needs little introduction to most true crime aficionados. Seamus was a prolific contributor to The Crime Library
, and he’s also written for Radar
. Seamus was a greater influence on me than he probably realized when I was a Crime Library
contributor. His advice on writing ledes and structuring news articles was invaluable, and his skill as an editor unmatched — he turned some pretty dry CL submissions from yours truly into news worth reading.
Currently, Seamus is seeking a publisher for his new novel, Men In Granny Panties
, which he describes as “a raucous political and social satire that looks at the current American landscape through the eyes of a cross-dressing U.S. Senator.”
I’m honored to bring you the following article from my fellow CL “alum.” It is one of the finest, most thought-provoking guest contributions I’ve ever had the pleasure of posting to any of my sites. ~ Steve Huff
She shuddered, gave out one last long gasp of breath and it was over. Everything had all gone according to plan, and the old woman had been cooperative. In the hours after she had been brought to “the Walls,” the notorious Texas death chamber at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, Betty Lou Beets had been a model prisoner. “She wasn’t any kind of gabfest,” retired Captain Terry Green recalled of the woman who, at 62, was about to become, at the time, the oldest person and only the third woman put to death in Texas. “But she wasn’t surly or had any kind of attitude toward us.”
And when it came time, on the evening of Feb. 24, 2000, for the woman to make her way to the death chamber where she would be strapped to a gurney and wait for Warden Jim Willett to give the signal — he would always take off the reading glasses he wore specifically for such occasions — Beets went along quietly.
Green and the guards didn’t touch her. They didn’t have to. They simply formed a cordon around her as they usually did, two in front, two behind, and began the long walk to the death chamber, letting the gravity, the solemnity, the ritual of what was about happen carry them along. On the team this time, there was a young woman, a guard who like everyone on the tie-down team, had volunteered for the duty. The warden had asked her to, Green recalled, and she had said; “Yeah, I’ll do it, because it’s a female inmate.” She could have refused the duty. They all could have.
A guard instructed Beets to climb up on the gurney and she did it without complaint. The guards moved in, each with their own specific and limited task. As he would do 102 times throughout the six years he spent working inside the Walls, Green secured the strap on her left arm, another across her upper torso and a third across her lower torso while the remaining guards secured the other restraints. Technicians swabbed the old woman’s clammy skin with alcohol. There was no sense of irony in taking such hygienic precautions for a woman who was about to killed — it was all part of the coldly medical ritual. Then the needles were inserted into her veins, one in the left arm closest to the heart, another in the right arm, just in case.
The signal was given. From behind a wall, faceless functionaries — also volunteers — strictly followed the state’s execution protocol, pushing three plungers in their prescribed order to fill the woman’s veins with the lethal cocktail. First came the thiopental sodium, a powerful barbiturate that supposedly induces a near-coma in the condemned, then pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the inmate, and finally potassium chloride to stop the heart.
And then, with a shudder and a last long gasp for breath, it was over.
“She took it like a man,” Green said in a recent interview.
Green and the team again stepped in. They unbuckled the restraints in precisely the same order they had fastened them and hefted the dead woman from the state’s fixed gurney to the mobile one brought by the mortician and helped as her body was wrapped in the purple shroud reserved for such occasions.
It was then that Green glanced over at the young woman guard. “The guard was kind of backing away from us… I could tell that she was crying,” Green recalled. “I… didn’t say anything and went back and told the major. He walked over there and we come to find out the lady reminded her of her mama. I don’t think she ever did any more executions. It was traumatic for her.”
This piece is not a polemic on capital punishment. There have been plenty of those in the 31 years since a series of rulings from the United States Supreme Court opened the door for the death penalty to resume in the U.S. It is not a review of the arguments for or against capital punishment; not a study of whether it works as a deterrent to violent crime; or whether the nation is justified in taking lives in the name of justice.
Instead, this is a simple piece that takes a look at one question that has largely been overlooked: How do the people who are charged with carrying out capital punishment cope with the immense responsibility of their jobs?
It is not a question that most of the states that perform executions are eager to have answered. The 38 states that permit capital punishment, and the federal prison system, have cast an almost-impenetrable veil of secrecy around those guards and technician and medicos who participate in executions. The wall of silence is so dense that even anonymous interviews with execution team members are prohibited. In preparing this piece, we contracted officials at every state that has conducted an execution since 1976, requesting “blind interviews” with team members in which not even the magazine would know the true identities of the people involved — we had agreed to rely on the assurances of the states that the people we would be talking to were actually team members, and offered to provide transcripts of the interviews to state officials. In lieu of that, we offered to provide written questions and agreed to accept written responses. In every case, we were turned down. In a handful of cases, the states cited pending litigation as the reason for their silence. In other cases it was just a matter of policy.
As Jeffrey Ray, a spokesman for the Idaho Department of Corrections, put it, “the team members’ identities are so closely guarded that the folks here don’t want to discuss anything even remotely connected with them…. The warden said he feels it’s his responsibility to protect the anonymity of the team members, and he doesn’t think that having them answer your questions would or could assist our department with any portion of our mission.”
There are those, like Green, who retired in 2005, who are both willing to talk and critical of those who aren’t. “I guess maybe this gives me up in terms of being simple-minded, but if you’re gonna do it, don’t deny it,” Green said.
In one crucial way, Green is unique among those have been involved in executions and are willing to talk about it. Plain-spoken and gregarious, with a Texas accent as thick as sausage gravy, he is quick to laugh, but deeply thoughtful about the role he served for half a decade. Still, Green says, he has never been haunted by his actions. “I’ve always had a clear conscience about it, a clean heart about it. I still do….never had second thoughts,” he recalled, though he once received a hostile postcard from a death penalty abolitionist in Italy. “It didn’t bother me, or offend me or nothing else,” he said, though Green remembers wondering how the man learned his identity and his address. “It wasn’t like, okay, ‘here’s who will be serving at the execution table tonight’…It wasn’t public knowledge, per se.”
In fact, he now says, serving on the tie-down team, “is the only thing I miss in terms of being employed with TDC. Not because I’m a death-monger or whatever but because it’s so unique. It was something just a few people were involved in, and I miss that part of it.”
Green was already a veteran guard in 1999 when he transferred to the Walls, and almost immediately, he says, he volunteered for the tie-down team, the cadre of guards who are responsible for condemned prisoners from the moment they are picked up at death row for the 43-mile ride to the Walls, to the moment that their bodies are loaded into the hearse at the death house door.
“I knew when I transferred to the Walls…that the executions took place there because they always have and it was something I wanted to be involved in,” Green said. “I’ve always been pro-death penalty. Even as a non-correctional person I was.” Volunteering for the team, he said, was the most natural thing in the world for him. “I’m the kind of guy personality-wise I want to be in the mix if anything’s going on that’s not too danged dangerous.”
Though he was committed to the concept of capital punishment, he still approached his first execution with a degree of trepidation. The condemned man’s name was Martin Vega. He had been convicted and sentenced to death for murdering a man, firing seven shots from .22-caliber pistol at close range in order to collect a $250,000 insurance payout.
It wasn’t that Green questioned the sentence. But he had received little formal instruction on what to expect, he says. The truth is, his most extensive primer came during a casual conversation with another member of the team. “I said, ‘Okay tell me, is the dude…gonna make noises or what?” Green recalled. “I didn’t want to get startled, you know? It wasn’t about being scared, I wasn’t scared, but I didn’t want to go, ‘Oh my God, what was that?’ I wanted to have an idea.”
“And he said, ‘Aw hell, he’ll take a real deep breath and blow it out and that’s basically when he dies. And that’s…the only noise you’re gonna hear.'”
As the years passed, Green says he found that generally was the case. He also found himself becoming a more integral part of the team. In time, he found himself driving the van that brought the condemned from death row in Livingston to the death house in Huntsville. “We had a special minivan that had two cages in the back, that’s the only way to describe them, and I would be the officer that drove the thing, along with another officer,” Green recalled. Often, as the inmate sat in the van, waiting for the escort vehicles that would travel with the van, Green would pop open the rear door and chat with the inmate. “I’d…tell him actually what he was looking at and this and that. It wasn’t an official conversation. It was my own doing. It wasn’t something I was supposed to be doing per se, not that there was anything wrong with it.”
Sometimes during those chats, a prisoner would try to convince Green that he did not deserve to die. It never worked. He had been a guard long enough to remain unmoved. “There wasn’t anything…that made me think….any different from what I knew…and read about him on paper,” he said. “He was just another dude who had been in the joint, made a bunch of bad decisions and he done made the very worst decision he could have ever made and got himself in this position.
“And that wasn’t a defense mechanism. That was just the way I read it,” Green said.
Sure, on one or two occasions, Green said, he had his doubts. “I can recall the thought crossed my mind if this cat wasn’t figuring to get executed he’d probably be okay…but that certainly wasn’t my call, and wasn’t something I ran and told (then-Warden) Jim Willett, ‘Hey Jim, we need to let this guy off.'”
The way Green saw it, “We had to see that the order of the court was carried out. So in that sense, we were doing our job.”
Once back at the Walls with the soon-to-be-executed prisoner, Green and his fellow guards faded into the background, he said. That was the warden’s time, and the chaplain’s, and most of all, it was the prisoner’s time. They’d sit in their cell just outside the death chamber and talk on the phone, or to the warden or the chaplain. Some would pray. Some would sing. Most were quiet. A few put up some brief show of resistance, but in the end, they all gave in to the inevitability that Green and his teammates represented. “On three…four occasions we had to use physical force to get the person out of the cell and put them on the gurney. But that was certainly the exception. Most of them just accepted it,” Green said. “Put yourself in that position. You can’t beat it no matter what you do. I mean you might sock Captain Green in the eye three times — what difference is it going to make? They still gonna kill you. I think it’s just a high wall to climb over and they knew they couldn’t get out of it. Most of them went to it and took it like men.”
He’s only in his late fifties, now, but there’s something in Jim Willett’s voice that makes him sound years older. Soft-spoken and polite, he spends his time nowadays guiding tourists through the Texas Prison Museum, a sometimes macabre, sometimes enlightening collection of artifacts from the Texas prison system. Surrounded by everything from balls and chains to the electric chair the state abandoned in favor of the antiseptic tools of lethal injection, Willett has developed a museum curator’s bearing.
But there’s something else in Willett’s voice. It’s a weariness that he believes was carved deep into him during the three years he served as warden at the Walls. In those three years, from the spring of 1998 to March 2001, Willett gave the signal to execute more convicts that he can remember.
“The media says 89,” Willet said. “I’ve never really counted, but I guess that’s close to it.” In fact, at the time of his retirement, Willett had presided over more executions than anyone else alive, a record that is all the more astounding when you consider that Willett is anything but a hard-core supporter of capital punishment. “I have never really had a notion one way or the other; I understand both sides of it. I went into it that way and I guess [I] left the same way,” he said, and then added even more quietly, “I didn’t really care for doing that part of my job. I never found it easy.”
The truth is, Willett was always ambivalent about the death penalty. His ambivalence deepened from the first moment he walked into the death chamber in April of 1998 to oversee the botched execution of convicted killer Joseph Cannon.
“We had a real bad mess-up on my first one,” Willett recalled. “They…never found…. a good vein and so we decided — I decided — to go with one [intravenous line] instead of two.
“It was placed in the right arm, farthest from the heart. Right after the executioner started to push the drugs, the needle popped out, and we had to close the curtains, (hiding him from the view of witnesses) which they’d never done… before. It was terrible for me because not only was that my first one, I had never witnessed an execution and I was doing it all from what people had told me.”
None of the executions that followed were as dramatic for Willett, who in one year alone sent 40 convicts to their deaths. But every one of them took a toll on the warden. Part of it was the fact that his job required him to meet with each condemned inmate, to fill them in on the arcane and deadly ritual they were about to face, but also to assess their needs and make sure that their last few hours were as comfortable as possible.
“I felt like my job was to make sure that this whole process went smoothly,” Willett said. “I mean, I’m the guy in charge of all of it; I’m the one responsible for that.”
He inoculated himself against any feelings of bias, he said, by learning as little about the inmate’s crime as he could. “I found out early on that if I pulled these fellas’ files and I found out the details of the crime I had a little problem wanting to even stand there and have a conversation with them….so very early on I quit reading anything about it. I knew he was there for probably a horrible crime — that’s all I knew until after it was over with — but that night or the next day I’d usually pull the folders and see what the crimes were. That’s how I dealt with it.”
In the end, he said, “My dealings with those inmates were largely based on how they were that day. If they wanted to talk, well, we spent some time talking. I always went back — if I wasn’t there when they arrived I got there shortly thereafter and we started up a conversation. If the inmate wasn’t very talkative and he didn’t have questions, those conversations were short. I guess maybe five minutes. If he was talkative, I might be back there 20 or 30 minutes, and on those occasions a lot of times I’d go back and check on those guys later in the afternoon.”
And when the time appointed by the courts came, it was always Willett who was the ultimate public face of the execution.
The identities of the technicians and the guards were all concealed, and each of the members of the team, in keeping with protocol, had only limited responsibilities so that no single one of them could be said to be truly responsible for the execution.
The warden had no such protection, Willett said. “I was the person who said, ‘Let’s go ahead with this.'”
It was, and remains for Willett, an awesome burden. He coped with it, he said, by convincing himself that he was just “a cog in a great big wheel.”
There were times, of course, that he had his doubts. His last execution was an example. Dennis Thurl Dowthitt and his 16-year-old son Delton had been charged with the 1992 sexual assault and slaying of two young girls in Conroe, Texas. Until moments before his execution, the elder Dowthitt maintained that his son – who testified against him and had been sentenced to 45 years in prison – had been the real killer. But just before Willett took off his glasses to signal the start of the execution, Dowthitt confessed.
Willett is still not sure whether he believes him.
“I’m not saying it was true in this one, but given that situation and being a father I can certainly see how a parent would take the blame for what a child did to keep them from dying. And nothing, any rules or laws where you have no witnesses, is gonna change that.”
Three weeks later, Willett retired from the prison system.
In the years since, Willett, who in 2001 narrated the Peabody Award-winning radio documentary “Witness to an Execution,” has tried not to dwell on his past as the man who gave the green light for 89 people to be executed. “Until somebody like you calls me or comes by and asks questions, I don’t hardly ever think about it. And I don’t keep up with it. I can’t tell you how many executions they done this year. I don’t keep up with it. It doesn’t interest me.”
Last year alone, Texas executed 26 people.
The Killer Doctor
Jose High struggled against the restraints that had been fastened securely over his arms and chest and legs. He winced in pain and cried out as the nurses and emergency medical technicians poked and probed and pierced him again and again. After years of hard-core drug abuse on the streets of Atlanta, the 45-year-old convicted killer’s veins were burned out, and now, as the clock ticked past the time the state of Georgia had decreed for his execution, the scars left from his ancient addiction were becoming an obstacle to his death. The nurses and the EMTs were becoming more desperate. More than 30 times, they had swabbed his skin with alcohol and plunged in the needles. Each time they failed to find a good vein.
From his station a few rooms away, surrounded by a battery of clinical machines calibrated to gauge the progress of High’s execution, the doctor was becoming concerned. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Execution by lethal injection — the preferred method in the federal prison system and in 37 of the 38 states that have the death penalty — was supposed to be cold and methodical, clinical, almost medicinal.
It didn’t matter to the doctor what atrocity the condemned man was convicted of (High had been sentenced to die for the murder in 1976 of an 11-year-old witness during a gas station holdup). All that mattered to the doctor was that the execution be carried out humanely. And when it became clear, on the night of Nov. 7, 2001, that High’s execution was anything but, he stepped in.
Calmly, and with all the medical detachment his years in practice had taught him, the doctor entered the death chamber and approached the man he euphemistically calls “the patient.”
“I went and took his permission to put the catheter in,” the doctor told me in a recent interview, conducted on condition that he not be named. It was a 7 French triple lumen central venous catheter, 20 centimeters long, which he deftly inserted into the subclavian vein right between the”patient’s” left shoulder and his neck. Moments later, the warden gave the prearranged signal. From behind a wall, the technicians pushed in their plungers and a few minutes later, High was dead.
Though the doctor’s actions that night are considered by some to be wrong — they have triggered a lawsuit filed by retired New York-based psychiatrist, medical ethicist and self-described death penalty abolitionist Dr. Arthur Zitrin and are in direct violation of the American Medical Association’s ban on physicians assisting in executions — he remains convinced that he did the right thing. He has, however, stopped participating in executions in response to the lawsuit.
“I didn’t know (that) the AMA is against it and though I am not a member of AMA I still regard it as one of the principles I go by because it’s an organization of long standing and I still have a respect for them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t have my own ideas about it and my own opinion about it.”
The way the doctor sees it, his role in the six executions he monitored and the one he helped carry out were all done in accordance with the public will, and his role, as he described it, was a strictly humanitarian one.
“The Supreme Court says (lethal injection is) one of the punishments that is approved,” he says, and the doctor believes that there is evidence that the majority of people, at least in his home state of Georgia, support capital punishment.
“The question is: What is the most humane way of its being done? I don’t think there should be a lot of hesitation, even for the AMA, to let the doctors do it, because that will be much more humane than somebody else doing it,” the doctor said.
That, of course, is open to debate. As Zitrin put it, “there’s no guarantee that doctors participating in these executions will avoid errors,” a point he says is dramatically underscored by the case of Dr. Alan Doerhoff, a Missouri physician who was barred from participating in executions after it was disclosed that he was dyslexic, had on several occasions altered the dosages of drugs used in the execution protocol and had been sued 20 times for malpractice during his career as a doctor.
But there is something else in the doctor’s demeanor that seems to go beyond the ethical questions that surround his role in executions. It’s something visceral that come through when he talks about his feelings toward the men and women whose crimes — at least under the current law — warrant death.
He ticks off a list of cases that he believes deserve death: the 1993 slaying of Polly Klaas in California; the slaying of Jessica Lunsford, who was kidnapped from her Homosassa Springs, Fla., home in 2005, raped and murdered by John Evander Couey — now sentenced to die for the crime; and the case of Brian Nichols, who allegedly killed four people, including a judge, a sheriff’s deputy, a court clerk and an off-duty Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agent during a spectacular escape from an Atlanta courthouse in 2005.
“I don’t even know animals who do that,” the doctor says.
And while he no longer participates in executions, he has no regrets that he once did.
“We should be a civilized society and the things that we do should be more civilized, but…that doesn’t bar me from having absolutely a very definite opinion about people who do that kind of atrocious thing to children. I mean how can we just tolerate them?”
Carroll Pickett knew how to tolerate the condemned prisoners. More than that, he knew how to comfort them. During the 15 years he served as chaplain of the Walls, Pickett, a man who, even now, more than a decade after he left the death house, still speaks always in the hushed tones of a confessor, choked back his own revulsion over capital punishment as he gently guided 95 people to their deaths.
It ate away at him, of course, emotionally, spiritually, even physically. Just a few months after his retirement, in fact, he underwent triple bypass surgery. His surgeon chalked up his heart problems to the anguish he had experienced doing his job. “He said that’s probably one of the most stressful situations anybody could be in.”
It wasn’t a role that Pickett sought. He had just given up a job as a small-town pastor when, in 1980, he was invited to bring his ministry to Texas’ maximum security prison at Huntsville. “I had a daughter who was going to be a senior the next year and it wasn’t fair to move her, so I agreed to go to work for a year. I went to work at the Walls unit. They weren’t doing executions…so I didn’t even think about it,” Pickett said. “Two and a half years later we did our first one since 1964. It just fell as one of my ministerial responsibilities.”
Pickett was no supporter of the death penalty, not then, not now. It was fundamental to his personal theology that the state had no right to take a person’s life in payment for crime, regardless of the offense. But he kept his opinions to himself. The way he saw it, he had to. “I could never say to anybody I’m for it or against it,” he said. “Being the first state to ever do it, lethal injection…we were in the spotlight all the time and I learned very, very quickly that anything I said…had to be cleared.” He had been warned that any statement on his part would jeopardize his ministry.
“If you come out and say you’re in favor of it then the people on death row won’t talk to you,” Pickett had been warned. “If you say you’re against it, you can’t work here.”
“I actually felt like God had placed me there for a more important reason than just executions,” Pickett said. “There were 2,200 inmates that needed spiritual help and guidance, what we call restorative justice….and and I felt like God had called me to service to help them get there.”
Pickett held his tongue.
In time, Pickett says, he developed a pattern, but it never became a routine. He’d spend time with them, talk with them, and sometimes, to his surprise, he’d even draw comfort from them, “Like the one man who changed his whole life and he sang all day,” Pickett said. “He had done his repentance and he felt like God had forgiven him and he was able to sing. He was not afraid of dying. These were people who could go through their last day and me with them and show me that they’re pretty strong people, that their faith had changed their lives, their lives had changed, they’ve developed a good reputation…they had gone from convicts to inmates, there’s a distinction…I felt they were honestly and truly saved by the grace of God.”
There were others, he said, who struggled against their pending deaths, and it was up to him to calm them. “I had one….he was about to lose it,” Pickett recalled. “Most of them would be tough enough to say, ‘I don’t need anything, I can face this.’ But this one particular guy, he was really nervous…he was showing all the physical symptoms and I said, ‘Let me go see if I can get something.’ I went up to the warden’s office and he reached down in his desk and give me this little white pill,” Pickett said. “I went down and I said, ‘just lie down’ and I give it to him. I said, ‘They gonna work, just lie down and take them and close your eyes, start relaxing your legs and start relaxing your feet’ After about 20 minutes of talking to him, he relaxed. It wasn’t nothing but aspirin.”
There were some he believed might have been innocent, or at least not guilty enough to warrant death, some who he had believed had redeemed themselves in prison, and certainly there were others about whom he was not so sure. But he treated each one of them the same way, he said, sitting with them in their cells as they awaited the moment of execution, walking with them to the death chamber, and then sitting with them as the needles were inserted. When the execution began, Pickett would be by their side, his hand always resting on their legs, just below their knees.
A psychiatrist he had spoken to after one particularly grueling execution had told him that everyone involved in the process, whether they admitted it to themselves or not, suffered as a result of it.
“He said, ‘Everybody feels it. You just keep putting drops in and drops in and finally you get enough. The last drop is the one that makes it overflow’,” Pickett said.
Pickett had seen that firsthand. He had seen it among the technicians and with the wardens – he served with three during his years at the Walls. He especially saw it with the members of the tie-down team, the rugged guards who had volunteered to take on the responsibility. They would burn out, he said. “One had a complete breakdown,” he said. Others simply quit and left the system.
“We’ve had people on the tie-down team that would…freeze,” Pickett recalled. “It’s one thing to be with a guy all day long and get him coffee and juice and whatever it is…to help him out. It’s another thing to strap him down. I’ve seen lots of them with big old tears in their eyes. And I knew, this was their last one.”
For Pickett, the final drop came on the night of Jan. 31, 1995, when he had to guide two men to their deaths: Clifton Russell, who had been convicted of a 1979 murder and robbery in Abilene, then Willie Williams, who had been sentenced to die for a similar crime in 1980 in Harris County.
“We did Clifton Russell and as soon as he was finished then they brought the other man in, Willie Williams in, and when Willie got there [the warden] said, ‘Take all the time that you want, and whenever you get ready let’s go.'”
“It was hard on everybody to go right in and then right back out,” Pickett said. Still, he and the warden and the members of the tie-down team and the technicians did what they were ordered to do. But by the time it was over, Pickett had made up his mind. “I was getting near the end of my 61st year…getting tired. It wore me out.”
A few months later, Pickett retired.
Even now, a decade and a half after his last execution, there is still a good deal of pain in his voice when he talks about his years at the Walls. “Always will be,” he says. “Is. Was. And will be. That’s a lot of people.”
He comforts himself in believing that he performed a valuable service, not to the state, but to men and women he helped console and who sometimes helped console him, and most importantly, he says, to his god.
“To me it was a ministry, a ministry of presence, to listen and keep them calm. If they wanted to listen to the radio, or a Dr Pepper or something that wasn’t…technically legal, then I’d help them do that,” he said. “Little things like that mean a lot on the last day. But I don’t forget them. I can’t.”
Related link: “Supreme Court lethal injection ruling a setback