Texas executions will be starting back up again this month, after an eight-month dry spell while the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment. It is not, the high court ruled, so this state can get back to one of its favorite hobbies. We are, after all, the league leader in killing criminals.
I have strong opinions on most political and social issues, but on the death penalty I am very ambivalent. On one hand, it’s easy to understand how the system might occasionally fail, providing bad lawyers or too little money for defense, resulting in an innocent person being put to death.
But then again, the seriousness of the crimes we kill for weighs in heavily. While working for my college newspaper, for instance, I covered the trial of a Nazi transvestite (not a misprint) who had killed three people on campus at random. He said he was trying to rid the world of Jews and blacks. He is still on death row in Ohio more than 25 years later.
My ambivalence toward the death penalty was only heightened by my experiences as a journalist in Texas, witnessing three executions in Huntsville through the years. One was of a man who had raped and murdered a woman in Houston; another was of a guy who shot a 75-year-old because the older man had seen him steal a microwave oven. The third was a young guy who robbed a convenience store clerk and shot him on the way out the door.
The sterile nature of the executions affected my emotional reactions to watching the men die. In the viewing room, a wall separates the victim’s witnesses from the family of the man about to die. He is strapped to the gurney before the curtains open and then lies with his arms outstretched like Paul Newman after he ate all those eggs in Cool Hand Luke.
The execution room was powder blue and beige. A microphone dangles above the accused’s head, and he is allowed to say a few words. Then potassium chloride fluid is shot through the intravenous tubes, and 30 seconds later, he gasps. A doctor pronounces him dead after about six minutes. Then the guards go out to eat fajitas and drink margaritas at a local Mexican restaurant.
It is quick and clean, and the victims’ families I have spoken with think it is all over too quickly. While one person is dying, family members of the victim are reliving their own loss. The man who raped and murdered the young woman broke into her apartment and then drowned her in her bathtub after the rape. The coroner’s office said the drowning took more than an hour because the man kept pulling her head up for a few seconds, then pushing her back under water.
The dead woman’s sister told me she kept thinking of her sister’s suffering while she watched the man on the gurney. And from the gurney, he did apologize to both families for the pain he had caused them. He seemed sincere, but from that viewing room, it all seemed too little too late.
The microwave thief’s death in 1993 was just as quick, but he lives on in an odd way. Joseph Paul Jernigan had spent 12 years on death row, and as his execution date neared, he decided to donate his body to science. He didn’t know what his corpse would be used for.
What happened was that Jernigan became the digital everyman. His body was frozen to minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit, then sliced from top to bottom 1,878 times. The one-millimeter slivers were then digitally photographed, and put online as a virtual cadaver for medical students to examine. He’s been serving time in cyberspace that way since November 1994, available for scanning from his brain and his feet, including all the organs in his thoracic cavity.
I don’t remember much about Jernigan’s execution. No struggles, no family members crying, no memorable last words. He was just a guy you watched die whom you knew little about. It seems like there should be more, but there it is.