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Posts Tagged ‘capital punishment’

How many of us get to have our last words transcribed and published?

No, not many. An intriguing exception are the men — and occasional woman — executed in the state of Texas. (I say “state of” because that place is truly a state unto itself; it’s not just another of “these United States.”)

In the Sunday New York Times, reporter Manny Fernandez wrote about the state’s tradition of transcribing inmates’ last words before they are injected with lethal chemicals as they lie strapped to a gurney.

Fernandez wrote:

“The state’s execution record has often been criticized as a dehumanizing pursuit of eye-for-an-eye justice. But three decades of last statements by inmates reveal a glimmer of the humanity behind those anonymous numbers, as the indifferent bureaucracy of state-sanctioned death pauses for one sad, intimate and often angry moment.”

For example, these were the last words of Thomas A. Barefoot, who was executed in 1984 for murdering a police officer:

“I hope that one day we can look back on the evil that we’re doing right now like the witches we burned at the stake.”

Full of irony, wouldn’t you agree? If I interpret him correctly, he condemned execution as “evil” but didn’t mention murder.

Texas gurney unit

Texas gurney unit. Note microphone above headrest.

Texas inmates being executed speak their last words into a microphone hanging above the gurney. Listening to their statements are lawyers, reporters, prison officials, inmates’ families and victims’ relatives — at least those relatives who want to be there, or can stand to be there.

Fernandez explained that the final statements are not recorded but transcribed by staff members listening in the warden’s office.  The statements are posted on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website, www.tdcj.state.tx.us/stat/ (click on “executed offenders”), and they are also posted on a blog called Lost Words in the Chamber.

A brief digression: One classic statement that is on the blog but that Fernandez did not use in his story was uttered by one Douglas Roberts in 2005…

“Yes, sir, warden. Okay, I’ve been hanging around this popsicle stand way too long. Before I leave, I want to tell you all: When I die, bury me deep, lay two speakers at my feet, put some headphones on my head and rock and roll me when I’m dead. I’ll see you in Heaven someday. That’s all, warden.”

Beneath these often curious and compelling final statements lies the question: What is the effect, if any, of these words? As Fernandez noted that “the power of their words to change the system or even heal the hearts of those they have hurt is uncertain.”

Fernandez quoted Robert Perkinson, the author of a book about the Texas prison system, as saying, “Most people about to be executed haven’t had a lot of success in school or life. They’re not always so skilled at articulating themselves…But I think many of these individuals are also striving to say something poignant, worthy of the existential occasion.”

To me, these statements are mesmerizing and read like a good novel that is hard to put down. And yet, it gives me an odd feeling because I know that the words have been preserved at the expense of innocent people having lost their lives. It certainly doesn’t seem fair that the words of the killers — each of whom have prison i.d. numbers — are immortalized, while the victims are reduced, in a sense, to little more than numbers.

But that’s the way it is in this instance, so, here you go…here are some more of these ultimate statements. Meanwhile, I think I’ll get to work on my own “final statement.”

***

“I deserve this.” Charles William Bass, convicted of murdering a Houston city marshal.

“Tell my son I love him very much. God bless everybody. Continue to walk with God. Go Cowboys! Love y’all, man. Ms. Mary, thank you for everything that you’ve done. You, too, Brad, thank you. I can feel it, taste it, not bad. Please.” Jesse Hernandez, convicted of killing an 11-month-old boy with a flashlight.

“Sir, in honor of a true American hero, ‘Let’s roll.’ Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” David Ray Harris, convicted of shooting a man to death after trying to kidnap the man’s girlfriend.

“My death began on August 2, 1991, and continued when I began to see the beautiful and innocent life that I had taken. I am so terribly sorry. I wish I could die more than once to tell you how sorry I am. I have said in interviews if you want to hurt me and choke me, that’s how terrible I felt before this crime.” Karl Eugene Chamberlain, convicted of sexually assaulting and killing a 29-year-old woman.

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