Death has the habit of sneaking up on its victims, catching them unaware and robbing them of a chance to collect their thoughts and give some final, purposeful statement of celebration or regret. If they are afforded that chance, the words tend to be delivered to a friend or family member in a bedside whisper, dissolving as soon as they are spoken.
Texas' death row inmates are different in that respect. Not only are they given the time and the platform from which to deliver their final words, their statements are recorded by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and deposited permanently into its online database.
This weekend, on the occasion of Texas 500th execution, The New York Times pondered the database and what it says about capital punishment, the criminal justice system in Texas and the inmates themselves.
"It's kind of mesmerizing to read through these," Robert Perkinson, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and author of a book on Texas prisons, told the Times. "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. There are plenty of clichés, sometimes peculiar ones, like the Cowboys reference. But I think many of these individuals are also striving to say something poignant, worthy of the existential occasion."
Reading through the statements, one after another, is a surprisingly moving, occasionally haunting experience. What comes through the most strongly is the sense that these people, however despicable their crimes, are still deeply human.
Their emotions run the gamut. Some are spit vitriol to the last:
Steven Woods, September 13, 2011: You're not about to witness an execution, you are about to witness a murder. I am strapped down for something Marcus Rhodes did. I never killed anybody, ever. I love you, Mom. I love you, Tali. This is wrong. This whole thing is wrong. I can't believe you are going to let Marcus Rhodes walk around free. Justice has let me down. Somebody completely screwed this up. I love you too, Mom. Well Warden, if you are going to murder someone, go ahead and do it. Pull the trigger. It's coming. I can feel it coming. Goodbye
Denard Manns, November 13, 2008: Yes. From Allah we came and to Allah we shall return. I would like to give thanks for the unjust way my trial attorneys John Donahue and Frank Hollbrook purposely denied me a fair trial. I would like to thank Walter E. Reeves for bringing up claims that did not exist. Most importantly, I would like to thank John Hurley, who was suppose to be off my case but was granted to be back on. For those who kept agreeing with me, keep it real. Ya'll will always stay real in my heart. Barbara, I love you, Al and Paul, I love you. Jess and Chong, I love you now and forever. I am ready for the transition.
Johnny Johnson, February 12, 2009: The Polunsky dungeon should be compared with the Death Row Community as existing not living. Why do I say this, the Death Row is full of isolated hearts and suppressed minds. We are filled with love looking for affection and a way to understand. I am a Death Row resident of the Polunsky dungeon. Why does my heart ache. We want pleasure love and satisfaction. It. The walls of darkness crushed in on me. Life without meaning is life without purpose. But the solace within the Polunsky dungeon, the unforgivesness within society, the church Pastors and Christians. It is terrifying. Does anyone care or who I am. Can you feel me people. The Polunsky dungeon is what I call the pit of hopelessness. The terrfying thing is the US is the only place, country that is the only civilized country that is free that says it will stop murder and enable justice. I ask each of you to lift up your voices to demand an end to the Death Penalty. If we live, we live to the Lord. If we die we die to the Lord. Christ rose again, in Jesus name. Bye Aunt Helen, Luise, Joanna and to all the rest of yall. You may proceed Warden. (began singing)
Others proclaim their innocence:
Keith Thurmond, March 7, 2012: All I want to say is I'm innocent, I didn't kill my wife. Jack Leary shot my wife then her dope dealer Guy Fernandez. Don't hold it against me, Bill. I swear to God I didn't kill her. Go ahead and finish it off. You can taste it.
Charles Nealy, March 20, 2007: Ya'll know I love you, you too Ward. You have been a good friend. You are a good investigator. Doug, I thank you for coming from Michigan. Chris and David, I love you. Thank them for their support Doug. Debra, James, I'm not crying so you don't cry. Don't be sad for me. I'm going to be with God, Allah, and Momma. I'm gonna ask dad why didn't give you away at your wedding. Randy Greer, my little brother, I'll be watching you, stay out of trouble. All my nieces and nephews, I love you all. Sammie, Vincent, and Yolanda, I will be watching over you all. The reason it took them so long is because they couldn't find a vein. You know how I hate needles -- I used to stay in the Doctor's Office. Tell the guys on Death Row that I'm not wearing a diaper. I can't think of anything else. You all stay strong. Now you can put this all aside. Don't bury me in the prison cemetery. Bury me right beside momma. Don't bury me to the left of dad, bury me on the right side of mom. Kim Schaeffer, you are a evil woman. You broke the law. The judges and courts helped you and you didn't have all the facts. When you look at the video, you know you can't see anyone. You overplayed your hand looking for something against me and to cover it up the State is killing me. I'm not mad or bitter though. I'm sad that you are stuck here and have to go through all of this. I am going somewhere better. My time is up. Let me get ready to make my transition. Doug, don't forget Marcy.
Jonathan Moore, January 17, 2007: Jennifer, where are you at? I'm sorry, I did not know the man but for a few seconds before I shot him. It was done out of fear, stupidity, and immaturity. It wasn't until I got locked up and saw the newspaper. I saw his face and his smile and I knew he was a good man. I am sorry for all your family and my disrespect -- he deserved better. Sorry Gus. I hope all the best for you and your daughters. I hope you have happiness from here on out. Quit the heroin and methadone. I love you dad, Devin, and Walt. We're done Warden.
Beunka Adams, April 26, 2012: First, I want to let my mom know not to cry, there is no reason to cry, everybody dies. Everybody has their time, don't worry about me. I'm strong. To my family: my old man, my kids, daddy is sorry. I love each and every one of you. I'll be looking for you. To my wife, I love you. The last two years have been the best. All my kids, mom, nieces, and nephews, I am proud of all of ya'll. I love each and every one of ya'll. I really love ya'll.
To the victims, I'm very sorry for everything that happened. I am not the malicious person that you think I am. I was real stupid back then. I made a great many mistakes. What happened was wrong. I was a kid in a grown man's world. I messed up, and I can't take it back. I wasn't old enough to understand. Please don't carry around that hurt in your heart. You have got to find a way to get rid of the hate. Trust me, killing me is not going to give you closure. I hope you find closure. Don't let that hate eat you up, find a way to get past it.
Linda, I love you, I appreciate you. I hate the way things turned out. Ms. Sheri, thank you. To the victims again, I hate the way all of this happened to ya'll. I don't think any good will come of this. I am going to see ya'll again. I love ya'll, be strong for me. Keep your heads up. I came into the world strong. I'll leave the world strong. Warden, go ahead. I am sorry for the victim's family. Murder isn't right, killing of any kind isn't right. Got to find another way.
Michael Rodriguez, August 14, 2008:Yes I do, I know this no way makes up for all the pain and suffering I gave you. I am so so sorry. My punishment is nothing compared to the pain and sorrow I have caused. I hope that someday you can find peace. I am not strong enough to ask for forgiveness because I don't if I am worth. I realize what I've done to you and the pain I've given. Please Lord forgive me. I have done some horrible things. I ask the Lord to please forgive me. I have gained nothing, but just brought sorrow and pain to these wonderful people. I am sorry. So so sorry. To the Sanchez family who showed me love. To the Hawkings' family, I am sorry. I know I have affected them for so long. Please forgive me. Irene, I want to thank you and thank your husband Jack. I'll be waiting for you. I am so sorry. To these families I ask forgiveness. Father God I ask you too for forgiveness. I ask you for forgiveness Lord. I am ready to go Lord. Thank you. I am ready to go. My Jesus my Savior there is none like you. All of my days I want to praise, let every breath. Shout to the Lord let us sing.
A few aren't terribly well thought out:
James Clark, April 11, 2007: Uh, I don't know, Um, I don't know what to say. I don't know. (pauses) I didn't know anybody was there. Howdy.
And sometimes, the sodium thiopental creeps in before they're done.
Ricky Lynn Lewis, April 10, 2013: Ms. Connie Hilton, I'm sorry for what happened to you. If I hadn't raped you, then you wouldn't have lived. If you look at the transcripts, I didn't kill Mr. Newman and I didn't rob your house. There are two people still alive. I was just there. When I saw you in the truck driving away, I could have killed you but I didn't. I'm not a killer. My momma was abused. I'm sorry for what you've gone through. It wasn't me that harmed and stole all of your stuff. If you look at the transcripts you will see. I ask the good Lord to forgive me.
I love ya'll; Sheena, my sister, momma, and daddy. Ya'll pray for me, keep up the fight. Get the transcripts, let the truth come out so that I do not die in vain. I thank the Lord for the man I am today. I have done all I can to better myself, to learn to read and write. Take me to my King. I love ya'll and thank you for the love you gave me. I respect all of ya'll. Ms. Hilton. Ok. Let me rest. It's burning.
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Rodrigo Hernandez, January 26, 2012: Yes, I want to tell everybody that I love everybody. Keep your heads up. We are all family, people of God Almighty. We're all good. I'm ready.
Are they already doing it? I'm gonna go to sleep. See you later. This stuff stings, man almighty.
Jonathan Green, October 10, 2012: I'm an innocent man. I did not kill anyone. Ya'll are killing an innocent man. My left arm is killing me. It hurts bad.