Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Death Penalty in Texas: A 40-year Retrospection

Samuel Morris Holmes
Before his execution 22-year old Samuel Holmes said he is innocent of the crime that landed him on Texas's death row

Part 1: True story that happened in Austin, Tcxas, a special for The Villager, written by Dorothy Charles Banks

Death, whether natural, execution or peaceful can be traumatic for the living long after the it becomes a script in history. This holds true for crime victims, their families, the individual who committed the crime. The perpetrator of a criminal act may find him/herself sitting on death row, facing a state sanctioned execution. This ultimate sentence depends on the state in which the crime was committed, and how the crime was committed. Supporters of the death penalty demand that a horrific crime can only be rectified if the killer is executed. That is especially true in Texas.

In this series on the death penalty in Texas, The Villager will tackle several issues and flaws regarding to the death penalty and executions. The 4-part series will began with the 1960 electrocution of Austinite Samuel Morris Holmes, 22, whose controversial execution pushed the East Austin community to protest and criticize the State of Texas for its aim to kill an innocent man. Criticism of the death penalty, and how it was unevenly applied to African American men was not a first in Texas nor would it be the last.

In addition to retrieving information from the 1956-1960 editions of the American Statesman, and other sources, The Villager interviewed for this series, Arnette Holmes, Samuel Holmes' oldest brother. Confined to his bed and a wheelchair, Arnette died a year later after a long illness. Sensing his approaching demise, Arnette called The Villager and said he wanted to talk about his brother's execution. He said he lives with Samuel's execution daily. He could not stop reliving that dreadful journey that started 40 years ago. He never wavered from believing Samuel was innocent.

Protests, pleas and cries of innocence

The execution of Carla Faye Tucker, February 3, 1998 for the 1983 double pickax murders of Debroah Thorton and Jerry Dean of Houston, set the stage for anti-death penalty advocates to take to the streets, demanding that Gov. George W. Bush stop Tucker's execution. Despite him being the governor, Bush did not have the power to overrule a decision made by Texas' Board of Pardons and Paroles. A Texas governor can only grant a 30-day stay. Tucker, who found Christ and religion while on death row, said she wanted to live. Tucker turned her life around while sitting on death row. She did not deny her guilt in the pickax murders. Her accomplice died of liver disease before Texas could execute him.

Tucker was the first woman to be executed in Texas since the civil war. Protesters and her discovery of God was not enough to save her from her appointment with death.

There was another nation-wide protest when Gary Graham's pending execution was hot news. Graham was a young African American man with a long criminal history. He was on a crime spree to feed his drug habit the night he allegedly shot and killed Bobby Lambert, a White man, outside a grocery story in Houston, Texas. Controversy and declarations of "not guilty" surrounded the case. Graham proclaimed to the end that he was innocent of this fatal shooting. A lone eyewitness, a woman, identified him a the shooter. She did not stagger from her testimony that Gary Graham was the man she saw shoot Lambert to death during a robbery.

The court and jurors said the woman was a credible, believable eyewitness. They did not find Graham's witnesses believable or credible. Due to the protests and doubts raised in the case, Graham escaped execution a few minutes after the 6 p.m. deadline. The Board of Pardons and Paroles had received a barrage of new information regarding Graham's case. Board members took a few hours to review the information, searching for new evidence. They concluded there was nothing new to consider. Graham was executed at 8:15 p.m.

In 1959 African Americans living in East Austin staged a different kind of protest to save the life of Samuel Holmes, a young husband and father. He was employed as a janitor at Brackenridge Hospital and Bergstrom Air Force Base. Holmes was found guilty of raping and savagely beating a 56-year old White woman in her West Austin apartment complex in Enfield, January 19, 1959. He was 20 years old at the time of the attack.

 African Americans in East Austin refused to believe the rape and assault happened the way it was reported in the media, and finally presented in the courtroom. Some 40 years later, a number Holmes' friends and family who are still alive, have not stopped believing the truth was covered up at the trial, based on the facts that the accused was a young Black man, and the victim was a middle-aged White woman.

According to reports in the American Statesman, the victim, unnamed, provided police with a "meager description" of the man who entered her home that Monday night. A widow, she thought the person entering her apartment was her roommate. She realized it was a stranger when she saw a "black hand" reach through the door to turn off the bathroom light. Later the media reported the woman saying she "saw part of a face that looked to be that of a Negro."

Despite not seeing the intruder's face, the woman said her attacker was about 30 years old, and stood about 6 feet 9 inches. Detectives said they had few clues to work with, making it difficult to initiate an investigation that would lead to a suspect and arrest.

Police said the elderly victim locked herself in the bathroom, but the attacker kicked in the door, forcing himself into the bathroom with her. Police said a "vicious struggle" apparently took place, because the bathroom was covered in blood. The victim said Holmes told her if she called the police he would come back and kill her. She called police despite the threat.

On the 20th of January police questioned the woman's neighbors. They did not see the attacker enter or leave the apartment. No one in the complex heard the woman scream for help during the "violent struggle." However, a female neighbor in the same building said she heard "a commotion" but thought nothing about it. Several more residents in the area reported seeing "a suspicious person loitering the neighborhood."

Brackenridge Hospital employee

Holmes reported to work at Brackenridge Hospital two days before he was arrested, and held without bond. He was not granted bond. He had allegedly threatened to kill the victim if she called police. Before he could get an attorney Holmes was given a lie detector test. Detectives said they obtained a full confession from him, leading to an official charges of rape and assault. Police said the polygraph test revealed that Holmes had "guilty knowledge" of the rape and assault, nothing conclusive. They said his fingerprints were found in the victim's apartment. Holmes said the test did not tell the truth about him.

On January 27 several witnesses, including residents where the woman lived,  made appearances in front the grand juror to testify about what they saw and heard the night of the attack.

'They beat the hell out of my brother'

Arnette Holmes, the older brother and best friend to Samuel, said in a recent interview with The Villager that his brother wasn't guilty of the charges against him. He said he and Samuel talked about everything. There were no secrets between them. Samuel was next to him in age, and if he had done anything wrong on the night in question, "he would have told me," Arnette said with confidence. There were nine sisters and brothers in the Holmes family.

"I asked him if he did it and he said, 'No. I didn't do it, but I think I know who did.'" (Arnette gave a name that The Villager cannot reveal.) Arnette said Holmes told him to "just watch him."

"I asked him how he knew he did this. He said he had seen him several times in the community. He (Samuel) used to cut grass up there. What we used to do is go to the golf course and caddy on the weekend, and sometimes we cut grass to make some extra money," Arnette said. He said he loved playing golf, but he can no longer play because both his legs were amputated.

Arnette said when he went to the jail to see Samuel after his arrest he was shocked by what he saw. The person he was looking at could not be his brother, he thought. "When I went up there three days later his eyes and mouth was bruised. They had beat the hell out of him! When I left I went and got Mr. Arthur DeWitty. We went back to the courthouse. Mr. DeWitty was a big man. That big man had tears running out his eyes when he saw my brother," Arnette said, shaking his head.

"He asked the police how many times they beat him to get a confession of him. They almost killed him. He looked like somebody had him on the ground and run over him. When we went and told my mother about the condition he was in, that just killed her right then and there. Only thing is we just didn't bury her. She was dead right then and there," Arnette repeated emotionally. Although his brother was executed four decades ago, the memory and pain remains fresh on his mind.  The memory is like an annoying sore that won't completely heal.

At the trial Arnette says he was "very angry" at the attorney his mother hired. He said the case was followed all over the world. Holmes' his mother received donations from thousands of people following the case. It was with this money that she hired attorney Johnny B. Rogers, an ex-state senator from Texas.

"Most of the big time lawyers around here wouldn't take the case. So finally my mother got Johnny B. Rogers. He had Pete (Samuel's nickname) holding his head down during the whole trial. The whole six days he never held his head up. He never looked around. He'd sit six or seven hours a day looking down on the floor. I asked Johnny, 'Why are you making him do that?' He said he had his reason. I said to myself, 'Yeah, you're making him look guilty.'"

Arnette said Samuel did not have a record; had never been in trouble with the law. Holmes begged his attorney to let him testify. "Johnny B. told him 'if you testify, you're going to put yourself in the electric chair.' My brother told him, 'Man, I want to testify. How come I can't testify? Can I tell my side of the story?'"

"He told Johnny B. that he was the one accused of a crime not him. He still wouldn't let him testify. That killed my brother. They killed him in a legal way," said Arnette.

Arnette said the victim was not at the trial. "I was there from the day it started. After they gave him the death sentence, he never said a mumbling word. He just kept looking at the floor. He never showed no kind of emotion in any kind of way," Arnette recalls.

Holmes was scheduled to die in the electric chair June 15, 1960; however, on September 9th, he got an extension from Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. Acting Gov. Ben Ramsey, following the recommendation of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, delayed Holmes' execution date until October 15. The Board said its actions were in conformance with Justice Black's recommendation.

The community protests

After the trial Mrs. Fred Godfrey called for a hearing with the Board of Pardons and Paroles to discuss commutation of Holmes' death sentence. She wanted to try and get the death sentence converted to life in prison. Rev. S. L. Davis, and Rev. R. Q. Allen, along with 100 African American citizens met with the Board in the Senate Committee Room. They had collected 1,354 signatures on a petition in support of not executing Holmes. The people who spoke-- begged and pleaded with the Board to reconsider its decision.

Holmes' mother made a tearful plea to spare her son. She told them that her son had been a "sick child since birth. There's something wrong with him," she pleaded, hoping to convince the Board that Holmes had a mental problem. The Board was not touched. The appeal for commutation was denied. Holmes was rescheduled to die in the electric chair November 30, 1960. His family was with him that November night. Arnette, who did not watch the execution, said he looked for signs of nervousness in his brother's face during their last visit.

"I talked with him about an hour before they killed him. He was calmer than I was. I was shaking like a leaf. He wasn't scared at all. He said, 'Sonny, that's what he called me--I want to ask you a favor. I want you to take care of Muhdear the best way you can cause she's gonna take this hard. And I want you to tell my kids their daddy love them.'"

Arnette said, "Down in Hunstville the night they killed him, it was the pitifullest sight I ever saw. You can tell when they get ready to execute somebody. They do it after 12. Every light in that place dimmed two times. That meant they had killed him. The warden came out and I asked him, 'How did he go?'"

He said, "I killed a lot of niggers but that boy was hard to go. I reached and grabbed for him, but Dudley (his mother's friend and APD policeman) grabbed me to keep me from getting killed. I guess he said that because, when the electricity hit him, he broke the straps on his arms and legs. They said that's the first time they had seen that happen," Arnette recalled.

American Statesman reporter Jim Berry witnessed the execution. He wrote that Holmes, strapped in the electric, continued to declare his innocence, as he had done many times before reaching the final stage of his death sentence. He said Holmes thanked God for "walking as far as you have with me." Berry wrote that Holmes' head was shaved clean; he was wearing a clean black jacket, pants and khaki shirt. He wrote that Holmes was hit with the first volt of electricity. Seconds later a second charge, and then a third.

"When the initial 1,800 volt charge hit, his body convulsed with such force that the leather strap across his waist and the one around his leg broke," wrote Berry. "Two additional shocks and four minutes later he was pronounced dead. The odor of death filled the room with the charge and lingered on."

Holmes was pronounced dead at 12:10 a.m., by a medical director for the Texas Department of Corrections. The whole process took 10 minutes. In a pre-execution news interview on Tuesday morning November 29, Holmes told reporters, " The truth has not been revealed to the people. If I die and they learn the truth, what will the people say then?"

'Old Sparky' worked extra hard in Texas

The Death Penalty in Texas: 
A 40 Year Retrospection 

Part 2: By Dorothy Charles Banks
Special to The Villager
August 2000 

Old Sparky is the common named given to electric chairs in several states. Texas's electric chair is presently housed in Prison Museum in Huntsville, Texas. The last electrocution took place in Texas July 30, 1964.
First known electrocution in the United States

"The first person sentenced to be executed by the electric chair was William Kemmer, a convicted murderer. An appeal was made to the New York Court of Appeals on the grounds that use of electricity as a means of execution constituted a cruel and unusual punishment and was thus contrary to the constitution of the United States and the state of New York. On December 30, 1889, the writ of habeas corpus  sworn out on Kemmler's behalf was denied by the court, with Judge Dwight writing in a lengthy ruling:

"We have no doubt that if the Legislature of this State should undertake to prescribe for any offense against its laws the punishment of burning at the stake, breaking at the wheel , etc., it would be the duty of the courts to pronounce upon such attempt the condemnation of the Constitution. The question now to be answered is whether the legislative act here assailed is subject to the same condemnation. Certainly it is not so on its face, for, although the mode of death described is conceded to be unusual, there is no common knowledge or consent that it is cruel; it is a question of fact whether an electric current of sufficient intensity and skillfully applied will produce death without unnecessary suffering."

"Kemmler was executed in New York's Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890; the "state electrician" was Edwin  F. Davis. The first 17-second passage of current through Kemmler caused unconsciousness, but failed to stop his heart and breathing. The attending physicians,  Edward Charles Spitzka and Charles F. Macdonald, came forward to examine Kemmler. After confirming Kemmler was still alive, Spitzka reportedly called out, "Have the current turned on again, quick, no delay." The generator needed time to re-charge, however. In the second attempt, Kemmler was shocked with 2,000 volts. Blood vessels under the skin ruptured and bled, and the areas around the electrodes singed. The entire execution took about eight minutes. George Westinghouse later commented that "they would have done better using an axe," and a witnessing reporter claimed that it was "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging."

"The first woman to be executed in the electric chair was Martha M. Pease , executed at Sing Sing Prison on March 20, 1899." (Wikipedia)

From 1819 until 1923, Texas, along with several other states, hanged criminals sentenced to death. When hanging was noted as cruel and inhumane, electrocutions took its place. The State of Texas authorized use of the electric chair in 1923. All executions were  performed in a designated chamber located behind the prison chapel in Huntsville, Texas. The method was supposed to take executions to a  level of acceptance. The idea was sold to the public as quick and humane.

Prior to 1923 counties in Texas were responsible for their own execution sites. Texas executed its first condemned inmate, an African American, February 7, 1924. The same night four additional African American prisoners from various rural counties in East Texas were also electrocuted, starting at 12:09 a.m. and ending at 2 a.m., when the last man was put to death.

In 1924 five Black men were executed back-to-back, all tried and convicted for committing murder. That early morning of executions was called the "Harvest of Death." The last inmate to be executed was Joseph Johnson, in Harris county, July 1964. From 1923 to 1964 Texas electrocuted 361 male inmates; 229 were African Americans, 108 were White and 23 were Hispanic. "Old Sparky" was not immediately set aside in 1964. No other method of execution had been created to replace it. Texas was not ready to stop executing criminals. At the time executions were scheduled for midnight. The reason was twofold: midnight left time for an 11th hour stay or commutation of sentence, leaving time for the news to reach the warden. Early morning executions were also employed as a tool to dissuade protests.

The U. S. Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that the death penalty was "cruel and unusual punishment." However, Supreme Court Justices could not unanimously decide if the death penalty was actually a "cruel and unusual punishment." The same year four judges said the death penalty was not cruel and unusual punishment. Some judges agreed that the death penalty was somewhat random and disproportionately administered to African Americans and other minorities.

A court ordered moratorium from 1972 until 1973 stopped all executions nationwide. At the time Texas had 45 men on death row, and seven more in county jails. Their sentences were commuted to life in prison by Governor Dolph Biscoe. Revision of the Texas Penal Code reassessed capital punishment in 1973. The revision stipulated that executions would resume in Texas, January 1, 1974. The first condemned prisoner, a White male, was put on death row in February. He cheated the State of Texas, and the electric chair when he committed suicide. He hanged himself July 1, with bed sheets in his cell.

Texas adopted lethal injection in 1977. Charlie Brooks, a Black man from Tarrant County, was executed December 7, 1982, a few minutes after 6 p.m. He was charged with  the kidnap and murder of a Forth Worth auto mechanic. In 1995 the Texas legislature passed a law making it official that all Texas prisoners were to be executed at 6 p.m.

Preparation for execution in the electric chair

As of 2000 nine states still utilized the electric chair. Preparation for an electrocution entails a last meal request that has to be eaten in 30 minutes. The inmate takes a shower.  Both requests are optional. At a specified time the inmate's head and right leg are shaved. Electrodes moistened with saline solution are strapped to his leg. The electric chair, made of wood, usually oak, is equipped with a metal cap with one electrode fitted to the head. A second electrode is attached to the back. The condemned, with a hood over his (or her) head, is secured in the chair with leather straps across the chest, arms and legs. When the switch is thrown the first time, the prisoner's body automatically leaps forward against the straps.

The voltage of electricity released varies from state to state. It is also determined by the inmate's body weight. The first shock paralyzes the body, destroying the brain. It has been reported that some prisoners take longer to die than others. During an electrocution the inmate's body temperature elevates to 138 degrees  Fahrenheit, making it too hot to touch. Body reactions include foaming of the mouth, body sweat, gurgling, heaving chest and release of feces.

Fatal dose cocktail

The three drugs used to conduct an execution by lethal injection costs $86.08. Pro-death advocates feel that executions by lethal injection affords the condemned the luxury of dying quickly, easily. On the flip side of the coin, anti-death penalty advocates reason that a lethal injection, no matter how humane, is unjustified. They compare it to putting an animal to sleep. On the surface lethal injection appears to be less grizzly than the electric chair and hanging. If the condemned has been a habitual drug user, causing severe scarring to his or her veins, that makes it hard to find a suitable vein in which to inject the needle. That temporary set back is not sufficient to delay the execution.

The injection concoction has been described as a "deadly cocktail" that drips from an IV into the inmate's arm. The first drug to invade the body is sodium thiopental, a barbiturate that renders the inmate unconscious. The next is pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant that paralyzes the diaphragm and lungs; the third is potassium chloride, which causes cardiac arrest. The complete execution takes about seven minutes, barring there are no complications. The fatal dosage depends on the inmate's body size.

Starting in 1955 close relatives and friends were permitted to witness executions. These witnesses, coming from a list composed by the condemned, are taken to the death chamber at separate times. The witnesses are searched for weapons, and briefed as to what to expect from beginning to end. Only the condemned can see the witnesses in both rooms. In Texas, relatives and friends of the condemned are separated.  Friends and relatives of the victim are placed in separate rooms, with a concrete wall between them.

 When the curtain is pulled back from the showcase size window, all eyes immediately fall on the condemned prisoner strapped to a gurney, partially covered with a white sheet, and dressed in a freshly laundered pair of white pants and shirt. An IV is attached to the left arm. A microphone is close to the inmate's mouth so that his or her last statement can be heard by witnesses. After he or she is finish talking, the warden makes sure the condemned has nothing else to say. If the answer is no, he signals to start the fatal cocktail.

Once the process is underway, sometimes the condemned makes a gurgling sound or an audible gasp. When the execution is finished, the inmate is announced dead by a prison physician. Witnesses are then escorted out of the execution chamber, returning to the waiting room in the front building at separate times.

If witnesses and family members choose to do so, they are free to talk to the media after the execution. In Texas witnesses from both sides never come in contact with each other on the prison ground. However, once they leave they can talk to each other if they choose to do so.