Monday, May 16, 2011

Jim Willett, Former Warden of the Walls Unit

Jim Willett never expected to be the subject of countless interviews with foreign press, never expected to be asked by a publisher to release memoirs, and certainly never expected to be the public face of the death penalty in Texas. But upon retirement, the mild-mannered, grandfatherly warden found that his several years as warden of the “Walls” Unit, where he oversaw eighty-nine executions, were a constant source of interest to outsiders.

Willett, who graciously gave us a personal tour of the Texas Prison Museum and an interview, explained to us how he worked his way up slowly through the prison system, eventually promoted to the position of warden of the Walls, despite his misgivings about having to oversee executions.

The three years he held that position were unusually busy when it came to the death penalty, even for Texas. As we chatted with Willett in his small office at the back of the museum, I was curious to hear about the process through which the executions became a routine. Did he remember all of them individually? Did they blur together?

Here is a clip of Jim Willett discussing a time in the 1990s when executions became routine:

"You think it doesn't get you down like that, but it does if you do a bunch of them."

During the interview, he highlighted the few that really stuck out in his mind, including the execution of Gary Graham on June 22nd, 2000, when D.P.S. officers were called in to handle the crowds of K.K.K. and New Black Panthers that mobbed Huntsville in 100+ degree heat. It was one of the only times Willett was actively worried about what might happen: “And if we hadn't had the D.P.S. riot team there,” he worried, “I think we'd have had some killings, or at least some bad scene there.”

On another occasion, Willett remembers a scene that I find almost unbearably macabre. A man strapped to the gurney said his final words, “this really good statement,” Willett remembers, concluding soberly, "That's all Warden.” Moments later, before Willett even had the chance to signal the executioner to begin releasing the chemicals, the man broke the silence: “Oh. One more thing. How about them Dallas Cowboys?"

Willett remembers thinking “My gosh. What is somebody doing thinking about the Dallas Cowboys at this point? I mean you're seconds away from dyin'. And you know it."
I suppose a sense of humor is necessary with this kind of work,, and Willett seems like the type to have a sense of humor anyway. By the end of the interview, it was clear a rapport had been established. We were just another interview in a clearly busy schedule, and yet he took several hours to proudly show us around the museum.

Here is the the clip of the warden discussing his first execution:

"It was not a good night. But I did leave there that night thinking surely it can't get any worse than this, it's got to get better."

You can also visit Jim Willett's narrator page at the TAVP website, where you'll find more clips from his interview, and his full-length interview at HRDI