Jim Willet, former warden of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Walls Unit where Texas executions take place, recently described his experiences to the Dallas Observer as emotionally difficult for him. As warden during 1998-2001, three of the busiest years for Texas’ death chamber, Willet oversaw 89 executions.

“The first time is unbelievable,” he told the Observer. “You have this healthy person–this person who was able to just jump up on the gurney–and you’ve said, ‘Kill this person,’ and someone’s fixin’ to. You’re about to put someone to death in front of all these people. It’s an overwhelming feeling. I can’t describe it.”

When asked whether he believed that any of the 89 executed inmates may have been innocent, Willett stated, “I would hope not, with all of the appeals, the process that takes years and the judges and everybody looking at it…. But I’m also clear that you’re going to have mistakes if humans are messing with it–it’s just a fact.”

Jim Willett kept journals of the executions he presided over, and some entries were used in a book called Warden: Prison Life and Death From the Inside Out. Willett and the staff of the Walls Unit also participated in Witness to an Execution, a National Public Radio documentary that won a Peabody Award.

Texas, like other states with the death penalty, appears to be in a de facto moratorium on executions due to the upcoming Supreme Court case of Baze v. Rees in which two Kentucky inmates are challenging the states’ lethal injection protocol. If the moratorium continues, Willett would not oppose it. However, he stated, “I do wonder sometimes, the people who are guilty of real violent murders or crimes against children, why do they deserve to live?” he says. “But maybe we don’t have the right to ask that–I don’t know. For me, it’s up to the people of Texas, whatever they want to do. If they said, ‘Let’s not have executions,’ I’d be fine with that.”
(“Former Warden Reconsiders Executions” by Megan Feldman, Dallas Observer). See also New Voices and Executions.