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   MAY 23 2001

King of death row


Jim Willett dispatched 89 Texas prisoners in three years. He was so efficient that the jailers holding Timothy McVeigh came to see how it was done Jim Willett's first execution was calamitous. The doctors could not find a vein in the condemned man's arm. When the lethal chemicals finally began to flow, the needle dropped out. As Willett tried to close the curtains so that the witnesses could not watch, they came loose. He had to begin the execution all over again, and the only saving grace was that the prisoner's second "last statement" was much more eloquent than the first. "It was the most emotionally draining experience I had ever had," he says. That was in April 1998, just after Willett had been appointed senior warden of the Texas prison that he calls "the busiest death house" in America. Over the next three years, as George W. Bush ran for president from the governor's mansion, Willett dispatched another 87 men and one woman to their deaths, breaking all records for the number of prisoners executed by a single state. Often he executed two a week, occasionally three. In one 16-day period he consigned seven to their Maker. He and his team became so adept that the warden of Indiana's Terre Haute prison, where the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, is awaiting execution, came down earlier this year to study their work. In all that time Willett missed just four executions because his son had high school baseball games those evenings, but he has just retired at the age of 51 and is mightily relieved. "I got tired of watching people die," he says. What makes Willett's record even more remarkable is that he did not want the job, and that even as he put those men to death his doubts about capital punishment were deepening. Today he still agonises over what he was asked to do in the name of justice. He is far from certain that all those he executed were guilty. He finds it hard to reconcile capital punishment with his Christian faith. He does not believe it deters, or helps the victims' families, or that judges and jurors would resort to it so readily if they had to carry it out themselves. "I have had a lot of inner struggles," he confesses. Willett is not alone. America is also revisiting the issue in the wake of the state-sponsored killing spree of recent years. Polls show that support for the death penalty is declining, albeit from a very high level. Investigations have exposed grave flaws in the judicial processes of individual states, including inept legal representation, forensics and racial bias. Many states have adopted, or are considering, moratoriums and new safeguards such as DNA testing. And then there is McVeigh, seemingly a walking advertisement for the death penalty. He killed 168 people in America's deadliest act of terrorism. He has explained in minute detail how he did it. But five days before his scheduled execution this month it transpires that the FBI withheld thousands of documents from his lawyers. As one American columnist put it: "If the FBI could not get its act together on this one, with the whole world watching, imagine what happens in sleepy jurisdictions where no reporters are interested. "Imagine the cases where the inmate claims innocence and the missing box of documents with potentially exculpatory evidence stays missing - even after he has been executed." Even in Texas the number of executions has dropped sharply since Bush's departure for Washington. Its legislators are now considering several safeguards, including better legal defence and a ban on executing the mentally retarded. But such measures come too late for Willett or the 89 prisoners whom he helped to execute. Willett is a soft-spoken, courteous, silver-haired man - and a very far cry from the stereotypical Texan good ol' boy or redneck. A happily married father of two teenage children, he is a computer buff who neither hunts, fishes nor owns a single gun. Bizarrely, however, he chose to be interviewed in the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, just a few blocks away from the monstrous red-brick fortress known as the Walls Unit which houses the Texas death chamber and where more criminals have been executed over the past quarter-century than anywhere else in the civilised world. He sat as he talked in a barber's chair once used for shaving off inmates' hair. All around were grim reminders of Huntsville's death-and-incarceration industry. The "Old Sparky" electric chair in which 361 people died before 1964 is there. Then there is a letter to Henry Ford from Clyde Barrow, of Bonnie and Clyde fame, for making such "dandy" getaway cars saying: "I have driven Fords exclusively when I could get away with one". Another is the extraordinarily long and detailed last-meal request of a prisoner named Morrow with the postscript: "This is my last meal and damn it I want it hot and on however many plates and bowls it takes to keep from mixing any of it up and I want it served at one o'clock this afternoon." Huntsville, a town of about 35,000 people, one hour north of Houston, does not play down its principal claim to fame. It positively broadcasts it. The museum is about to move to a prime site next to the Dallas-Houston interstate; the Chamber of Commerce publishes a "prison driving tour" guiding visitors around the town's eight different prison facilities; and the shops sell "I Did Time in Huntsville" T-shirts. For the tourists who come here the death penalty seems to be little more than a macabre source of entertainment. By the same token, it is a relatively abstract concept for the judges, jurors and governors who impose it. But for men like Willett who must actually walk into that execution chamber it is only too real. "Surely it gets easier," he says. "There was no comparison between the first and last, but it never got anywhere near what I would call easy." Over the next couple of hours, Willett sat there, calmly describing his ghastly job. The routine on an execution day was always the same, he said. At 1pm the condemned man would be delivered to the "Walls" from the "death row" unit about 40 miles away. His last glimpse of the outside world would be a tiny garden cultivated by the prison officers. Inside the death house, he would be unshackled, strip-searched, fingerprinted, given a change of clothes and locked in cell No 7 for the last 300 minutes of his life. Willett would then explain the process, see whether he wanted to make any final telephone calls, and assess whether he was likely to put up a fight when the moment came. He would ask whether the inmate wanted to make a final statement, and how he would know when it was finished. A few were angry and hostile. Most were frightened, particularly the younger ones. A handful were still hoping for a last-minute reprieve, though stays of execution became increasingly rare while Bush was the Governor. One inmate Willett particularly remembers was a former prison officer he once worked with. Another was Robert Excell White, who had spent 24 years on death row and was "more comfortable through that day than I am talking to you. He was ready to go." The prison chaplain would stay with the condemned men all afternoon - Willett reckons as many as two-thirds had found God on death row because "you have lost everything else and you are as low as you can go". They could have 30-minute meetings with their lawyer and their spiritual adviser, and at 4.30pm they would eat the final meal that they had ordered two weeks earlier. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice publishes these menus on its website. Of the 89 men Willett helped to execute, 19 ordered nothing, one asked for the Holy Sacrament, and another for just a jar of dill pickles. By contrast an inmate named David Castillo ordered 24 tacos, six enchiladas, six tostados, two onions, five jalapeņos, two cheeseburgers, one chocolate milk shake, a quart of milk and a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. Another, Dennis Dowthitt, ordered 12 fried eggs and a loaf of bread but was too nervous to eat them. Willett was amazed how much they would eat. "I think I would throw up if I was going to die in a couple of hours. But I cannot tell you how many have laid on the gurney (stretcher) and said that they really enjoyed the meal. It was the best food they had enjoyed in a long time." Shortly before 6pm, Willett would go to the execution chamber - a small room with grey doors and deep blue walls. When the Texas Attorney-General and Governor telephoned the order to proceed he would go to fetch the prisoner. Just three of the 89 resisted, and of those only one - Gary Graham - had to be carriedforcibly from the cell. The rest walked to their deaths without even being handcuffed. In the execution chamber they were strapped to the gurney by a team of five prison officers - all volunteers who received no extra pay. Then a two-man medical team would insert one tube into the prisoner's left arm and a back-up into his right arm - a process that usually took about four minutes unless the veins had been destroyed by drug use. Willett would distract the prisoners with small talk. Some would be trembling, some crying and others calm. Some would develop uncontrollable twitches. Some would thank the warden and his team. A few retained a remarkable presence of mind. When Willett asked one if there was anything he could do for him, the man replied: "I guess resuscitation would be out of the question?" The medics would then leave Willett alone in the execution chamber with the chaplain and the prisoner. Five friends or relatives of the victim would be brought into one witness gallery separated from the chamber by a window. Five people nominated by the prisoner would be brought into a second gallery. Willett recalls a couple of men who had murdered members of their own family, and their relatives chose to stand in the victim's room. Sometimes the prisoner's witnesses would wave or blow a kiss. The prisoner was just able to raise his head and nod, smile or occasionally even wink. Then a microphone would be lowered from the ceiling and Willett would ask for his last statement. These are also published on the Internet. Of Willett's 89 condemned men, 23 declined to make a last statement, 29 expressed remorse and 16 protested their innocence. Jonathan Nobles joked to a watching relative: "Steve, it took this to get you in a suit." William Davis, an American football fan, finished an eloquent statement of repentance with the words: "What about those Cowboys?" Brian Roberson's last words were: "Y'all kiss my black ass. Let's do it." Kenneth McDuff said simply: "I am ready to be released. Release me." And Robert Excell White just said: "Send me back to my Maker, Warden." The only one Willett had to cut off was Gary Graham, who was convicted on the word of a single witness and was well into the sixth minute of a furious denunciation of the "legal lynching" of black people. By that point the chaplain would be standing by the inmate's feet, a hand on his knee for reassurance, and Willett by his head. Willett always used the same bland signal to the anonymous executioner watching from an adjacent room. He would simply remove his glasses. That was the "awful and very awesome" moment when $86 (Ģ60) worth of lethal chemicals began coursing down the tubes. The first drug is sodium thiopental - a sedative. The second is pancuronium bromide, which collapses the lungs. The third is potassium chloride, which stops the heart. In the last seconds of their lives, a couple of prisoners told Willett that they could taste the chemicals. Ponchai Wilkerson, one of the three prisoners who resisted leaving the cell, stunned everyone by spitting out the key to his handcuffs as he died. Jonathan Nobles expired singing Silent Night. "He got as far as the line that says '. . . mother and child'," said Willett. "That was his last word - 'child'." Instead of drawing a last breath, most of the inmates exhaled noisily as their lungs collapsed. The victim's relatives almost always watched in silence, but not the prisoner's. "The mothers particularly would wail out crying," says Willett. "That is a sound that I can hear today. It is the most awful sound . . . I thought, why in the world would a mother come and watch this. But what if your son asked you to? You are going to be there." Normally Willett would be out of the prison by 7pm. He would spend the rest of the evening with his wife and two children, usually watching television or a movie. If the dead man's family had not claimed the body he would attend the funeral in Huntsville's Peckerwood Hill cemetery at 8am the next day. The death certificate would give "state-ordered legal homicide" as the cause of death. Willett never intended to do such a job, and accepted it only reluctantly. He began his career working night shifts in a guard tower at The Walls to earn some extra money as a student, and one thing led on to another. He is proud that he performed his duties well, but has grown increasingly uneasy about the death penalty "because I was not forced to think about it before and now I am - over and over and over." He was frequently sickened by the hideous crimes that some of the condemned men had committed, particularly those against children. He also knew that he was just one small part of a very long judicial process. But he found himself asking whether "as a Christian this is right". It is a subject that Willett feels uncomfortable discussing, and his answers are short. Would there be as many executions if judges and jurors had to do his job? "No," he replies. Is it possible that he helped execute innocent men? "To my knowledge there were none, but certainly that is a possibility. I do not think that any criminal justice system in the world is going to be perfect because humans are involved." He believes most of the men he helped to execute had changed greatly during their long imprisonments, and laments the waste of young lives. He doubts that their deaths gave the victims' relatives much relief but believes that they created more victims among the dead men's families. "These are the things I struggle inside with," he says. The most harrowing and troubling of Willett's 89 executions was probably the last, not the first. Dennis Dowthitt, aged 55, had been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of his son's 16-year-old girlfriend, and for ordering his son to murder the girl's nine-year-old sister. Willett still suspects that Dowthitt might have been covering up for his son and, while the newspapers interpreted his last statement as a confession, Willett considered it ambiguous at best. As he lay on the gurney Dowthitt suddenly found himself facing the dead girls' parents in the witness gallery. He began to sob. He had not intended to make a final statement, but suddenly blurted out: "I am so sorry for what all of you had to go through. I cannot imagine losing two children. If I was y'all, I would have killed me. You know? I'm really so sorry about it. I really am." He said goodbye to his sister in the other witness gallery, then turned back to the parents. "Gracie was beautiful and Tiffany was beautiful. You have some lovely girls and I am sorry. I don't know what to say." Still sobbing, he turned to Willett. "All right, Warden. Let's do it," he said, and Willett duly removed his glasses.