Former Warden Reconsiders Executions

Jim Willett oversaw 89 executions. Now, amidst dozens of DNA exonerations, he wonders whether it was right.

He's witnessed so many executions, it's hard to remember them all. But certain memories stand out. There was the man who fought so hard he had to be restrained and carried–convulsing–to the death chamber. The one who'd done so many IV drugs the medical team had to shoot the lethal fluids through a vein in his leg. There was the man who asked to sing "Silent Night" as his final statement and expired in mid-verse, and the one from Dallas who followed up a heartfelt apology to the victim's family with an enthusiastic "How 'bout them Dallas Cowboys!"

Jim Willett is surrounded by such memories as director of the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville. From 1998 to 2001, three of the death chamber's busiest years, he served as warden of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Walls Unit and presided over 89 executions. He was the man who gave the signal to take an inmate's life.

A straight-shooting 57-year-old, Willett is broad and solidly built, with clear blue eyes and a bald head ringed with white hair. As a boy growing up in an East Texas farming town, he dreamed of driving a tractor and planting crops. Instead, he wound up working in prisons and eventually found himself overseeing executions. He dreaded that part of the job and often prayed about it. As many interviews as he's given on the topic and as much as he's thought about the morality of execution, it's never easy to put into words what it's like to lead a man into the death chamber, listen to his last words and then, minutes later, hear him sputter and be still.

Jim Willet was warden of the Walls Unit for three years. The executions were never easy, he says. "The hardest were the young fellows. You think, there's a young man who ruined someone's life and ruined his own, and he probably could have really been something."
MARK GRAHAM
Jim Willet was warden of the Walls Unit for three years. The executions were never easy, he says. "The hardest were the young fellows. You think, there's a young man who ruined someone's life and ruined his own, and he probably could have really been something."
All executions in Texas since 1924 have been carried out in a small room in the state prison in Huntsville.
MARK GRAHAM
All executions in Texas since 1924 have been carried out in a small room in the state prison in Huntsville.

"The first time is unbelievable," he tells me, standing in the museum's gallery next to a glass case that contains a plastic IV bag and three large syringes used to inject the deadly chemicals. "You have this healthy person–this person who was able to just jump up on the gurney–and you've said, 'Kill this person,' and someone's fixin' to. You're about to put someone to death in front of all these people. It's an overwhelming feeling. I can't describe it."

It's a bright fall day in Huntsville, and Willett is preparing for an afternoon of interviews. A news crew is setting up cameras by one of the most popular exhibits at the museum–"Old Sparky," the decommissioned wooden electric chair with leather straps. The crew isn't from Houston or Dallas or even Los Angeles or Chicago–it's from the London-based BBC. Later, a Russian network will film here too. They've come to report on the free world's most efficient death chamber, which sits across town in the towering red brick prison that looms over the quaint storefronts of Huntsville's Main Street.

As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to consider whether lethal injection is humane and across the country there is talk of freezing executions in the meantime, the foreign newscasters have come to puzzle over Texas, the state that has executed nearly half of the 1,099 people put to death in the United States since 1976. A front-page headline in The Dallas Morning News this October day reads, "Texas unlikely to halt executions: Some fault leaders for not following other states with moratoriums."

Willett has grown accustomed to the spotlight. Television trucks and reporters were constant fixtures in Huntsville during his 30 years in the prison system, especially the last three, when he was in charge of the executions.

As Willett speaks in the nearly empty museum, I notice soft music coming from an exhibit on 1930s chain gangs. "Back is weak and I done got tired," sing the low, mournful voices of black prisoners working the fields, their hoes striking the ground in time. "Boss on a horse and he's watchin' us all, better tighten up..."

Willett stands next to a sign that tells the history of capital punishment from the days when the county sheriff conducted public hangings. He points to a nearby case. Above the syringes is a mug shot of Gary Graham, a thick-necked black man dubbed Death Row Inmate 696. "That's the one who fought," Willett says. "There were a couple of others that resisted, but they didn't fight like he did."

Graham was convicted in 1981 of robbing and killing a man in a grocery-store parking lot in Houston. He became a symbol for death penalty opponents, and as his execution date drew near in 2000, celebrities such as Danny Glover and Bianca Jagger spoke out on his behalf. The day of his death, the crowd outside the prison included the Reverend Jesse Jackson and members of the New Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan. After a team of officers in riot gear carried Graham into the death chamber and strapped him onto the gurney, he shouted for nearly 10 minutes about how he never killed anyone and that the government needed to stop killing black people.

Finally, Willett signaled the executioner and watched as Graham drifted to sleep in mid-sentence.

As he gazes at the exhibit, which includes a sign that reads "Stop Executions" and a poster of Karla Faye Tucker next to a partially burned flag, Willett says that from what he remembers about Graham's lengthy rap sheet and nasty demeanor, the inmate was a bad choice for the protesters. "He was the sorriest person I came across in all my years in the prison system," he says. "Mean, uncooperative–the last guy you'd want as a poster child for the anti-capital punishment lobby."

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