A group called the Texas After Violence Project e-mailed to ask me to interview with them about my experience with the death penalty. Thankfully, I’ve never lost anyone I love to murder – or to an execution. But as a young reporter, I witnessed more than 20 lethal injections.
When I was in college at Sam Houston State University, I worked full time at the local newspaper, the Huntsville Item. I got some of my best reporting experience to date at that tiny paper. Even though it was a small paper in a small town, we covered big issues – because it’s located in the state’s prison capital – Huntsville, Texas.
I worked the prison beat, and part of my beat included covering executions at the nearby Walls Unit. I was 20 years old – and I spent many evenings at the old brick prison. It was usually just the same handful of us there – me, an AP reporter and a UPI reporter. Most nights, just before 6 p.m., the three of us would follow the prison PR guy across the courtyard and into the death chamber. Outside the gates of the courtyard, it would be silent. Every so often, an execution would garner publicity – and the street just outside that gate would be packed with people … protesting or just watching.
But most of the time, an execution was a non-event. That always struck me as one of the strangest parts of this ritual. I was a reporter covering a story – so I never voiced my opinion on whether I thought the death penalty was right or even effective. But I did always think if someone was going to be killed – whether at the hands of another person or by the state – it should be noted.
And because of that, our paper’s policy was that we published a story on each and every execution. Some weeks, there were several. On a couple of occasions, there were two in one night.
Because of those many nights I spent watching men be put to death, I actually came to believe that executions should be public. We as a society condone them – and we should see the effects of those laws. I’m not even sure it would change people’s minds to see them – but I think the option should be there.
But as it stands now, there are only a handful of people allowed into the death chamber to witness an execution. The inmate can choose a couple of people to come in on his side of the partitioned chamber – and the victim’s family can have a few people on the other side. The reporters usually were ushered into whatever side was the least crowded.
There was one night in particular that I remember where we three reporters were the only people – apart from prison staff – who were witnessing the lethal injection. The man strapped to the gurney had killed an entire family, so there was no one left on the victim’s side to attend. And he apparently had no family who was invited or wanted to come see him die. That was one of the saddest nights – simply because there was no one left to care whether this man lived or died.
When I got the e-mail from the Texas After Violence Project, I thought I really didn’t have much to tell them. I witnessed several executions, but I was never personally involved in any of these cases. But after thinking about it, I guess it affected me more than I knew at the time.
Their web site says the project was formed in 2007 “to listen.” As a reporter, I’ve always thought the more information people have, the better off they are – so, although I’m not sure what I can add to this project, I am going to call and tell them what I know.