Context — October 9, 2015, 4:22 pm

Witness to Another Execution

In Texas, death walks an assembly line

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.

[Lede]

From a New York Times report, published October 8, 2015, on the delayed death-row systems in several states.

Despite a Supreme Court ruling allowing a controversial drug to be used for lethal injections in Oklahoma, death-penalty states are finding it harder to carry out executions as they struggle to obtain and properly use limited supplies of ever-changing combinations of suitable drugs.
     Prison officials in Texas and Virginia have improvised a short-term solution by trading drugs used in lethal injections. Both Ohio and Nebraska have sought to buy a drug no longer available in the United States from overseas only to be told by the federal Food and Drug Administration that importing the drug is illegal.

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.”

Read the full article here.

Share
Single Page

More from Susan Blaustein:

From the May 1994 issue

Witness to another execution

In Texas, death walks an assembly line

From the February 1991 issue

A few people’s power

The Philippine’s stalled revolution

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2020

Click Here to Kill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Vicious Cycles

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Oceans Apart

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Forty-Year Rehearsal

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Whale Mother

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Click Here to Kill·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a sunny July day in 2018, Alexis Stern was sitting behind the wheel of the red Ford Fusion her parents had given her the previous year when she’d learned to drive. Robbie Olsen, the boy she’d recently started dating, was in the passenger seat. They were in the kind of high spirits unique to teenagers on summer vacation with nothing much to do and nowhere in particular to go. They were about to take a drive, maybe get some food, when Stern’s phone buzzed. It was the police. An officer with the local department told her to come down to the station immediately. She had no idea what the cops might want with her. “I was like, am I going to get arrested?” she said.

Stern had graduated from high school the month before, in Big Lake, Minnesota, a former resort town turned exurb, forty miles northwest of the Twin Cities. So far she had spent the summer visiting family, hanging out with her new boyfriend, and writing what she describes as “action-packed and brutal sci-fi fantasy fiction.” At sixteen, she’d self-published her first novel, Inner Monster, about a secret agent named Justin Redfield whose mind has been invaded by a malevolent alter ego that puts the lives of his loved ones at risk. “It isn’t until his inner demon returns that he realizes how much trouble he really is in,” the synopsis reads. “Facing issues with his girlfriend and attempting to gain control of his dark side, the tension intensifies. Being the best agent comes at a price, a price of kidnapping, torture and even death.

Article
Oceans Apart·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I had been in Domoni—an ancient, ramshackle trading town on the volcanic island of Anjouan—for only a few summer days in 2018 when Onzardine Attoumane, a local English teacher, offered to show me around the medina. Already I had gotten lost several times trying to navigate the dozens of narrow, seemingly indistinguishable alleyways that zigzagged around the old town’s crumbling, lava-rock homes. But Onzardine had grown up in Domoni and was intimately familiar with its contours.

Stocky in build, with small, deep-set eyes and neatly trimmed stubble, Onzardine led me through the backstreets, our route flanked by ferns and weeds sprouting from cracks in the walls and marked by occasional piles of rubble. After a few minutes, we emerged onto a sunlit cliff offering views of the mustard-colored hills that surround the town, dotted with mango, palm, and breadfruit trees. We clambered down a trail, past scrawny goats foraging through piles of discarded plastic bottles, broken flip-flops, and corroded aluminum cans, toward a ledge where a dozen young men were waiting for the fishing boats to return to shore, gazing blankly out across the sea.

Article
Vicious Cycles·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is what I feared, that she would speak about the news . . . about how her father always said that the news exists so it can disappear, this is the point of news, whatever story, wherever it is happening. We depend on the news to disappear . . .
—Don DeLillo, “Hammer and Sickle”

What a story. What a fucking story.
—Dean Baquet, on the election of Donald Trump

a circular conversation

What is the news? That which is new. But everything is new: a flower blooms; a man hugs his daughter, not for the first time, but for the first time this time . . . That which is important and new. Important in what sense? In being consequential. And this has been measured? What? The relationship between what is covered in the news and what is consequential. Not measured. Why? Its consequence is ensured. Ensured. . . ? It’s in the news. But then who makes it news? Editors. Editors dictate consequence? Not entirely. Not entirely? It matters what people read and watch—you can’t bore them. Then boredom decides? Boredom and a sense of what’s important. But what is important? What’s in the news.

Article
The Forty-Year Rehearsal·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On the evening of May 8, just after eight o’clock, Kate Valk stepped onstage and faced the audience. The little playhouse was packed with hardcore fans, theater people and artists, but Kate was performing, most of all, for one person, hidden among them, a small, fine-boned, black-clad woman, her blond-gray hair up in a clip, who smiled, laughed, and nodded along with every word, swaying to the music and mirroring the emotions of the performers while whispering into the ear of the tall, bearded fellow who sat beside her madly scribbling notes. The woman was Elizabeth LeCompte—known to all as Liz—the director of the Wooster Group, watching the first open performance of the company’s new piece, Since I Can Remember.

It had been a tense day, full of opening-night drama. Gareth Hobbs, who would be playing a leading role, had been sick in bed for days with a 103-degree fever, and he’d only arrived at the theater, still shaky, at three-thirty that afternoon. During the final closed rehearsal, performer Suzzy Roche fell on her elbow, then felt faint and had to lie prone while her colleagues fanned her and fetched ice. At one point, Erin Mullin, the stage manager as well as a performer, shouted: “We have one hour left, and we’re on page eight of fifty!” Not to mention that the piece still had no ending.

Article
Election Bias·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the spring of 2018, Tequila Johnson, an African-American administrator at Tennessee State University, led a mass voter-registration drive organized by a coalition of activist groups called the Tennessee Black Voter Project. Turnout in Tennessee regularly ranks near the bottom among U.S. states, just ahead of Texas. At the time, only 65 percent of the state’s voting-age population was registered to vote, the shortfall largely among black and low-income citizens. “The African-American community has been shut out of the process, and voter suppression has really widened that gap,” Johnson told me. “I felt I had to do something.”

The drive generated ninety thousand applications. Though large numbers of the forms were promptly rejected by election officials, allegedly because they were incomplete or contained errors, turnout surged in that year’s elections, especially in the areas around Memphis and Nashville, two of the cities specifically targeted by the registration drive. Progressive candidates and causes achieved notable successes, capturing the mayor’s office in heavily populated Shelby County as well as several seats on the county commission. In Nashville, a local measure was passed introducing a police-accountability board.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The Chevrolet Suburban sport utility vehicle was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today