Wednesday, June 25, 2008


by Jenna Jackson

I got an email a few days ago that made me start thinking about something I have not thought about in years. Executions.

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.


Leah said...

I would assume that even if you were a family member of the victim, it would be difficult to watch someone being put to death. I cannot imaging getting any comfort from it whatsoever. But, I am not a DP proponent.

Kathryn Casey said...

Really interesting perspective, Jenna. I believe a lot of what we see/experience as journalists affects the ways we view the world, whether we realize it at the time or not.

Diane Fanning said...

I always remembered the retired Death Row warden in Huntsville who didn't want the new death row unit in Livingston to bear his name because he didn't believe in the death penalty. I think a lot of people were shocked by that. But he said that after years and years of witnessing executions, he realized that the administration of the death penalty dragged out the suffering of the victims' family members did not give the closure they were promised.

andy kahan said...


Great piece. I was with the first victim's family ever to witness an execution in modern day Texas and I was looking at their file the other day only to discover you were the reporter for the Huntsville Item. Small world.

Jim and Linda Kelly had two out of their three children murdered in their family business and I can tell you from being with Jim and Linda during the execution I literally watched the humanity return back to Jim. After the execution of Leo Jenkins I remember seeing Jim smile and actually making small talk. Prior to the execution Jim was usually quite laconic in his expressions and rarely spoke. It was quite the catharsis for Jim.

I have been up to five executions with victims families and from my perspective it is one of the most mentally emotional and grueling experiences one can ever have. It is almost like time stopped and you are transported back to the day your loved one was brutally murdered.

After watching the execution of the person that killed her son I will never forget what one mother told me;" Finally, I no longer have to deal with the criminal justice system". Closure it is not but at least that chapter of their life story is finished.

Leah said...

Jenna, from the time you witnessed your first execution, to the last one, how did each experience affect you? And did any of them bother you more than another?

TxMichelle said...

Good question Leah.
If I can add to that. Do you find yourself more against the DP and what was your position beforehand?
Was there one in particular that you felt was justified in light of their crimes?

Anonymous said...

"That was one of the saddest nights – simply because there was no one left to care whether this man lived or died."

Your post reminded me why the death penalty debate is so frustrating and irritating to me.

It happens time and time again.

By the time all of the defendant's post-conviction remedies have been exhausted (and exhausted and exhausted), and we finally reach his execution date, we have long forgotten the horrifying details of his crime...we have erased from our memory the victims who lost their lives (and who, on this "saddest night," also had no family left)... and we extend our sympathies to the person who got us there in the first place.

It has never made sense to me. I suppose it never will.

Diane Fanning said...

There are many people who object to the death penalty on religious grounds. Those who do are not forgetting victims and are not denying that the convict deserves to die for the crime committed. They simply feel it is wrong for the state to execute them in our names.
In this view, a life--created by God--should never be taken by man.
I do not know Jenna's stance on death penalty but I do think proponents of that ultimate punishment should demonstrate respect for those of us who disagree with you based on the deeply held convictions of their faith.

TxMichelle said...

Well said Diane.
I am a supporter of the DP for some types of crimes. However, I do question using it when there is questionable evidence or questionable proceedures involved to get the DP.
One of the things that I noticed Andy said was a victem stated they felt relief because they no longer had to deal with the justice system. Not because the killer was dead, but that they no longer had to face the possibility of the death senetence being overturned. LWOP in most cases insures that the killer never get out, nor will the victem's families have to relive the ordeal over and over again.
To me the long drawn out appeals process would be the hardest thing to deal with. Having to go through the crime time and time again. But not having a personal experience that is just my opinion of what would be the worst.

I don't see the DP as justice, or a deterant, but more along the lines of "we shoot a rabid dog" theory. Some people just serve no purpose on this earth. They are beyond all redemtion and deserve no compassion.

I have a respect for those that stick by their beliefs that no life should be taken for any reason. Even the worst of the worst.

Diane Fanning said...

Thank you, Michelle.
Your point is the one that the retired warden made. He said death penalty cases get more attention and create a lot of anxiety for the victims' families during the appeals process.

Terri said...

Did you become desensitized over time to witnessing the executions?

How did the executioners usually act? Was it business as usual or did they look sad?

Did the people being executed appear to be scared, or had they accepted that they were going to die?

Very interesting article - very thought-provoking for me. I agree that the executions should be made public so people could really see what they supposedly support.

Jenna Jackson said...

Hi Leah - thanks for reading! I didn't really think the executions were affecting me, but after a few months of covering them pretty solidly, I was getting very burned out and even a little depressed.

I think even as a reporter, your human side sometimes takes over without you knowing it. My friend and mentor, Dan Rather, wrote me letters during that time (he was a reporter in Huntsville in his early days, too, and covered prison news) that really revitalized me and kept me going. He reminded me that this kind of reporting was important - and that I was gaining a toughness that would come in handy later in my career. He was right on both counts.

There isn't one that stands out as the hardest in my mind - unless it was the one I mentioned where there were no witnesses. The death chamber was empty except for reporters - that was very sad to me.

Virginia Raymond said...

Thank you, Jenna, Leah, Kathryn, Diane, Andy, Michelle, Terri, and anonymous, for these thoughtful posts. Jenna, I'm looking forward to meeting you in person soon.

We're trying to listen to as many people directly touched by capital crimes and executions as we can: thus far we have interviewed people who have lost family members or other beloved ones to murder or execution, lawyers, a media witness, someone who helped prepare mitigation evidence, and clergy. If the people we interview agree, these oral histories will go into a public archive. We're also hoping to stimulate more dialogue -- like this interesting and respectful exchange.

If you would help us spread the word about our project further, we'd very much appreciate it. More information at our website: Andy, would you consider allowing us to interview you, as well?