observes the execution through different windows in different rooms. Families are separated by a ceiling to floor concrete wall. They cannot see or hear each other.

Stepping into the execution chamber, witnesses eyes zoom immediately to the inmate lying on the gurney, securely strapped down. Charles appeared composed and resigned to his fate. It was somewhat startling (for me) to see him lying on his "death bed" in such quiet silence. He was dressed in a freshly laundered white (pants and short sleeve shirt) prison uniform. A white sheet covered him from mid-chest to his feet. A intravenous needle was attached to his left his arm. The warden and a priest were in the chamber with him, which is tradition. The chamber was, solemn,  calm and silent.

Prior to preparation for an execution, a condemned inmate can order a last meal. He or she will have 30 minutes to eat (3:20 to 4 pm). All visitations are stopped at 12:30 pm, except for the chaplain. Charles' last meal consisted of three tacos, three beef enchilada, french fries and a strawberry shake. Inmates can refuse the last meal. Loosing one's appetite at the last minutes seems normal. It is not mandatory that they eat what they ordered. After the meal the inmate takes a shower, and change into clean pants and shirt. After this the prepping process continues.  A medically trained person inserts an intravenous catheter into the inmate's arm. The process is completed before relatives and witnesses arrive to witness the execution.

Before the execution families are kept apart. They never see each other. They do not walk down to the chamber together. If a witness or family member needs counseling prior to the execution, the service is provided. Everyone is escorted to the chamber about five minutes before the execution.  After the execution concludes they are free to talk to each other and the media.

Strapped and ready
Texas' well used execution chamber

Charles looked in our direction when we stepped into the death chamber, taking our place at the picture window.  I told prison personnel prior to the execution that I wanted to leave soon after  Charles made his last statement. She understood and said that could be arranged. I did not want to watch Texas kill Charles

As I told him earlier in a telephone conversation: “Take your soul to a higher place. Texas can kill your body but not your soul.” Watching him displayed on the gurney, I looked at him and pointed upward.

I can not imagine what Charles was feeling lying there, an intravenous needle in his left arm,  ready to die for a crime he said he was not guilty of committing. During a last minute telephone call that was not supposed to happen, Charles, in an upbeat mood, declared his innocence. The telephone call is too long to write about in this blog. I'll just day that God was on my side that depressive day. Maybe I'll write about it another day.

As is the custom, the warden asked Charles if he had any thing to say. Charles, who had learned to write poetry and rap songs, said he did. He spoke into the microphone suspended above his head. The warden pulled it down close to Charles's mouth.  He looked at his sister, Gigi and said:

The first statement I would like to make it’s to my sister. I want her to know that every thing that is said, every move that is made, every motion I hold is true to my heart. I hold it in my soul.

I want you to know that I am not guilty and I will say this to the family. I did not kill your daughter. Take it the way you want. Sorry for the pain.

Sister, I love you and will be there with you, to help you. I want to talk to you about being there . . . You know what I am saying. I want to thank you, thank you for the words. The dying words, you know. They mean a lot. Make sure he knows what I want him to know.

I want to quote a song that I wrote called "God Living with Us 24 Hours." It goes:
Tell the kids I love them and I’ll be there. That’s all I have to say.

The warden signaled the hidden death deliverers to proceed with the execution. I told the guard to open the steel door. I stepped into the early evening air, feeling sick to my stomach. I went back the waiting room in the pink building. I waited for the execution to end. The experience was very dramatic for me. I don't think it will ever leave me.

After an execution and death was confirmed, Charles's body is taken from the execution chamber to a waiting hearse. Usually, the body is either delivered to the a mortuary of choice as preplanned by the family, or buried by the state. The condemned, in a prearrangement,  can request that his or her body be donated to the state's anatomical board for the purpose of medical research.

Public execution poll: To view or not to view

A  poll taken in 2001 asked this  question: ”Should the public be able to view executions?”  Respondents were divided: 23% said yes; 23% were against; 19% felt executions should be viewed by family members only; and 17% said executions should be private.

The United States has a long history of so-called "legal" public executions. The last one was carried out in Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1936 when Rainey Bethea was hanged after his conviction for the rape and murder of a 70-year-old woman.

Hundreds of reporters and photographers, some from as far away as New York and Chicago,  were dispatched to Owensboro to cover what was then the country's first hanging of a woman. At least 20,000 people descended on the town to witness the execution. Bethea walked toward the gallows shortly after sunrise and was pronounced dead at around 5:45 a.m. that same day.

In 1936, reporters blasted what they called the 'carnival in Owensboro.' Many scholars say Bethea's execution -- and the coverage it received -- led to a banning of public executions in America. (NPR, May 1, 2001)

Chaplain opposes death penalty


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