Six years ago, Chaplain Jim Brazzil reported for his first day of his new job at the Huntsville prison in Texas. Called to the Lord at age 9 in his hometown of Temple, Texas, he's been ministering since he was 17 and has served as a Baptist pastor since 20. He has worked in a tuberculosis ward in a Ukrainian maximum-security prison and has seen all manner of physical horrors as a paramedic. But that day, at age 45, his assignment daunted him for the first time. "By the way," the administrators told him in passing, "there is an execution tonight, and we need you to handle it."

"I can't even explain the experience," Brazzil says now, in his soft drawl. "It was extremely traumatic. It was extremely religious. It opened my eyes and my life to things I had never even dreamed of, as far as being alive. Back then, they were still executing at midnight, so it was a long, hard day."

On the campaign trail, George W. Bush has had to explain why Texas puts more people to death than any other state, with over 130 executed during his tenure as governor. But Brazzil faces more pressing questions from the 131 men and women he has counseled in the last two weeks of their lives, through the last full day of their lives, to the moment that he puts his hand on their leg and watches their last breath.

As witness to so many deaths, Brazzil no longer fears his own ("When I come to grips with life and death, it's not the death I'm afraid of," he says). Instead, he works to retain awe. Texas executes so many people that two men were put to death on the same night this August. "I try very hard not to ever become callous in this," Brazzil says. "I don't ever let it become a routine. Every man is different. When I first started this job, I tried to find out everything I could about the inmate. I knew his crime. I knew the history of how many times he had been in prison. I knew his family environment. But I felt all that got in my way, because a lot of times it affected how I looked at him. And now I just go in there. He's already been condemned by the state and he's fixin' to die. He doesn't need somebody else there to browbeat him. I feel like what he needs is somebody to love him, to lead him to God, to lead him to repentance, and to prepare his life for death."

The prisoners' last statements, picked up by a microphone angled just above their mouth and broadcast in the witness booth, often reveal a remarkable peace, achieved partly with Brazzil's help. "...Y'all look after Sheila and Shannon and them," said Orien Cecil Joiner, dying at age 51 on the evening of July 12, "call 'em and get the pictures to 'em and everything and, ah, again, like I said, I feel sorry for the families, but if it takes my death to make them happy, then I will bless them. I have no hard feelings toward anyone, 'cause the Lord feels that it is my time to come home to Him, my work on earth is done and ... they will have to go through this one time again, cause sooner or later, whoever did this crime is going to be caught, and they'll have to come down here and do this again, and they will realize they witnessed an innocent man going to be with Jesus Christ."

"If I knew who killed Rosalyn I would let you know," Tommy Ray Jackson said in early May this year, "but, I am going to say this: I am going to heaven with God as my witness. Ros was a personal friend of me. She was a beautiful person, very educated. ... I am at peace, please believe me. Wherefore, I figure that what I am dying for now is what I have done in my past. This is what I am dying for. Not for killing Rosalyn. I don't know what y'all call her, but I call her Ros, I call her Ros."

If all these men and women were innocent, Brazzil's job of loving them would be relatively easy, but some of the condemned never admit guilt, and those who do are owning up to horrible acts. The last statement and prayer of William Kitchens, who abducted and raped Patricia Webb before strangling her and shooting her in the head, was full of grace. "James Webb," he said, "I personally just want to let you know if there has ever been any doubt in your mind at all of what happened, I want you to know that Patty was always faithful to you, that I forced her for everything that she did and I am sorry. ... Father, God, I just want to thank you ... for having mercy on somebody like me for all the despicable things I've done in my life, Father, but you still with your love and your mercy reached down into my heart and changed it before it's too late. ... Father, I pray for these wardens and the officers and the people that deal with all of this ... Father, and if there is any wrong to it, that you will forgive them. ... Just let them know that you love them."

Sometimes the ministers themselves must personally forgive a wrong. Juan Soria prayed to Allah at his death, but just six weeks earlier he had severed a chaplain's wrist down to the last tendon with a hidden razor blade.

Brazzil spends days missing men and women he knew intensely for only two weeks, and whose pasts are littered with carnage. "I remember one offender; he wanted to ask forgiveness," Brazzil recalls, "he wanted to get his heart right with God, but he was just afraid that God would not forgive him. I worked with him all afternoon, he walked out of his cell, they put him on the gurney, they strapped him down, they put the IVs in his arm. We were only minutes away from his death. We were waiting on the witnesses to come in. I continued to talk with him about making peace, and he says, 'Do you think God would really hear me even now?' He says, 'Would I be a hypocrite?' and I said, 'Let God be the judge of that.' So we stopped the witnesses and cut the microphone. He was strapped down ready to die. He just cried and cried. He asked for forgiveness, and just an overwhelming spirit moved through the place. It was a beautiful, cathartic experience--in just a matter of a few moments you could see the total change in the countenance of the man."

Brazzil, who supervises 40 other chaplains in the prison system, takes no position on the death penalty. Neither can he decide who most deserves his sympathy. "I've thought about that a whole lot of times," Brazzil says. "The sad part about it, when it comes to such a hideous crime, nobody wins. I stand in there at the gurney and I've got my hand on a man's leg who is dying. Within three feet of me, there's his family, whose hearts are broken because they are going to have to go on without him. About six feet away from me, there's a family who is filled with anger and rage and bitterness for all these years because the man laying on the table has taken their loved one. And in front of me, I have an administrative staff that's doing their job. And I look around and I see in that situation, where even though the staff is doing their job, it takes a toll on their lives. Everybody's lost something, and that's a tragic, tragic thing."

And what about Brazzil himself?

"I have lost something as well. I invest a lot of my energy into these folks' lives, and they're dead. But I also realize that maybe there was something that I said, or maybe something that I did, that has touched a life that they can receive salvation. Not through me, but it's going to point them to their hope in Christ Jesus. And maybe that small investment is going to make a difference for eternity."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad