2016-06-30
In a tiny building behind the imposing, red brick walls of a Huntsville prison, the State of Texas kills more killers than at any other place in the Western world.

Since 1982, when Texas reinstated capital punishment and adopted lethal injection as the method, the state has executed 236 convicted murderers in the Death House of the Huntsville Unit. Last year Texas executed 40 prisoners, setting a new record for the number of deaths by lethal injection in a single year.

"None of us involved in this enjoy the job we have to do," says Huntsville warden Jim Willet, a Christian. "We just try our best to do it professionally. We want to conduct it with all the dignity that is within us and treat everyone involved with dignity."

Today 436 men await execution at another prison in Livingston, about 40 miles east of Huntsville. Women awaiting the death penalty are at a separate facility.

When his or her time comes, each will be transported to the Huntsville prison, better known as the Walls Unit for its 30-foot brick exterior. A prison van backs up through a series of gates and a long alley to the Death House door at about 1 p.m. The condemned is immediately placed inside one of the eight holding cells within the small, brick building. He spends the afternoon passing time with Chaplain Jim Brazzil.

"I let the inmate set the pace. Sometimes we play chess or checkers or dominoes. Some tell jokes. Some want to talk or read Scripture or sing. I've led several to the Lord right here," he says, resting one hand on the bars of a cell.

At mid-afternoon, the prisoner is allowed a 30-minute visit with his lawyer, then 30 minutes with his personal spiritual adviser. Meanwhile, Brazzil goes a few blocks away to the Hospitality House, a safe haven for inmates' families operated by Texas Baptists. As Brazzil visits with the family members of the condemned inmate, he has the opportunity to relay messages between the convict and his or her family.

"I walk through the process with them. I tell them what he is doing. It helps prepare them and give them a sense of bonding with their loved one," he says.

Late in the afternoon, the condemned inmate eats his last meal. "I always eat dinner with them," Brazzil says. "I don't think a man ought to eat by himself, especially when it's his last meal."

Sometime after 4 p.m., the inmate is given the chance to change clothes. He has the option of being executed in his white prison uniform or in street clothes, which most prefer.

"That period after 4 p.m. is a very intense time," Brazzil says. Some inmates grow very quiet. Others want to talk about spiritual matters.

"There have been many times when we've all been down on our knees -- the prisoner and me, with correctional officers kneeling on either side. It's a very spiritual place back here."

One inmate who made a profession of faith asked to be baptized, less than two hours before his execution. There was no place to immerse anyone in the Death House, but the inmate insisted.

"I struggled with it, but I took a cup of water and did it the old Methodist way," Brazzil says. "In spite of my reservations, it was one of the most meaningful spiritual experiences I've ever had."

"It's time" At 6 p.m., Warden Willett's office receives two phone calls -- one from the governor's office and one from the attorney general -- instructing the prison personnel to proceed with the execution. Willett walks to the Death House with his hands in his pockets, calls the inmate by name and says, "It's time for you to get out and come with me."

In Texas, the journey to the death chamber is nothing like the Hollywood image of a prisoner walking his last mile down a long, narrow corridor. At the Walls Unit, it's just a few steps from the holding area to the adjacent death chamber. The prisoner is neither handcuffed nor shackled with leg irons.

The death chamber is 8 feet wide and 10 feet long. Its brick walls are painted a pale green. A padded steel gurney takes up most of the room. It resembles the examining table in a doctor's office, except for the two stationary arm rests extending from either side and for the eight wide, tanned leather straps that hold the inmate in place.

Once the inmate lies on the gurney, a tie-down team secures the restraints within half a minute. Four minutes later, members of the medical team insert the needles and hook up the IVs filled with $176 worth of lethal chemicals.

Once the medical personnel leave, usually within three minutes, only three people remain in the death chamber. The inmate lies on the gurney. The warden stands at the head of the table. The chaplain stands at the foot of the gurney with his hand resting just below the inmate's knee.

"I keep my hand there the whole time, giving a squeeze every now and then, just to let them know I'm there," Brazzil says.

At 6:09 p.m., officers escort witnesses into two small viewing rooms, separated from the death chamber by thick glass. In addition to five media witnesses, the inmate is allowed up to five witnesses, and the victim's family is allowed five witnesses. A solid wall separates the inmate's family from the victim's family.

Once the witnesses are in place, the warden asks the condemned inmate if he has any last words. He speaks to the witnesses through a microphone suspended above him.

When the inmate completes his statement, the warden gives a signal to begin the execution. Physicians working on contract with the state Texas -- not employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice -- push the plungers on syringes, injecting the condemned killer with a series of three injections.

The first chemical is sodium pentothol, administered at five times the dosage given to a surgical patient. The second chemical is pantrimonium bromide, a muscle relaxant. The final chemical is potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

"One inmate went out singing 'Silent Night,'" Brazzil recalled. "You want to know how long it takes? 'Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin, Mother and child.' He choked out the word 'child' and that was it."

The other victims

The warden waits precisely three minutes, then he calls for a medical examiner. He checks for respiration and pulse and shines a light in the inmate's eyes before pronouncing the time of death.

The witnesses immediately are escorted out of the viewing room. After IVs are unhooked and the straps are unbuckled, the body is moved to a funeral home gurney and wheeled out. Time in the death chamber typically is less than half an hour.

Sometimes, the family makes special arrangements with the funeral home to visit immediately. "On Death Row, there are zero contact visits. The funeral home will allow a family member to be there, quite frankly, to hold the body while it is still warm," Brazzil says.

After the execution, Brazzil joins the family at the Hospitality House. Since 1987, directors Bob and Nelda Norris have made the Hospitality House a place of refuge for inmates' families through 145 executions.

The Norrises and Brazzil help the family members process what they have experienced and begin working through their grief.

"It seems that the one who hurts the most is the mother," Norris says. "When you hear the scream -- the wail -- of a mother whose son has just died, it will change your life forever. There is a victim at every level."

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