MAURICE CHAMMAH: This is the first in a series of podcasts by the Texas After Violence Project, which works to create a foundation for public dialogue on violence in Texas through interviews with individuals affected by murder and execution. The podcasts include clips of interviews with friends and family members of murdered and executed persons, as well as lawyers, law enforcement, and others connected to the criminal justice system in Texas. My name is Maurice Chammah.
In this podcast, we hear the experiences of people who have witnessed an execution. We will hear accounts of final visits, phone calls, and meals, followed by the time in the execution chamber, and finally the aftermath.
Dr. Dennis Longmire is a professor at Sam Houston State University, who for decades has stood outside executions holding vigil. In 2008, he was asked to witness the execution of Eric Nenno, with whom he had been corresponding for several years.
DENNIS LONGMIRE: When I talked to Eric, and told Eric — and I first asked who he had listed on his witness list, and he told me his sister and his attorneys, two different spiritual advisors who had corresponded with him over his long term of confinement, who had also come to visit him; they were all on his list.
And I said, "Good, so there will be someone there with you."
And he said, “Well, no, my sister and her husband are not going to witness. I prefer that they not see this. They will come visit me for the long weekend visits that they give prior to an execution, and then they’re gonna go home back to their home.”
He said, “My body will be cremated and the ashes will be transported to her and then later at some time she will take them and spread them in a small property in Pennsylvania where we grew up and it is the best time I can remember in my life. So,” he said, “They won’t be there.”
And I said, What about the spiritual advisors?
He said, “Well, it’s a very long trip. One of them is in Florida, one of them is in France. I know they won’t be coming.”
And I said, "What about your attorneys?"
He said, “Well, I don’t think they’ll be coming either.” So I said, Oh, Eric, if it’s possible to get on the list, I will come. I will be happy to come.”
CHAMMAH: Prior to an execution, family members and friends of the person to be executed are given an opportunity to visit. Burnett Clay witnessed the execution of Johnny Ray Johnson in 2009, after spiritually ministering to him for several years.
BURNETT CLAY: And that then, the last three days she and I were there. They gave us from eight to five to visit you know. They gave us three days. We went all of those three days, and in all of those three days, you would never believe the mood that he was in, and the happiness that he experienced. A man in three days facing death.
CHAMMAH: Lee Greenwood remembers visiting her son, Joseph Nichols, shortly before his execution.
LEE GREENWOOD: The day of the execution, or prior to the execution, we were allowed to visit him each day, up until twelve o’clock on the day of the execution. That day, one of the guards refused to—tried to turn his daughter away the day before the execution, so that she was not on the visiting list. That was not so. She was always on the visiting list, because after all she was just a little girl when he went to Death Row. Well, this ranking officer and I had words, and Joseph had already told us, instructed us what we were to do if we had a problem. So we followed what he said, and the problem was taken care of. She was allowed to come in and visit.
DENNIS LONGMIRE: The chaplain who was sitting with us, sat with us — I was asked to be at the Hospitality House, which is a facility that is available for people visiting inmates in the prison system who can’t afford hotels, and it makes a special accommodation for the nights of execution for family members of the people being condemned to go there in preparation for their witnessing and also for a place to stay if they need to. So they asked that everybody that was going to witness the execution show up at the Hospitality House at three o’clock. The execution is scheduled for six. So from three o’clock until five, we sit in this Hospitality House, and then from five, at five we’re escorted over to the Administration Building where we wait, or we wait until all of the appeals have been held, have been stopped, and so we could have been in that room from five o’clock until eleven-thirty, and still not known what was happening. There is no clock in that room, and it’s not a very comfortable room. So anyway, we, I sat from three o’clock until five with the chaplain, until six, with the chaplain, who is, who escorted us and stood with us.
CHAMMAH: Joanna Vaughn also witnessed the execution of Johnny Ray Johnson, and had a similar experience with the chaplains at the Hospitality House:
JOANNA VAUGHN: So then the chaplain whose last name was Hart, H-A-R-T, Hart was there to give us orientation and he did a really, really, really thorough job, and I really appreciated it.
GABRIEL SOLIS: Was he just explaining the process?
JOANNA VAUGHN: Exactly what we were going to experience, and he said when you get to the actual room where you’re going to be looking into the execution chamber, you’re going to feel like you’re in there forever. He said, “You’re only going to be in there for a few minutes, but it’s going to feel like forever.”
BURNETT CLAY: So anyway, they took him away, and we went to Huntsville, and we was down there at the wall, we went to the hospital at the house first. We sit there until it was time for me---me bein' his spiritual advisor---they let me go over to Huntsville to see him for about an hour. And I wanna tell you, we had ourselves a good time. He was so happy, because the guards that were sittin' down the hall from us, we got their attention and they just stood up and looked, because he was talkin' about K.C.
He said, "I'm ready." He said, "I'm ready to go see Jesus and I'm ready to go see my brother."
They called Keith, “K.C.”
And he said "Momma don't worry about me," he said. "Because I will see you in heaven."
And he had a chance to talk to them on the phone. So I had an hour with him, just me alone, and he talked to her on the phone, and he talked to Joanna on the phone, and I think he talked to Gretchen and he talked to my brother. And the last thing he said to her.
"I'm eating," he said "but I'm ready."
And the warden---the chaplain---came back over to the Hospitality House after he went---after I went. And he came back and he told us, he said, "You know Ms. Clay," he said, “Johnny is ready,” he said. “His lawyer called, and he told him, said 'tell my lawyer I don't have anything to say to him, cause right now, I'm having a consultation with Jesus.'
CHAMMAH: Helen Phillips, Ms. Clay's sister, as well as Joanna Vaughn, also had a chance to talk with Johnson over the phone.
HELEN PHILLIPS: The last time he called he said, "Aunt Helen, it’s a quarter to five. This will be my last goodbye," he said, "I just called to say goodbye." And he said "I want to thank you for everything you've done, all your visits," and he was saying, "Tell Uncle Gilbert---"
JOANNA VAUGHN: He was cheerful. I mean like I said, he had this great laugh, okay. He was enjoying his food. He was enjoying the conversation. He was just kind of enjoying being alive, as far as I could tell. You know, I don’t really know what we talked .about. It’s interesting. What do you talk about with — I mean—
CHAMMAH: Not all of the experiences involve this kind of joy. Greenwood's son, Joseph Nichols, had a very different experience than Johnson:
MS. LEE GREENWOOD: On the day of the execution, as a lot of the inmates do, they won’t go peaceably. They won’t just say, “Okay, here I am. Take me.” As it was, they kind of knocked him a round a bit. They disrobed him. Finally gave him a pair of boxer shorts to put on, and that’s how they transported him from Livingston to Huntsville, in a pair of boxers, no shoes, no nothing. Shackled. When he got to the Walls Unit he was given clothing to put on. We made the caravan from Livingston to Huntsville and along the way they had, I guess there were sheriffs’ cars stationed along the way because it was about six or seven cars, and we could not follow him because evidently they took a different route that we did. So when we got to Livingston, of course they had me wait at the hospitality house.
CHAMMAH: Numerous people we talked to described waiting, including Joanna Vaughn, as well as Jamaal Beazley, whose brother Napoleon Beazley was executed in 2002.
JOANNA VAUGHN: So at that point, then there’s just waiting. We hear all this information, and then its chaplain goes off with Mrs. Clay because she’s the spiritual advisor and they go to have this last visit. And then, what do you do? You’re just waiting and waiting and waiting.
JAMAAL BEAZLEY: And we’re just sitting around waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Just waiting. Six o’clock came. We still waiting, waiting, waiting. Still no answer. 6:05 came, and I think, I think Walter called at like 6:02 or something. He was telling us, I mean like there was nothing else he could do. He had already did everything else.
DENNIS LONGMIRE: Something about the light of day also makes it more real. In the wintertime, the time period from five until six is when dark starts to happen, and it’s a very, very kind of morose moment sometimes. The lights that are on the walls of the Walls Unit are some kind of an electrical, neon gas light and the first couple of, the first minute or so when they click on, they are blood red, and I have had witnesses ask me, who are there ask me, “Do they do that because the execution has started?” Or, I don’t know if the clock chimed at six o’clock for you guys, we didn’t hear it inside, but that’s something fairly recent, but the clock chimes every hour. It’s not just six o’clock. It just happens. And they would say, “Does this mean it’s happening?”And there’s nothing public that happens to let the people outside know what’s happening.”
CHAMMAH: Jim Willett was the warden of the Walls Unit, where the executions take place, for many years, and oversaw eighty-nine executions. I asked him what he remembers about his first execution:
JIM WILLETT: I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, because all I had to go on, was people telling me, well this is what happens, and then this happens, and you're trying to play a movie in your head of what this looks like, and it's just not an ideal situation, you know, I mean.
Then the other thing that strikes me about your question is just the matter of dealing with an execution, of having somebody who is quite as healthy as you are, strapped down to that gurney, and the thought hits me that, you know, in a few minutes you're going to give a signal to an executioner who is going to end this guy's life. I was going to do that. And the guy was perfectly healthy. I mean that's just, almost, unrealistic.
DENNIS LONGMIRE And that was how horrific the moment was, how horrible that ten-minute period is, however long it takes for us to kill him, how horrible it was because it was so antiseptic, because it was so sterile, because it was so quiet, because it was so inhumane. The humanity of life was absent in that execution chamber. It was absent in the witness chamber where I stood. It was absent from everything I could discern in the witness chamber that was beside me. There was silence, virtual silence throughout the whole process. Eric’s body responded. Eric didn’t utter any final statements, although as we entered the room, Eric acknowledged our presence and mouthed the words, “Thank you,” and we heard him. He didn’t even speak them clearly but he just whispered them. We could hear them through the amplification. He said, “Thank you, it’s going to be all right,” and then he lowered his head and closed his eyes.
CHAMMAH: Tina Duroy witnessed the execution of her brother, James Colburn, and describes the scene similarly:
TINA DUROY: When you go into the execution room, he’s strapped down like this. His hands are wrapped in Ace bandage like this so you can’t see. So it’s like this. He’s like a coroner body that’s wrapped in a white sheet, cuffed at the chest. They already have the IVs running his arm to the wall. They have this size of a little window with the IVs going in and out.
BURNETT CLAY: You see, when we got there, they already had him in the room, and they had the IV in his arm, and when we first got there you could tell they had administered the first drug to him, because he was very calm. He was very relaxed because when he began to talk, and when he said what he did---First he gave the speech about how it was down there in the Polunsky Unit. He called it a dungeon and he said "people need to know how people are being treated," he said, "because there are people down there that are not treated like humans.” And when he got through making his speech, then that's when he looked over and said "thank ya'll. I love ya'll," and he said "I'll see ya'll in heaven."
TINA DUROY: “They have a man come down and bring down like a jockey microphone and ask him, “What’s your last words?”
DENNIS LONGMIRE: The warden asked Eric, “Do you have any final statement?” Eric said “No, warden, “ and we had already been advised that if Eric were to say, “No, warden,” or if he were to say nothing, that immediately the warden would give the signal to the people in the other room that the procedure could start.
BURNETT CLAY: And then that's when he began to sing "Jesus keep me near the cross" and when he got to the second verse of it, you could tell that was it.
TINA DUROY: And that, to me—and he was looking straight at me and my aunt. He took—he laid like this and he was looking at me and he goes [takes a deep breath and that was it.
DENNIS LONGMIRE: At that point Eric closed his eyes. He had already closed his eyes before the warden said that, and fifteen, twenty, maybe thirty seconds passed before I saw Eric’s chest rise. He had been breathing. I had been watching him breathe, and he took a deep breath and that breath paused for a moment, and then there was a sputtering sound that came from him. The chaplain beforehand had characterized what we would likely hear as a snore. I think of it as a reverse snore. Most snores that I know are— you hear the air coming in. Like that.
Eric’s snore was a sputtering as he was exhaling, and there were three sputters, three relatively quick exhales. The final one, the loudest of them, and then there was nothing. Eric’s body was still. His right eye opened slightly, and that was the eye that was facing us. I could see his left eye through a reflection in a Plexiglass window that was directly across from us.
Immediately beside that window was a small door with two catheters streaming from— One of them I could see affixed to his left arm in the reflection. The other one I could see affixed to his right arm, which was immediately in front of us, so I could see the reflection of his left side. His left eye remained completely closed. His right eye opened slightly and never changed. His right eye remained open through the rest of the hour that we waited there, which was really only about five minutes, maybe seven, but it just seemed like an extraordinarily long time.
We had been warned in advance that it would be a long period that might seem like twenty minutes but that usually it was only five or seven. So we had been told to anticipate this long wait. We stood there in the room for this “hour” and as we stood there, the warden looked at the chaplain.
The chaplain was immediately in front of us with his back slightly turned toward us. He was holding what looked like a Bible in his left hand and his right hand was on Eric’s leg. I watched his left hand and it was relatively stable. The warden watched the chaplain, the chaplain watched the warden and at one time I saw the chaplain’s fingers start to tap the Bible.
And I watched the warden watch his finger. I then watched, and about eight, maybe ten seconds later the chaplain’s fingers started tapping the Bible again, very, very aggressively.
BURNETT CLAY: And then that's when he began to sing "Jesus keep me near the cross" and when he got to the second verse of it, you could tell that was it.
DENNIS LONGMIRE: And then, seconds later, maybe thirty seconds later, the warden turned around, and opened the door, didn’t say a word but turned and opened the door, and in walked a man with a stethoscope over his neck and a jacket on. White, it wasn’t a white jacket, but it was a regular kind of jacket. He walked in…
He’s a—I don’t know him personally but I know of him, and he’s got a very, very good reputation for being a wonderful assistant in the community.
He also witnesses and pronounces—he also pronounces death at all of the executions. He doesn’t witness them, but he’s brought into the room after the two witnesses who are the official witnesses, the warden and the chaplain, believe that the condemned has expired. I don’t know if the tapping of the fingers was a signal. My suspicion is that the warden is feeling for a pulse in the vein of the condemned’s leg. The chaplain told us that he would put his hand on the leg of the offender for human contact, and that’s probably how it may have may ultimately started.
My suspicion is that there’s— that he’s feeling for some pulse, or for something, and I don’t know what happens at the last moment of death. Watching that, my suspicion is, when his heart stops, there must be some kind of fluttering of some sort and that’s where the tapping was, but I don’t know that. That’s my suspicion.
So after the doctor comes into the room, there’s still not a word said. The doctor takes a pencil flashlight out of his pocket, and he moves to Eric’s left eye, the first time I see Eric’s left eye open, and he shines a light in it and I’m looking at that through the reflection in the Plexiglass.
He then moves to his right eye and does the same. When he closes, when he lets go of Eric’s left eye, his eye closes completely. When he lets go of Eric’s right eye, it again closes only partially. So his left eye remains open. The physician then puts his flashlight away and moves his hands and feels the left side and then the right side of Eric’s carotid arteries, doesn’t say a word. He then puts his stethoscopes into his ear and he moves the sheet that was covering Eric’s chest slightly away, clearly listens to Eric’s chest in the center of his chest and then to the left side.
He then looks up toward the chaplain and says, “Six-twenty.” He turns and walks away, which must be the pronounced time of death, so Eric was pronounced dead at six-twenty p.m., probably died at six seventeen p.m. or six eighteen p.m., but it took that, maybe two minutes, maybe not, maybe it was only fifteen seconds. At that time, the whole notion of time is invisible to me. I’m not sure how long it’s taking. But Eric is pronounced dead, and that’s the only word that is spoken after the warden has said, “Everything is, everything can proceed,” or whatever it was that the warden uttered.
The warden and the chaplain then drape, pull the sheet over Eric’s face and at that time, nothing is said. The warden resumes, returns to his position, the chaplain returns to his position, which, the warden is at the head of Eric, the chaplain is at the foot of Eric, and nothing is said. I hear movement in the room beside me and I know that the witnesses for the victim’s family are being escorted out.
CHAMMAH: After the execution, the witnesses are escorted out. Duroy remembers what she saw when she walked out of the prison:
TINA DUROY: Yep. These three officers were there. We walked out the door, down here, and these were his personal belongings, what were left, I mean, I had gotten everything. He had canned sodas, he gave away like his coffee pot and everything else, his radio to other inmates, because I didn’t need them and he wanted to.
CHAMMAH: Witnesses for the person executed can go to the funeral home if they choose to after the execution.
BURNETT CLAY: So the next morning, she and I got up, and we went to the funeral home, where his body was, because I told her "I'm going to make sure that that's Johnny."
DENNIS LONGMIRE: I was on my way to the funeral home because I wanted to be able to feel Eric’s body before I went home to give, in one sense, for me, I didn’t know it in advance, but I needed a sense of humanity to return to that moment, because everything from the time that we walked in to that building was surreal and inhumane… lack of any sense of humanity, any sense that anything, anything human is associated with the process. It’s all sterile and almost like it’s a machine. That’s the only way that I can explain the experience at the moment.
CHAMMAH: This has been a Texas After Violence Project podcast. It included clips from interviews with:
The interviews were conducted and recorded by:
This podcast was produced by myself, Maurice Chammah.
End of Transcript.
For more information on the Texas After Violence Project or to hear the complete interviews, please go to the Texas After Violence Project website and visit our archive at the Human Rights Documentation Initiative, where we share full-length oral history interviews.