Inside the Death Chamber

Stacy Abramson and David Isay

Reporter Leighanne Gideon witnessed her first execution at the age of 26. As a reporter for the <i>Huntsville Item</i> she saw 52 Texas prisoners executed.

The following transcript was adapted from Witness to an Execution,” a radio documentary produced by Stacy Abramson and David Isay, which is included in the new book Writing for Their Lives: Death Row USA (University of Illinois Press), edited by Marie Mulvey-Roberts. Witness to an Execution,” which was originally presented on All Things Considered,” won a Peabody Award in 2000. To hear the complete broadcast or see more photographs by Andrew Lichtenstein taken during the making of the documentary, go to Sound​Por​traits​.org.

Warden Jim Willett: I’m Jim Willett. I’ve overseen about 75 executions at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas. I started as a guard here 29 years ago and have been warden since May of 1998. The Walls takes up almost two city blocks right in the middle of town. … Since 1924 all executions in Texas have taken place right here. We’ve carried out a lot of executions here lately, and with all the debate about the death penalty I thought this might be a good time to let you hear exactly how we do these things. Sometimes I wonder whether people really understand what goes on down here and the effect it has on us.

Chaplain Jim Brazzil, Texas Department of Criminal Justice: I have been with 114 people at the time of their execution. … I’ve had em where they wanted to sing. I had one offender tell lawyer jokes. … And I’ve had em want to do exercises, do calisthenics sitting in there, you know, because it’s such a nervous time. Because at that time reality has truly set in that in a few moments he’s going to be dead.

[Warden Willett will] walk up to the cell where we are and he’ll say, It’s time.” And so they will unlock the cell and he’s not handcuffed or chained. He’s just sitting there. And he and I will walk into the chamber. 

Willett: When he gets into the chamber, I’ll tell him to sit down on the gurney and then lay down with his head on [the] pillow. At that time when he gets in there, all of the straps are undone. And within probably 30, 45 seconds the officers have him completely strapped in.

Major Kenneth Dean: I’ve participated in over a hundred executions as a member of the tie down team. Each supervisor is assigned a different portion – like we have a head person, a right arm, left arm, right leg, left leg. And the right leg man will tell him, I need you to hop up onto the gurney. Lay your head on this end, put your feet on this end.” Simultaneously while he’s laying down the straps are being put across him.

Captain Terry Green: I’m a member of the tie down team in the execution process. What I do, I will strap the offender’s left wrist. And then there are two belts – one that comes across the top of his left shoulder – and then another goes right straight across his abdominal area.

Dean: Some of them are very calm. Some of them are upset. Some of them are crying.

Green: Some of them have been sweating. Some of them will have the smell of anxiety, if you will, of fear.

Dean: Usually within about 20 seconds he’s completely strapped down – 20 to 30 seconds. I mean, it’s down to a fine art. … After all the straps are done they will look at you and they’ll say, Thank you.” And here you’ve just strapped them into the table. And they look at you in the eye and tell you, Thank you for everything that you’ve done.” And, you know, that’s kind of a weird feeling.

Willett: At 6:05 the medical team inserts the needles and hooks up the IVs. … 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. Usually, if it goes right, and normally it does, usually in about three minutes they’ve got this guy hooked up to the lines. And at that time the inmate’s lying on the gurney and myself and Chaplain Brazzil are in the execution chamber with the inmate.

Brazzil: 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.

Leighanne Gideon, former reporter for the Huntsville Item: I witnessed 52 executions. … A lot of inmates apologize. A lot of inmates will say that you’re executing an innocent man. And then there have been some men who have been executed that I knew, and I’ve had them tell me goodbye.

John Moritz, a reporter for the Fort Worth Star Telegram: The warden will remove his glasses, which is the signal to the executioners behind a mirrored glass window. And when the glasses come off, the lethal injection begins to flow.

Gideon: I was 26-years old when I witnessed my first execution. After the execution was over, I felt numb. And that’s a good way to explain it. And a lot of people will tell you that, that it’s just a very numb feeling afterwards. … I’ve walked out of [the] death chamber numb and my legs feeling like rubber sometimes, my head maybe not really feeling like it’s attached to my shoulders. I’ve been told that it’s perfectly normal, everyone feels it, and that after a while that numb feeling goes away. And indeed it does.

Wayne Sorge, news director of KSAM in Huntsville: I have witnessed 162 executions by lethal injection in the state of Texas. … I wrestle with myself about the fact that it’s easier now, and was I right to make part of my income from watching people die? And I have to recognize the fact that what I do for a living is hold up a mirror to people of what their world is. Capital punishment is part of that, and if you are in the city where more capital punishment occurs than any place else in the civilized world, that’s got to be part of the job.

Brazzil: I’ve had several of them where 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.

Gideon: I’ve seen family members collapse in there. I’ve seen them scream and wail. I’ve seen them beat the glass.

Sorge: I’ve seen them fall into the floor, totally lose control. And yet how do you tell a mother that she can’t be there in the last moments of her son’s life?

Gideon: You’ll never hear another sound like a mother wailing whenever she is watching her son be executed. There’s no other sound like it. It is just this horrendous wail. You can’t get away from it. That wail surrounds the room. It’s definitely something you won’t ever forget.

Willett: I do worry about my staff. I can see it in their eyes sometimes, particularly when we do a lot of executions in a short period of time. … 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.

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