In the Busiest Death Chamber, Duty Carries Its Own Burdens
In the Busiest Death Chamber, Duty Carries Its Own Burdens NEW YORK TIMES
In the Busiest Death Chamber, Duty Carries Its Own
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December 17, 2000
In the Busiest Death Chamber, Duty Carries Its Own
By SARA RIMER
HUNTSVILLE, Tex., Dec. 10 - Jim Willett, the warden of the prison here, awakened a little before 5 a.m. on Tuesday in his home, which his wife, Janice, had decorated for Christmas. He had not been looking forward to the day.
"My first thought was, 'Today's an execution,'" he recalled later that morning. "'I wonder what he'll be like.'"
Mr. Willett said he was hoping that the man who was to be put to death shortly after 6 p.m. would not resist and that the execution would proceed smoothly. His job requires him to stand at the head of the person strapped on the gurney and to signal the anonymous executioner in the next room to inject the sedative and two lethal chemicals through a syringe. In his two and a half years as warden, Mr. Willett has given the signal - raising his glasses - that has killed 84 people.
"Just from a Christian standpoint, you can't see one of these and not consider that maybe it's not right," said Mr. Willett, 51, talking in his office, with the blownup photographs of his children, Jacob, 19, and Jordan, 14, on the wall.
It is the worst part of his job, he said, but it is his job just the same.
Now, the prison here, known as the Huntsville unit, was about to execute three men in three days. While that is not an unusual week for Huntsville, the nation's busiest death chamber, it would bring the year's total to 40, the most people legally killed by any state in one year in American history, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit research group in Washington.
Those who champion the death penalty, the law enforcement officials who call for it, the juries who vote for it, the judges who uphold it, the pardon boards and the governors who sign off on it, are not the ones who walk into the death chamber and help end lives. That task falls to Mr. Willett and a dozen or so members of his staff: husbands and fathers who coach baseball, go fishing, attend church and lead mostly ordinary lives except when it comes time to lead the condemned to a 9-by-12-foot room with turquoise walls, deep inside the prison, and secure them to a gurney with eight mustard-colored leather straps so that they can be injected with the drugs that will kill them.
The first lethal injection in the country was performed in that room in 1982, and with the three executions last week the total number rose to 239, more than half of them in the last four years.
These men do their jobs in a town and a state that ardently support the death penalty. But in the week of the three executions they shared their usually unspoken doubts, including their uneasiness with the detachment that allows them to go about their work.
Kenneth Dean, 37, is the head of the tie-down team, which does exactly what the name implies. A shy, burly man whom the other officers tease by calling him the Teddy Bear, Mr. Dean has performed that job about 130 times. He does not like to keep count.
On Tuesday morning, he had made plans with his children, Kourtney, 7, and Kevin, 13, for the evening. Recently divorced, he gets to spend a couple hours with them on Tuesday nights.
"I told them, 'Daddy has to work late tonight, he has an execution.'" Lately, Mr. Dean said, his daughter has been asking a lot of questions: "'What is an execution? What do you do?'"
"It's hard explaining to a 7-year-old," he added. "She asked me, 'Why do you do it?' I told her, 'Sweetie, it's part of my job.'"
Focusing on Routine
Mr. Dean, a prison officer with the rank of major, and the other people who carry out the executions say they cope with their jobs by focusing on the routine. "We make sure everything is done correctly," Mr. Dean said.
The worst nightmare of the tie-down team had occurred in June when Gary Graham, 39, convicted of a 1981 robbery-murder that he maintained he did not commit, refused to leave his cell. Mr. Dean and other members of his team had had to put on face shields and armor and forcibly remove him. It was only the third "cell extraction," as they are called, since l982. Mr. Dean went in first.
From all reports, Garry Miller, 33, a former bartender who was to be put to death on Tuesday for the 1989 rape and murder of 7-year-old April Marie Wilson, was not going to give them any trouble. He had told his lawyers not to file any further appeals. He said he was ready to die.
Mr. Miller's execution had not generated unusual attention, and only a handful of death-penalty opponents were expected to show up outside the prison. There are five seats for journalists at every execution, and this reporter was there for Mr. Miller's.
At 6:07 p.m., Mr. Dean escorted members of the victim's family, several prison officials and reporters down a long corridor, through a small garden with marigolds blooming beside white trellises, and past a steel door into what is known as the death house: eight cells and the death chamber.
The witnesses stared through a large, barred window into the death chamber. Mr. Miller, a big man with glasses and an inmate's pasty skin, was lying on the gurney, with a Bible on his chest, under a white sheet. He had an IV in each wrist. The IV's are always inserted before the witnesses are brought in. Mr. Miller's head rested on a pillow, an accommodation added to the routine by the warden last year. There used to be only a towel at the head of the gurney.
The warden stood just behind Mr. Miller's head. The prison chaplain, Jim Brazzil, was at his feet.
Mr. Miller looked straight at Marjorie Howlett, the mother of the little girl he had killed, who was crying. They had known each other before the murder.
"Maggie, I am sorry." Mr. Miller said through a microphone above his head. "I always wanted to tell you, but I just didn't know how."
He said a brief prayer and told the warden he was ready. The warden raised his glasses. At 6:23 p.m., a doctor came into the room and pronounced Mr. Miller dead.
After the witnesses filed out, the tie-down team re-entered the death chamber, unfastened the straps around Mr. Miller's body, and transferred him to another gurney. The body was loaded into a waiting hearse and taken to the Huntsville Funeral Home. The death certificate would read: "State-ordered legal homicide."
About 15 minutes later, as part of the execution-night ritual, Mrs. Howlett was seated in the office across from the prison, answering questions from reporters. "I'm very glad I came," Mrs. Howlett told journalists. "I had to see him gone."
By 7 p.m., an exhausted Mr. Dean, still in his gray uniform, was across town, sitting with his children in his car in the driveway of his former wife. His daughter was on his lap. "She said, 'Do you have another one tomorrow?' " Mr. Dean recalled later. "I said, 'Yes, I have one for the next two days.' "
"She said, 'Why do you have so many this week?' I said, 'I don't know, Sweetie.' "
Mr. Dean, who is a Baptist, says he prays before and after every execution. He did not tell his daughter about his own questions. "All of us wonder if it's right," he said earlier in the day. "You know, there's a higher judgment than us. You second-guess yourself. I know how I feel, but is it the right way to feel? Is what we do right? But if we didn't do it, who would do it?"
A few miles away, the warden was at home, in front of his computer. He was recording the execution, as he has every one since he started, writing of Mr. Miller:
He was soon strapped in. At one point he told the medical team that he held nothing against them for what they were doing. He'd had a pretty good afternoon with Chaplain Brazzil.The maximum-security Huntsville unit, built in 1848, takes up two blocks in the middle of this East Texas town of 35,000 people. Its red-brick walls are 30 feet high; hence its nickname, The Walls. A Christmas sign, a herd of reindeer and a string of Christmas lights decorate the front wall.
Soon, the room was empty of everyone but Miller, Brazzil and I. We talked quickly about what was about to happen. Then I asked if there was anything else.
He said, 'I guess resuscitation would be out of the question?'
Miller began by apologizing to the mother of the 7-year-old girl he had raped and murdered. I wondered what that mother thought. Miller took a very deep breath and held it. It seemed to be about 15 seconds before he let out his last breath.
The business of Huntsville is the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, known as the T.D.C.J., which has its headquarters here. There are seven prisons in the area, housing about 13,400 inmates. The prison containing death row, where there are 443 condemned people, is in Livingston, 40 miles away. They are brought here on the afternoon of their execution and spend their final hours in a death-house cell.
It is better, Mr. Dean said, that the death-row inmates are in Livingston. That way, he said, he and his fellow officers are not helping execute people they know.
On Wednesday morning, Mr. Dean was talking about how he sometimes worried about his own detachment. "That was one part I had to deal with," he said. "You expect to feel a certain way, then you think, 'Is there something wrong with me that I don't?' Then after a while you get to think, 'Why isn't this bothering me?' It is such a clinical process. You expect the worst with death, but you don't see the worst in death."
The detachment Mr. Dean describes is not only common among those who participate in executions, but necessary for them to be able to do their jobs, said Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist who wrote about such people with his co-author, Greg Mitchell, in a new book, "Who Owns Death? Capital Punishment, the American Conscience and the End of Executions" (William Morrow).
"It violates a profound human reluctance to kill, and they must overcome it," Dr. Lifton said. The clinical nature of lethal injections makes it easier to kill. "You have the ultimate form of medicalization, which enables those carrying out the execution in many cases to feel very little," Dr. Lifton said. "It also mutes it for the society at large."
Shortly before 1 p.m. Mr. Dean and Terry Green, another member of the tie-down team, were awaiting the arrival of Daniel Hittle, a 50-year-old former welder, who was to be executed that evening for the 1989 murder of a Garland, Tex., police officer, Gerald Walker.
The prison world is one in which it is difficult to refuse a request from a superior, but turning down an invitation to serve on the death team is one refusal that is acceptable, Mr. Dean and Mr. Green said. Those who participate in executions must be at the rank of sergeant or above, which is a pool of about 25 people. Several have declined. "No one looks down on them," said Mr. Green, who is a captain.
There is no extra pay for executions. (Mr. Dean, the third highest-ranking officer at the prison, earns $36,000 a year, with prison housing as a benefit. Mr. Green earns $30,000. Others on the tie-down team earn less.) Mr. Green's job is to secure the inmate's left wrist to the gurney and both shoulders.
Thoughts on Executions
Mr. Dean said he had thought long and hard about his stand on the death penalty before he said "yes" 10 years ago to a supervisor's request that he join the team. "I researched it," he said. "I spoke to pastors to make sure I wasn't misinterpreting what the Bible said about the death penalty."
Mr. Green nodded. "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's," said Mr. Green, 48, who has been a member of the tie-down team for two years, paraphrasing Matthew 22:22. To Mr. Green, who is a Baptist, that passage means that the law should be upheld, and in Texas the law requires that some people be executed for their crimes. Mr. Green says he sees the tie-down team as upholding the law.
Mr. Dean said he keeps a close eye on his team during executions. "I'll watch everyone's face to see if they're O.K., " he said. "A lot of them might have an emotional moment."
In February, he noticed that two supervisors had tears in their eyes after the execution of Betty Lou Beets, 62, who had been convicted of the 1985 killing of her fifth husband. "After they got outside, we talked about it," Mr. Dean said. "They related it to their mothers."
By about 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Larry Fitzgerald, a prison spokesman whose job requires him to witness every execution, had prepared the press packets on Mr. Hittle's execution, including an hour-by- hour report on his final three days.
Mr. Hittle's execution went smoothly. When it was over, the widow of the murdered officer, Beckie Walker, left without talking to reporters. Jimmie George, an officer with the Garland Police Department, released a statement.
"The death of Daniel Hittle does not bring Gerald back," it said, but would "guarantee that no police officer will ever face the danger of dealing with him again."
Later that night, Warden Willett sat at his computer and wrote:
Shortly after six I went to cell No. 2 and told Hittle that it was time for him to come out. He said 'O.K.' and followed me into the death chamber. He jumped onto the gurney.At a few minutes before 8 a.m. on Thursday, the warden received a phone call from a man he did not know. "He told me how wrong what we are doing was," Mr. Willett said. "He went on for about nine minutes."
I took off my glasses as I backed out of the way of the witnesses. It took a little bit longer than normal for the first drug to take effect. By 6:20, though, the doctor had pronounced Hittle a dead man.
"You know what I finally told him: 'If you go over to Austin and tell them to get rid of the death penalty, it wouldn't hurt my feelings at all."'
The warden was in a reflective mood. "I don't really know how I feel about this," he said. "The sad thing is we end up with more victims, like the inmate's mother. Can you imagine watching your son die?"
"On the other hand," he added, "I can understand why she's there."
Family members of the condemned can witness executions, and many times the warden has looked on as the mother of the man on the gurney watched her son take his last breath. None of the mothers or fathers of the three condemned men were here.
It looked as though the third execution was going to hold to the routine. Shortly before noon, Mr. Willett's secretary, Kim Huff, had an update on Claude Jones, who was to be executed that night for the 1989 armed robbery and murder of a liquor store owner, Allen Hilzendager, 44, in the town of Point Blank.
"He says he doesn't want a damn stay, he's 60 years old, he's ready to go," Ms. Huff said.
The warden left to meet his wife for a rare lunch out, at the Catfish Place. When Mr. Willett got up from the table to greet friends, Mrs. Willett talked about the toll the job takes on her husband.
"I was so worried about him a few weeks ago," she said, referring to her husband's reaction to a man he had helped kill recently. "He said, 'I met one of the nicest men I've ever met today.' I thought, 'Oh, he's fixing to break.' "
The usually easygoing and genial warden did not break. But after nearly 30 years with T.D.C.J., Mr. Willett is looking forward to his retirement early next year, when he said he could stop "messing with these executions."
"If jurors had to draw straws to see who was going to pull the switch or start the lethal injection," he said, "there wouldn't be as many executions."
The warden had recently discussed with his staff members their roles in executions: "I said that my part in this, and all these other folks' part in this thing, is just a fraction in this whole process. Someone who's sat on the jury has had some part in what I do. It helps you to not bear the whole burden of putting this guy to death."
Thursday, the odds caught up with the warden and the others. The third execution did not go smoothly. It was delayed by about 30 minutes while the medical team struggled to insert an IV into a vein of Mr. Jones. He had been a longtime intravenous drug user.
Leaving the prison at about 7 p.m., Mr. Dean looked drained. "They had to stick him about five times," he said. "They finally put it in his leg."
The victim's sister, Gayle Currie, witnessed the execution, and said afterward of Mr. Jones, "It gave me a peace of mind to know that he will never hurt anyone again."
Mr. Fitzgerald, the prison spokesman, was visibly relieved. "This is the best day of the year for me," he said. "I don't have any more executions this year. I've had it. Forty is a lot." He had now witnessed 144 executions in five years.
"It bothers me," said Mr. Fitzgerald, 63, a former radio reporter who likes to cultivate the air of a man who has seen it all, "that I don't remember all their names."
Mr. Dean, Mr. Green, Tim New, the assistant warden, the warden and the warden's wife convened at Murski's, a local cafe. Their exhaustion was palpable.
'We're Not Barbarians'
Mr. Green said, "It's crossed my mind that the Nazis were doing what they were told to do." He paused. What he and his fellow officers were doing was different, he said, "It's not like that."
It is painful, the men said, to walk out of the prison after an execution and have protesters call them murderers.
"We're not barbarians," Mr. New said. "We're just regular people, like you and everybody else. We have a job to do."
But that job does set them apart. Mr. Dean said he felt most comfortable with his fellow officers. It is hard to talk to outsiders about what he does.
It was not until the next evening that the warden sat down at his computer and described the execution, including his fears that members of the medical team might have to cut Mr. Jones open to get to a vein:
The medical team could not find a vein. Now I was really beginning to worry. If you can't stick a vein then a cut-down has to be performed. I have never seen one and would just as soon go through the rest of my career the same way.The executions will start again in January. Three more are scheduled that month.
Just when I was really getting worried. one of the medical people hit a vein in the left leg. Inside calf to be exact.
The executioner had warned me not to panic as it was going to take a while to get the fluids in the body of the inmate tonight because he was going to push the drugs through very slowly.
Finally, the drug took effect and Jones took his last breath.