Chilling Testimony Of Death Row Executioners Casts Dark Shadow Over Entire System


At some point for Fred Allen, something snapped. He’d done one too many. He broke.

Years had gone by, but he could still picture the eyes of every inmate he'd helped tie down, restrain with multiple straps so that the execution team could slide needles into his veins, enabling deadly chemicals to surge through his body.

The chilling Sound Portraits radio documentary from 2000, "Witness to an Execution," won a Peabody Award that year, and there is no question why. It's unnerving, eye-opening, and massively instrumental in illustrating the process, the nuances, and the anatomy of an execution — something we're far too unfamiliar with. 

In the documentary, Allen spoke about his experiences publicly for the first time.

"I was just working in the shop and all of a sudden something just triggered in me and I started shaking … And tears, uncontrollable tears, was coming out of my eyes. And what it was was something triggered within and it just — everybody — all of these executions all of a sudden all sprung forward."

Allen had been on the "tie down team" for about 120 executions at the Walls Unit Prison in Huntsville, Texas. And he couldn’t do it again.

He left his job shortly thereafter.

His boss, Jim Willett, said, "I don't believe the rest of my officers are going to break like Fred did, but I do worry about my staff. I can see it in their eyes sometimes…"

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Someone is being executed on Thursday. 

There are already over 20 executions scheduled for 2014, and six scheduled for 2015. Texas leads the nation in the number of executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. So far, they have nine scheduled for 2014. 

Andrew Hammel began working with the Houston non-profit law firm, the Texas Defender Service, in 1996. The clients he defended were, for the most part, already on death row. "Once guys get on death row in Texas, there's about a 90% chance they will die."

The "most heartbreaking" case he recalled was Johnny Joe Martinez's. "He grew up dirt poor, neglected, a gay runaway outcast. Killed a convenience store clerk, immediately repented and gave himself up."

Martinez killed Clay Peterson in 1993. Several weeks before his execution, Martinez met with Lana Norris, Clay Peterson’s mother. They spoke for four hours. She clasped his hands and told him she had forgiven him. Martinez's lawyer said it was the first time he ever saw him cry.

Norris wrote a letter to the board begging them to not take Martinez's life. She wrote, "I have struggled with the pain of knowing that Clay would not want this execution. ... Please, do not cause another mother to lose her son to murder, needlessly." She was the last person to touch him. 

Hammel still remembers the obituary for Martinez that his co-counsel, David Dow, wrote. An excerpt reads:

"[Martinez] nodded toward a closed metal door and asked me whether that was the room where they do it. I think so, I said. What, you've never been in here before? I told him I hadn't. You've never witnessed one of your clients get executed? I told him he was only the second one who had asked. He wanted to know why I hadn't witnessed the other guy's. I told him it was because I had been filing an appeal up until moments before the injection. He started to suggest another appeal I could file for him. He stopped in mid-sentence and shook his head, realizing the futility. He cried softly for a moment."

Reflecting back on that case, Hammel said, "[This] kind of thing happens only in Texas. … There are no public defenders, no money, no experienced death penalty lawyers."

In a death penalty case, he said, you might get one lawyer with no previous experience in capital cases, who might get paid $5,000 for the whole trial. Nobody wants to pay a lot of money for defense lawyers for the poor, especially in rural counties. Texas has begun slowly improving standards and funding for indigent death row defense, but only as a result of scrutiny and pressure. And it's still way behind most other states, according to Hammel. 

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Often, when we think about the capital punishment, we think about the person getting executed (was he a monster?), we might think about his lawyers, and we most certainly think about the victim and the victim's family. Will they watch the execution? Do they want to? 

But we rarely think about the people who have to carry out the process itself. It's no wonder Jeffrey Toobin opened his recent New Yorker piece with, "Pity the modern executioner. The Supreme Court has burdened him with obligations that reflect considerable ambivalence about his profession."

In the Sound Portraits radio documentary, several wardens discuss their memories. Though their voices are somber, and sometimes quivering, they guide us through the process of the execution, from beginning to end. 

One said, "It's kind of hard to explain what you actually feel, you know, when you talk to a man and you kind of get to know that person, and then you walk him out of a cell and you take him in there to the chamber and tie him down. And then a few minutes later he's … He's gone." 

Chaplain Brazzil said that after the inmate is strapped down, all the officers leave. And then it's himself and the warden in the chamber, and there will be a medical team come in and they will establish an IV into each arm.

"You can feel the trembling, the fear that's there, the anxiety that's there. You can feel the heart surging...You can see it pounding through their shirt."

Willett said, "I have been somewhat surprised. It never crossed my mind that some of these people are just like the rest of us and are scared to death of a needle." 

He continued. Usually in about three minutes, they have the inmate hooked up to the lines. And at that time, the inmate's lying on the gurney and Willett and Chaplain Brazzil are in the execution chamber with him. 

The Chaplain said, "I usually put my hand on their leg right below their knee, you know, and I usually give 'em a squeeze, let 'em know I'm right there. You can feel the trembling, the fear that's there, the anxiety that's there. You can feel the heart surging, you know. You can see it pounding through their shirt."

The warden then stands at the head of the prisoner and the Chaplain stands with his hand on the prisoner's knee. The warden asks the condemned man if he has any last words he'd like to say. "A boom mike will come down from the ceiling and sometimes you can see the man who's strapped in with probably eight to 10 straps across his body," the narrator says. "He'll struggle to get his voice close to the mike. It's not necessary, but he does it anyway."

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The wardens said that some inmates decline to speak, some sing, some pray. Some apologize. Some will declare, for one last time, that an innocent man is being killed. 

"And then there have been some men who have been executed that I knew, and I've had them tell me goodbye," one warden said. 

In Texas, the prisons use a syringe that is administered through an IV tube from another room.

The Chaplain said, "I've had several of them where [I'm] watching their last breath go from their bodies and their eyes never unfix from mine. I mean actually lock together. And I can close my eyes now and see those eyes. My feelings and my emotions are extremely intense at that time. I've never ... I've never really been able to describe it. And I guess in a way I'm kind of afraid to describe it. I've never really delved into that part of my feelings yet."

One warden said, "You'll never hear another sound like a mother wailing when she is watching her son be executed. There's no other sound like it. It is just this horrendous wail. It's definitely something you won't ever forget."

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There have been times the drugs don't work as they're meant to. Carlos DeLuna was put to death in 1989, despite serious doubts about his guilt. His Chaplain, Chaplain Pickett, recalled the details of the process in a Columbia Law investigation of the case. The three-drug protocol, which is designed to sedate the inmate before paralyzing him then putting him into cardiac arrest, did not work on DeLuna. 

"Pickett had promised Carlos that he would be asleep within 12 seconds. But after the 12-second mark passed, Carlos raised his head and fixed his brown eyes on Pickett again. That scared Pickett. 'I knew the time had passed. The other guys had gone to sleep. … And I wonder, to this day, what was he thinking.'"

Over 20 seconds into the execution, DeLuna raised his head again. Pickett said, "Those big, brown eyes were wide open. Here I am, five inches from his knee, five feet from his face, and he's looking straight at me. … And I don't know what the question was in his brain. I don't know what he was thinking. If I wanted to be paranoid, I could say he was thinking, 'You lied to me.'"

The Columbia Law report reads, "If the first drug failed — and Pickett was sure it did, at least at first — then Carlos would be awake when the second drug started suffocating him. He also would feel a torturous burning when the third drug entered his veins. But the paralysis from the second drug would prevent him from showing any distress. Carlos would be tortured to death, but only he would know it."

After 24 seconds, the paralytic drug flowed into the tubes. DeLuna closed his eyes and didn't raise his head again. The whole process was supposed to take six minutes. Carlos was not pronounced dead until 10 minutes had passed. "The extra minutes were excruciating for Pickett," the investigation reads.

"No one will ever know what they were like for Carlos DeLuna."

Pickett didn’t sleep for the next five nights. "That's when I started thinking," he told the investigators, "We are killing innocent people."

Joel Zivot, M.D., recently wrote an op-ed for USA Today, which reads, "I am an anesthesiologist, and I possess the knowledge on how to render any person unconscious. You may call it sleep, but it is nothing of the sort. ... To witness it for the first time, to watch as it raced into a vein, and in a moment, rendered the patient unconscious, was nothing short of astounding."

Zivot calls for a moratorium on the use of all anesthetic agents for lethal injection. "If the state is inclined to execute, it might be the time again to take up hanging, the electric chair or the bullet."

Similarly, Toobin calls the search for humane execution "oxymoronic." He wrote, "It’s understandable that Supreme Court Justices have tried to make the process a little more palatable; and there is a meagre kind of progress in moving from the chair to the gurney. But the essential fact about both is that they come with leather straps to restrain a human being so that the state can kill him. No technology can render that process any less grotesque."

As Jim Willett reflected on all the executions he'd witnessed and participated in, he said, "I'll be retiring next year. And to tell you the truth, this is something I won't miss a bit. There are times when I'm standing there, watching those fluids start to flow, and wonder whether what we're doing here is right."

"It's something I'll be thinking about for the rest of my life."