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.
Texas Prison Museum
"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."
Willett may be certain that Graham was justly convicted, but is he so sure that all the men whose deaths he witnessed were guilty? Does he think any of the 89 may have been innocent? "I would hope not, with all of the appeals, the process that takes years and the judges and everybody looking at it," he says. "But I'm also clear that you're going to have mistakes if humans are messing with it–it's just a fact."
Indeed, a shameful array of legal blunders has been uncovered through DNA testing, especially in Texas, which leads the country in the number of people freed after biological evidence proved their innocence. Dallas County, meanwhile, has a greater number of DNA exonerations than any other jurisdiction in the nation. Some of the 13 Dallas inmates released since 2001 had been locked up for decades. I mention this, and Willett nods. "I think if we have DNA then we have to use it to prove the person did it–isn't that just logical?" he says. "I don't know why anyone involved on either side wouldn't want to do that."
Guilt or innocence aside, he says, watching each person die was wrenching. "The hardest were the young fellows–one was 29," he says. "They're like you–perfectly healthy, some have good personalities. You think, there's a young man who ruined someone's life and ruined his own, and he probably could have really been something. These are people who might have gone a different direction. If they'd been with a different crowd, maybe they wouldn't be lying here tonight."
When Willett was hired as a Huntsville prison guard in 1971, he took a tour of the units. He felt nervous and jumpy as he followed a captain through crowds of convicts in white uniforms. The inmates looked him up and down, sizing him up. He tried not to meet their gaze. Growing up in the nearby town of Groesbeck, he'd heard prisons were sad, rough places, full of long days of loneliness and backbreaking work. The only person he knew who'd gone to the pen was the father of a kid he'd known growing up. The man had been caught stealing cattle. Back then, Willett never expected to spend time in a prison. He'd been working at a gas station while attending Sam Houston State University, and he heard that guard jobs paid better. That's how he wound up sitting in a guard tower on a muggy summer night, looking out over the prison yard. His perch on the No. 1 picket was on the northeast corner of the Walls, the unit named for the red brick walls that reach 30 feet high. The picket was right over the death house and the warden's residence next door. Willett couldn't imagine that nearly three decades later, he would live there with his family.
When I ask Willett what his reaction would have been had someone told him he would spend the next 30 years of his life in prisons, he thinks for a moment. "I'd have been really sad," he says. "It wasn't what I wanted to do. The first six months it was as boring as life could be, alone out there on the picket at night. Then I got switched to the day shift, and it went by faster." Though he had been raised in a farming family–his mother's parents were illiterate Polish immigrants who grew tomatoes and sold them in nearby towns–his dreams of working the land had given way to an interest in business and ideas of sitting in an office somewhere. But by the time he graduated with a business degree from Sam Houston, he was comfortable working in the prison and continued to be rewarded with promotions.
One day in the late '70s, not long after he made lieutenant, Willett was introduced to Janice Joiner, a pretty blond criminal justice major. They married a year later at the clubhouse of the women's penitentiary on the outskirts of Huntsville. Their elaborate wedding cake and flower arrangements were made by female inmates in vocational classes. The couple moved into a two-story state residence that backed up to the Walls. On their wedding night, throngs of people streamed onto the grounds for the prison rodeo, a Texas tradition that drew thousands of spectators each year. Janice had worked in the prison and wasn't terribly frightened to live near it, but the transition wasn't seamless. "I wake up and Jim's working and I'm a bride and there's hundreds of people in our yard, inmates handing out programs," she says. "I walked back to my apartment that was empty and just cried." She soon grew accustomed to prison life. "I always felt very safe," she says. "Right outside our bedroom window was a picket."
As the years went on, they had two children, Janice worked as a probation officer and Jim kept getting promoted. He had the rare combination of compassion, take-charge leadership skill and social ease that inspires trust and earns the respect and allegiance of other men. By the 1990s, he was an assistant warden. And then one day in 1998 he got a phone call.
He was on his way to watch his son play baseball when the regional director of the Texas prison system called and said he wanted Willett to replace the outgoing warden of the Walls Unit. Willett immediately thought of what the position would mean. He didn't like the idea of accepting higher pay for a post that included executions. He said he'd have to talk to his wife about it. When he did, Janice suggested he pray about his dilemma. He followed her advice. "When I woke up I felt more at ease," he says. "I went and talked to [the regional director], told him I wasn't comfortable with the executions." Willett suggested they go through the rest of the people on their list, and if afterward they still thought he was the best candidate, he might reconsider.
They called back a few days later and offered him the job again. This time, he accepted. If he was being called by God to do this, at least he'd made it clear that he wasn't comfortable taking people's lives in exchange for a raise. And he would see to it that when an execution did take place, it would go as smoothly as a killing can.
The morning of his first execution, Willett woke up and immediately remembered what the day held in store. He dressed in a sportcoat as always, said goodbye to his wife and walked over to the prison unit that he'd just been chosen to manage. There, in the employee dining room, he ate his usual breakfast of sausage, eggs and bacon. A meticulous man, he repeatedly ran through the series of tasks that were now his: Ensure the inmate is delivered to one of the death house's eight cells, see that he gets his last meal by 4 p.m., find out what his last words will be so he knows when to give the signal, and then, at 6 p.m., lead him down the hallway to the death chamber.
Willett, a Methodist, had prayed a lot about this–asking God to make it smooth and trouble-free–and as the day went on, he prayed some more. He reviewed the inmate's file. His name was Joseph Cannon, Death Row Inmate 634. He was 19 when his first mug shot was taken, and it shows a handsome young man, blond with a square jaw and a cleft chin. He'd been convicted of a petty crime in San Antonio a couple of years before, and his court-appointed attorney took an interest in the scrappy teenager. The lawyer's sister let Cannon stay with her while he served his probation. One day in 1977, Cannon shot her seven times with her own .22, then took some cash and traveler's checks from her purse and made off in her daughter's car. He was arrested a few hours later and confessed to the murder.
The man Willett greeted in the death house cell hardly resembled the tough-looking youth in the photograph. He was 38 now, heavier and tired-looking, with the resigned look of a man who had spent decades in small cells and prison yards.
"You'll be getting your supper after a while," Willett told him. "And the chaplain will be here with you until..." His words trailed off. He glanced toward the door. Hell, he thought, I'm not very good at this. He'd been worrying about this for days, planning ways to put the man at ease. Looking toward the door wasn't the way to do it.
"Will you want to make a final statement?" he asked.
Cannon was quiet for a moment and then nodded. "I guess I will," he said.
A few minutes before six, Willett met in the office with Wayne Scott, a friend who had served as a guard with him and was now director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, as well as a few regional and deputy directors. Governor Bush's office called and said to go ahead, followed by the state attorney general's office. Scott looked at Willett. So did the other men. He left the room and walked down the hall to the second-to-last cell, where the chaplain was waiting with Cannon. "Inmate Cannon," he said, "it's time for you to go into the next room with me." The inmate followed without a word. When they got to the death chamber, Cannon paused in the doorway, taking in the gurney covered in white sheets in the 9-by-12-foot room. Willett didn't even have to tell him to get on it. As Cannon lay down, Willett stood at his head, the chaplain at his feet.
A group of officers called the tie-down team took their places around the gurney. In quick, practiced motions they strapped Cannon down, each person securing an arm, a leg, a wrist, an ankle. Others fastened belts over his torso. In about half a minute, their job was done and they were gone. Two people from the medical team came in to attach the IVs. The third medical technician remained in the next room and would serve as the executioner.
Twenty minutes later, the medical technician still hadn't found a vein. Usually they did two IVs, one as a backup. Willett's predecessor had told him that even on bad nights, this would take no more than five minutes, 10 at the most. What the hell was going on? Cannon watched quietly as the woman jabbed at his arm. Willett, sweating, wondered what the inmate was thinking. He hoped that Cannon's last meal of ribs, fried chicken, chocolate ice cream and chocolate cake wouldn't make him sick. Finally, the technician looked up. "Warden, I think we've got a good one in this arm," she said. "Can we go with just the one?"
The woman left, leaving just Willett, the chaplain and Cannon in the room. Cannon looked at the IV in his arm, then turned his head to watch through the plate glass window as the witnesses walked into the viewing gallery.
Willett observed a woman enter the viewing area and come to a halt when she saw Cannon lying on the gurney. Willett guessed she was his mother. Cannon looked at her, expressionless. Somebody behind her touched her shoulder, and she moved closer to the glass.
On the other side of a thin wall in the viewing area, five members of the victim's family gathered.
All of the witnesses stood; a dozen sets of eyes peered through the glass into the death chamber.
For his last statement, Cannon rambled in a nervous voice about his victim, his family and his crime, most of it jumbled together in an awkward rush of words. Then he shook his head and closed his eyes. The chaplain rested his hand on Cannon's ankle. As if in slow motion, Willett lifted his reading glasses from his nose, the signal for the hidden executioner to start the first of the three fluids flowing. As he gave the sign, he prayed. Lord, have mercy on this man's soul. It was silent. So quiet Willett could hear the liquids moving through the IV line.
And then he heard a voice: "Warden." He looked at the chaplain, trying to figure out who spoke, then down at Cannon.
"Warden," the inmate said again. "It fell out."
Willett looked at the man's arm. Sure enough, the needle was spilling its contents onto the sheets.
Willett ran over to the window and tugged at the curtain, trying to shield the witnesses. The fabric came unhooked from the rod. Standing on the other side using the drawstring, the chaplain managed to cover the glass. Someone was crying, probably Cannon's mother.
What a nightmare. Willett had never heard of this happening before. In fact, 10 years before there had been a somewhat spectacular IV "blowout," complete with liquids spraying around the room and onto the viewing glass. But no one had told him about that one. The medical staff came in again and hooked up the IV for the second time. The curtains were opened, and Willett asked Cannon if he wanted to make another statement. This time, the inmate was more assured, clearer. He looked at the victim's daughter and said he was sorry.
Again, Willett lifted his glasses. And again, the silence and flowing liquids.
Outside the prison, people milled around Main Street, men got off work, mothers picked up children from ballet and soccer, and Willett's own wife made dinner.
Here inside these tall prison walls, in this little room, sodium pentathol was easing into Cannon's veins and shutting down his central nervous system. Firing neurons and twitching muscles slowed as the drug put him to sleep. Then came the pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant. His diaphragm ceased its up-and-down motion, and the muscles covering his rib cage froze, paralyzed. As Cannon let out his last breath, there was a snoring sound, like the air escaping from a balloon.
Then, to finish the job, the potassium chloride trickled through the line. It's the drug that stops the heart.
Willett waited three minutes, just like he'd been told to, and called in the doctor. Joseph John Cannon was pronounced dead at 7:28 p.m. and wheeled out of the room.
Minutes later Willett sat down to dinner with his wife. He was quiet, sitting at the dining room table pushing food around on his plate with a fork. "I didn't want to prod," Janice recalls. "So we just talked about other things."
Later, he told her about the IV blowout. "You're not going to believe what happened," he said. "If anything could go wrong, of course it would be my first night." Before he went to bed, he recorded the day's events in his journal, a ritual that he would continue after every execution to come.
"I know that I'll never want to do this, but I can hope that my next execution, and all the ones that follow, will go better," he wrote in his journal, parts of which were later published in a book called Warden: Prison Life and Death From the Inside Out. "Soon we'll move into the warden's residence, which is located just outside the Walls, not far from the number one picket, which hovers over the death house. The place where I will eat with my family, where I will joke with my kids and watch mindless TV shows with my wife, lies about 50 feet from where I take off my glasses and shut down a human life."
To most people, raising a family on the prison grounds would seem grim and dangerous. But for the Willetts it was normal–and an opportunity to set an example of family for people who had lost their way and wound up behind bars. Their children, Jacob and Jordan, were young adults by the time Willett took the warden post that required him to manage the executions. By then, they'd spent the better part of their lives living next door to the prison.
"We got to see different cultures of people, different sides of people that other kids don't get to experience," says Jacob, 26. "I can get along with just about anybody."
When he and his older sister Jordan were growing up, the prison system allowed well-behaved inmates to work on the grounds near their house, doing landscaping and odd jobs. When Jacob was 5, he would sometimes play with an inmate named Donald. "Once he snuck some Ding Dongs out of the prison and brought them out to the house, and we shared one," Jacob recalls. When he was older, he'd play catch with a middle-aged prisoner named Hines. The man had been in and out of prison for some 40 years, and when he got out, he sent Jacob a letter listing "the top 10 things you can do to enhance the quality of your life through God." Jacob still keeps it tucked in his Bible. "I treated him like just another person," he says. "They're human beings too, and a lot of people don't look at it like that."
When his sister was little, she grew close to an inmate named Stafford who worked in the yard. Janice recalls that he had gorgeous handwriting and could make anything out of scrap. "One year he made little wooden pumpkins for every child in Jordan's class–he painted them and put their names on every one," she says. "They were beautiful. They'd make something for every holiday." After he got out of prison, Stafford came by the house and gave Jordan a present. He died a month later. "He'd gotten home from work, lay down on the couch and had a stroke. He wasn't even 50," Janice says. "That was a tough one–he'd been around for a long time."
Janice kept an eye on the kids when they were with the inmates, and she always had a rule for the men: If my children ask you why you're here, tell them the truth. "Don't blame someone else," she says she told them. "That was very important to me. I didn't want them to feel sorry and think these guys didn't do something wrong. They just learned that these people are people, and they do have lives. They knew these guys had done something wrong to get there and that when they got their life turned around they had an opportunity to go back out and live with the rest of us."
For Jacob, knowing that the men his father had a hand in putting to death had committed horrible crimes enabled him to accept capital punishment as part of his father's job and a logical consequence of unspeakable actions. "A lot of those guys don't get put in that position for something they did right," he tells me. "They don't get put in that position unless they've done something that's completely inhumane. I don't think that as human beings we have the right to judge, but if they do those things they've got to have some kind of consequence."
When Jacob's high-school class visited the prison for a tour and his father escorted them through the death chamber, he watched impassively while other students reeled. "I wasn't really shocked," he says. "It was just his job. My dad's not the kind of person that would kill somebody. He's a solid guy–he was in a position to do a job he was called to do, and he did it as best he could."
Janice, who seems to have more ethical concerns about the death penalty than her son, echoes Jacob's thoughts about her husband's job as warden and her belief that God had a hand in leading him to it. "It was interesting to me that those three years were the [death chamber's] busiest," she says. There were times during those years that three inmates were put to death in one week, sometimes two in the same day. "If there was going to be a time in our history when you would need someone who's a humble person who treats everyone with respect whether they're inside the bars or not, he does." This, she says, is why even though he was reluctant, Willett continued to give the prison system his time. "I always envision Jim as this horse, trying to slow down from going over a cliff," she says. "He never really wanted to move up in the system; he was always saying, 'Whoa.' [Criminal justice] was a profession for me; it was a job for him. But he was good at it."
Willett stresses that his first priority was always his family. "Working at the prison was something I did eight hours a day so I could do what I wanted the other 16," he says. "I liked my job, but it wasn't my favorite thing in life." Jacob was an avid baseball player, and Willett asked his supervisors not to schedule an execution on game days. "He made it very clear to everyone that when there was a game, he was going to be there," Janice says. "He got an award our son's senior year in high school for being the only parent who never missed a game."
The day Gary Graham was executed and troops of media and protesters camped out in front of the prison, Jacob was working at a nearby bar. Sports was on one TV and the news was on another, showing Jesse Jackson standing on the steps of the Walls amid hundreds of protesters. At one point, Jacob caught a glimpse of his father standing outside the prison. Jacob's boss came in and said there were several calls for him. One was a scout with good news: He'd been drafted by the Yankees (he decided to go to college instead). The other calls were from local reporters.
Then, Jim Willett, having stepped away from the melee for a moment to use the phone, called to congratulate him. "He told me he loved me, that he was proud of me," Jacob says.
While he has had brief conversations with his father about the executions, it's not something he likes to bring up. "If he has bad recollections about it, I don't want to be the one to talk about it," he says. "I'd much rather talk about baseball or something."
If Willett struggled to cope with the impact of presiding over the deaths of 89 people and being there for their last moments, he didn't talk about it much to anyone. "Jim's pretty unflappable–whatever turmoil he's feeling inside, he's not going to show that," says Wayne Scott, Willett's old friend. "Jim was much more concerned about his staff than he was about himself–that's just the sort of person he is." Willett was careful to rotate officers involved in the executions as much as he could, giving them breaks. And he always made sure they knew there were counselors available if they needed to talk.
In 2000, when Texas set a record for the number of inmates put to death in one year–40–Willett and his employees participated in a National Public Radio documentary called Witness to an Execution. He ended up narrating it himself, and the haunting and evocative piece won a Peabody Award.
As a lover of history and a longtime expert when it comes to the Texas prison system, Willett opens the broadcast with a description of the death house, the site of all state executions since 1924. "We've carried out a lot of executions here lately, and with all the debate about the death penalty, I thought this might be a good time to let you hear exactly how we do these things," he says. "Sometimes I wonder whether people really understand what goes on down here and the effect it has on us."
Of the comments from nearly a dozen prison guards, chaplains and reporters who witnessed large numbers of executions, some of the most telling come from Jim Brazzil, the chaplain who worked under Willett and had by the time of the broadcast been with 114 inmates while they were put to death. "I usually put my hand right below their knee, you know, and I usually give 'em a squeeze, let 'em know I'm right there," Brazzil says. "You can feel the trembling, the fear that's there, the anxiety that's there. You can feel the heart surging, you know. You can see it pounding through their shirt." Later in the piece, he talks about his last interactions with inmates before they passed out. "One of 'em would say, 'I just want to tell you thank you.' One of 'em would say, 'Don't forget to mail my letters.' Another one would say, 'Just tell me again–is it gonna hurt?' One of them would say, 'What do I do when I see God?' You've got 45 seconds and you're trying to tell the guy what to say to God?"
One of the voices in the NPR story belongs to Fred Allen, a former officer on the tie-down team who participated in about 120 executions. He resigned after a mental breakdown. "I was just working in the shop and all of a sudden something just triggered in me and I started shaking," he says. His wife asked him what was wrong, and he started to weep uncontrollably. "All of these executions all of a sudden all sprung forward. Just like taking slides in a film projector and having a button and just pushing a button and just watching, over and over: him, him, him...You see I can barely even talk because I'm thinking more and more of it. You know, there was just so many of 'em."
The broadcast closes with Willett as he looks forward to retiring. "To tell you the truth, this is something I won't miss a bit," he says. "There are times when I'm standing there, watching those fluids start to flow, and wonder whether what we're doing here is right. It's something I'll be thinking about for the rest of my life."
As Willett leads me through the museum and recounts his time in the death chamber, he mentions that usually when an inmate was lying on the gurney he would ask the man if the straps were too tight. "It's about making the inmate comfortable," he says. I ask if he thinks it's ironic that he would try to make a man comfortable right before signaling the executioner to kill him. He looks at me for a moment and nods. "It's ironic as heck!" he says.
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We talk about reports of botched lethal injections across the country. Does he think lethal injection is inhumane? "I don't think Texas has any problem with that," he says. "A medical person once told me we give 'em enough to put a horse to sleep." Willett avoids making political statements or taking a position for or against the death penalty. But he's unabashed in expressing his compassion for all of the people brought together in the execution process–those who perform the execution itself, the inmates and their victims, and the families who sit in the viewing gallery on either side of the wall.
"One night after an execution, the inmate had died and I called the doctor in," he tells me, standing in between Old Sparky and the case with the IV bag and syringes. "I move over and I'm facing these two [viewing] rooms. On one side of the wall was a daughter of the inmate, on the other side was the daughter of the victim, both deep in thought. And I thought, they don't even know the other is there. And what made it eerie was that they were both victims."
Over the next two weeks, publications around the world will report that Texas, the epicenter of capital punishment, has put the brakes on its well-oiled death machine. On the day in late September when the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would consider the legality of lethal injection, several Texas inmates were scheduled for execution. A team of attorneys prepared an appeal for one of them based on the pending decision, but their computer reportedly crashed and while they were scrambling to fix it one of them called the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to say they would be a few minutes late and to please stay open. They were told no, and a few hours later, their client was dead. The other inmates, however, were granted stays, raising questions about a de facto moratorium even in the state of Texas.
If that happens, Willett wouldn't necessarily oppose it. "I do wonder sometimes, the people who are guilty of real violent murders or crimes against children, why do they deserve to live?" he says. "But maybe we don't have the right to ask that–I don't know. For me, it's up to the people of Texas, whatever they want to do. If they said, 'Let's not have executions,' I'd be fine with that."