Published in the May 1994 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Witness to Another Execution” profiles the Texas town of Huntsville, where all executions in the state are carried out. The article is free to read in full through October 12. Subscribe to Harper’s Magazine for instant access to our entire 165-year archive.
Ask anyone in Huntsville and he or she will tell you that the rapid clip of executions has absolutely nothing to do with life there. “It’s just not our issue,” explained City Manager Gene Pipes. “This is the state carrying out a legal mandate that has nothing to do with the local community. It happens to be dateline, huntsville, but it’s just not what’s being talked about on the square.”
Indeed, the morning after Kelly’s execution there was no sign anywhere near the square that anything unusual had happened. The yellow tape outside the Walls was gone; across the street, in their telltale white prison suits, trusties were mowing the lawn and hosing down the family car at the TDC director’s vast, nee-Georgian mansion. At the Cafe Texan, the regular 9:30 coffee crowd of retired white ranchers and constables joshed with a sassy veteran waitress and rehashed old cowboy yarns, while black workers shouldered trays of steaming, clean dishware and ate in the kitchen. At the Masonic Lodge coffee klatch, a group of mostly older men (a TDC guard, a cook, a retired chaplain, an engineer, the county judge, the founder of the local John Birch Society, and a retired crime-scene photographer) took it upon themselves to explain that Huntsville had been called the Rome of Texas, built as it was on seven hills and seven creeks, as well as the Athens of Texas, because the state’s first law school and teachers college were founded here. Huntsville’s founders donated the land for the state penitentiary, confident that legislators would then also locate the state capital there, but the Texas legislature, by one vote, chose Austin, and the disappointed Huntsville citizenry had to content itself with the eleven horse thieves who were the Walls’ first reluctant guests.
Over the course of the next few weeks, while waiting my turn to witness an execution, I discovered that most of the people in town preferred to know as little as possible about Huntsville’s main industry. “This is a marvelous place to raise a family,” said Jane Monday, a former mayor and historian. “It’s a university town, a town that cares a great deal about its young; it’s warm, it’s cozy, it’s a very caring community. I wouldn’t take a million dollars to live anywhere else.” When I asked about the effect all of Huntsville’s prisons and executions had on its young, Monday shook her head firmly. “It might sound funny to you, but I don’t think it affects the children or the community at all.”
City Councilman Jimmy Carter at first agreed. “That’s the prison system,” he said automatically when I asked why no one in Huntsville seemed to bother about executions. “The town is very distinct from that. Or maybe that’s just part of our defense mechanism. We don’t want to identify with executions or acknowledge that we are involved with that in any way.”
Tommy Cole, a physician whose great-grandfather headed the TDC and whose family home has abutted the Walls for more than a century, admitted that he too is unaware of the executions. Dr. Cole likened himself to those living in small towns outside Nazi death camps. “We just visited Weimar, a few miles outside of Buchenwald, and no one there had any idea what went on, just like we have no idea what goes on behind those walls over there,” he volunteered over a scotch in his fuchsia-damasked living room, in which much of the elegantly carved antique furniture was made by prison labor.
The obliviousness of townspeople to the executions was notable, but more striking was the way in which career TDC employees involved in the work managed to keep it from impinging on their consciousness. “It’s real simple: I either do my job or I don’t eat,” the assistant director for public information, Charles L. Brown, told me when I asked how he felt about witnessing every execution. “My position is purely defensible: if I’m going to have to answer questions about it, I ought to be there. It’s got nothing to do with my feelings about the death penalty; I’m just doing my job professionally and to the best of my ability. It works perfect, in that regard. And nobody would know whether I’m for or against capital punishment. You’d be surprised,” Brown added, “how many people here are opposed to capital punishment.” I asked the same question of Brother Cecil McKee, a retired Walls Unit chaplain whose job it was to walk condemned men to the electric chair until the U.S. Supreme Court effectively placed a moratorium on executions in 1972. “It was hard to be there, but I didn’t have to see it,” he told me. “I closed my eyes … You know, the flesh burns—it leaves a terrible odor. I’d go home and take my clothes off, leave ’em out, we’d go to sleep. Next day, I had to send my clothes to the cleaners. It was just part of the job.”
I asked Brother McKee how he felt about assisting the state in taking lives. He looked at me with watery blue eyes. “I’ve never said this before: I do not believe in capital punishment of any kind. My philosophy is this: we have no right to demean, diminish, or destroy a life. If they can’t be rehabilitated, they should be incarcerated. But I was working in a system that says we’re going to do it. It’s not right for me to say how a man should die.”
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