by Leigh Lundin
I was mulling over notes and web addresses for today’s column when I realized I could juxtapose a couple of early ideas, both related to the last words of condemned prisoners. The result is an article that affects different people in different ways.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice publishes a database of executions covering the past quarter century. I held back running an article on it because it’s clunky to use, requiring multiple clicks to peek at a single prisoner’s last statement… if he made any at all. It’s not the most user friendly database; both the design and presentation are amateurish, which makes it more difficult to work with as a research tool. Still, the value is in having the data itself.
I embarked on a mission to recast the Texas Criminal Justice data in a way readers can study the impact. You can find the results of this effort in Criminal Brief’s Last Words of Executed Prisoners in Texas.
It’s impossible to work on such a project without picking up vibes about it, ‘vibes’ being the code word when a guy doesn’t want to talk about feelings. Like in writing, a character’s observation not only tells you about the observed, but about the observer, and ultimately about the author. The same is true of the clerks who enter the statements of condemned prisoners or ‘offenders’ in TDJC parlance.
Some are callous or dismissive, such as "Mumbled something about he wished his whole life would have been spent as Islamic," and later "some more Allah mumbling," presumably a prayer. I suppose it wasn’t like the prisoner would be complaining the next day. One or two paraphrase remarks, like "His final statement lasted 3 minutes. He thanked everybody that fought against his sentence. He spoke to his family and said he would carry their love with him." Most are meticulous in capturing the words. And at least one mentioned the microphone wasn’t placed close enough to pick up prisoner’s words.
A major revelation was discovering the lethal injection doesn’t wait for a condemned’s last words. More that one prisoner mentioned feeling it, tasting it, or going to sleep, and one said it wasn’t bad at all. Recording clerks mentioned a couple of instances in which the prisoner passed out before finishing his last statement.
It would be too easy to categorize last words into a handful of responses, but following are observations:
- Many abjectly apologize and expressed sorrow and shame.
- Others proclaim their innocence.
- Several pray or express religious verses or views.
- A very few vent anger or mention revenge.
- Two or three complain about white juries and officials.
- Some champ at the bit with words like:
- Let’s do this.
- Rock ‘n’ roll.
- Lock ‘n’ load.
- Let’s dance.
- A few wrap up saying "It’s finished."
- Many express love for others.
- Some thank the warden.
- A couple reek of insanity.
- About a tenth don’t respond at all.
It becomes clear in these executions that a thousand tragedies occurred. Some stories are poignant, such as Samuel Gallamore, who expressed gratitude for the forgiveness of his victim’s family. Another mentioned family members on death row. (Two may have suggested family members on death row, but it’s difficult distinguishing prisoners’ use of the term "brothers".)
What we’ve learned from the Innocence Project virtually assures us some number of these men are not guilty, not that anyone should buy every claim of innocence– many have that sound of deluded denial. Others are victims of guilt by association or felony murder rule, guilty not of pulling the trigger but of a legality.
But a few, despite former Governor Bush’s assurance no one was ever wrongly executed in Texas, make me wonder. Recent statistics suggest from 7 to 17 out of every 100 criminal convictions may not be guilty. Even if death row convictions have, as some argue, a lower wrongful percentage, that’s still a significant number when you do the math in a state that executes more prisoners than any similar jurisdiction, in fact more than many nations. Congress and the Supreme Court have worked diligently to make wrongful convictions difficult to overturn.
For those who are curious, whites are considerably underrepresented and black prisoners are executed about three times more than their statistical average. Interestingly, despite concerns about illegal immigrants, Hispanic offenders on death row while reflecting the national average at 16%, represent less than half their population in Texas itself (37%). Bearing in mind census polls allow multiple choice in which some parties identify as mixed white or black so totals appear to ‘exceed’ 100%, the number of prisoners by race are:
- White 216 (46%, pop. ~80%)
- Black 172 (37%, pop. ~12%)
- Latin 78 (16%, pop. ~16%)
- Asian 2 (0.4%, pop. ~5%)
If you missed it above, you can find the last words and other information at our Last Words of Executed Prisoners in Texas.
While Texas proudly proclaims its supremacy and prowess in capital punishment, Florida ranks number 2. In the National Open Finals, Gov. George Bush beat out Gov. Jeb Bush after a carpal tunnel injury let slip the gains made by Gov. "Boil’em Bob" Martinez.
Of course we botched a few executions, both literally when Old Sparky sparked and scorched, and when we managed to execute a few now believed to have been innocent. Both Texas and Florida embrace the maxim it’s better to roast a few innocents than let one guilty get away under the "Let God sort ‘em out" theory of justice.
The last words in this case relate to one of our famous serial killers, Ted Bundy, but the words aren’t Bundy’s. This remarkable statement comes from the presiding judge when sentencing Bundy to death, Judge Edward Cowart:
"It is ordered that you be put to death by a current of electricity, that that current be passed through your body until you are dead.
Take care of yourself, young man. I say that to you sincerely; take care of yourself, please. It is an utter tragedy for this court to see such a total waste of humanity as I’ve experienced in this courtroom.
You’re an intelligent young man. You’d have made a good lawyer and I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner. Take care of yourself. I don’t feel any animosity toward you. I want you to know that. Once again, take care of yourself.”