Uncomfortable jokes about executing prisoners by former Texas Death House
Joking about executions was more than some students and college professors
were ready to hear, especially when the stand up comic was in charge of
executing so many Texas prisoners.
The warden who oversaw the Walls Unit in Huntsville, giving the order to
go ahead with 89 executions, joked about sending inmates to their death as
he spoke to a University of Houston Downtown lecture Tuesday night, but
some students and staff expressed discomfort as they talked about it
outside the event.
Jim Willett had copies of his two books for sale as he addressed the UHD
Criminal Justice Lecture Series.
Now head of the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, he never focused on one
single theme or message as he addressed a room full of around 80 students,
faculty and visitors. He began telling several stories and then stopped,
midway, and told the audience he needed to back up or he had forgotten
In answering one student's question, Willett said an inmate had clearly
told the prison chaplain minutes before his execution that he was innocent
of the crime he was about to die for. As the audience sat and digested his
statement, he said he meant to say that the inmate had admitted his guilt.
Willett was responding to a question about whether he ever gave the
command to execute an inmate that he believed may be innocent. Willett
said the inmate in his botched story had told the chaplain that he really
was guilty, but he gave a final statement professing his innocence because
he just couldn't stand the thought of telling his family he was guilty.
While joking or making fun may be an understandable part of on-the-job
stress relief for prison workers when no one else is around, Willett's
jokes about sending prisoners to their death took students, faculty and
others in attendance by surprise.
He said that one inmate was strapped to the gurney and asked for a piece
of gum because his mouth was so dry. In a move of compassion, the
executioner stepped up and opened a piece of candy and plopped it into the
inmate's mouth. The warden said that inmate just started chewing and
chewing on that candy.
Then Willett said he stepped around to the inmate's other shoulder and
asked the inmate if that happened to be a Livesaver. While a few
uncomfortable laughs were heard in the UHD auditorium, others looked to
Willett then continued his story and said the inmate replied that he was
hoping that it was, indeed, a Lifesaver, but he didn't think it was
Willett also says he joked with another inmate who was about to die, over
the gesture the warden would give to start the execution. He said that the
inmate had heard a national radio interview, in which Willett said his
signal to the executioner was to simply take off his reading glasses when
the inmate's final statement was finished. When the glasses come off, the
executioner starts the lethal drugs flowing through the IV.
Willett gleefully said he asked this particular inmate how he'd know when
the final statement was finished, and he said the inmate replied that he
would just tell the warden to take off his glasses.
But that joke wasn't over for the UHD crowd.
Willett said he sternly told the inmate not to say such a thing during his
final statement to the witnesses in the execution chamber. He said he was
very firmly telling him not to do something, but he chuckled with the UHD
college crowd and said he found it strange that he was threatening an
inmate who was about to die. After all, said Willett, what could he
possibly threaten this person with anyway?
Willett's story about taking off his glasses to signal the executioner has
been repeated many times since he started selling books. He told a KPRC
Local 2 interviewer about his trademark move for a report that aired after
his retirement from TDCJ. It was also immortalized in that radio broadcast
that the now deceased convict had mentioned hearing, since that NPR
broadcast received a Peabody Award.
At the UHD event, he admitted that he copied that move from the past
warden. Perhaps that past warden didn't take so much joy in telling about
this move, which is why it's ripe for this warden to use as new material.
Willett also said he followed the advice of that past warden by waiting
exactly3 minutes from the time the inmate appears to die before calling in
the doctor to pronounce the inmate dead. He said the past warden had
indicated this was 'just to be safe' so he figured he should follow that
On the first execution he presided over, he said it was the longest 3
minutes of his life.
Willett told several stories of how he was compassionate in the final
hours or moments of a convict's life, almost as if he was bragging. In one
case, he says he allowed a series of phone calls that are normally off
limits, in other cases he says he allowed cigarettes for the condemned
even though TDCJ has been smoke free since the 90's.
At first, Willett said there were almost never any problems in finding a
vein to insert needles on both arms of the inmate. Then later, he was
asked a specific question and he admitted one instance where veins could
not be easily found so only a single needle was inserted in one arm. After
he gave the order to start the execution, he said the inmate turned to him
and announced the needle had fallen out.
Willett said he closed the curtains to shield the witnesses, and those
witnesses were led out so that they could be led in to start all over
again once the needle had been replaced.
He said he often tapped people who are not state employees to help him
with the difficult task of starting the final IV's for executions under
his watch. When pressed for exactly what he meant, he remained vague but
he said he would sometimes find people who had experience in starting IV's
during the Vietnam War since they would be perfect for the task in the
stressful Texas Death Chamber.
On the subject of needing to round up help in executing convicts, Willett
said several employees who executed Karla Faye Tucker asked to be removed
from the execution detail. He said some called in sick the following day
and others sought counseling, while others said it changed how they looked
Tucker was one of two women to be executed on Willet's watch. The other,
he said, went smoothly. However, Tucker's was complicated by the immense
national media attention since she had claimed to be a born-again
Christian and shots of her praying were all over the national news as her
execution approached in 1998. She was condemned for a barbaric 1993
drug-fueled pickax slaying of 2 people.
Willett said his entire 'strap down team' and anyone having any part of
the execution always handled it with professionalism and that was always
important to him. He said that he would watch carefully because anyone who
seemed to enjoy executions had no place in the execution process.
He said he would quickly call them in and take them off the execution
detail if they seemed like they'd be unprofessional about such a somber
In this reviewer's opinion, Willett should follow his own advice and take
himself off the execution detail for his book tour.
From a reporter who has been an official witness of 2 executions and
covered dozens more: This UHD book-selling lecture was likely the worst
example of insensitivity and glee from a TDCJ Death House employee being
on display in such a disturbing manner.
(source: Stephen Dean, Houston Examiner)
When criminals are about to be caught, they try to hide their wrongdoing.
When drug dealers hear the police sirens, they dump the stash in the alley
or flush it down the toilet. When the Nazi officers in the concentration
camps heard the allied forces approaching, they destroyedand in many cases
murderedthe evidence. Theres something about the light of day when it
shines its truth upon you.
And when a Texas state commission started looking into a report that a
faulty arson investigation apparently put an innocent man to death, Gov.
Rick Perry replaced the commission and called the dead man a monster.
Because thats what Southern hick town justice is all about.
Cameron Todd Willingham is now a free man, but unfortunately it took death
to release him from the confines of his prison bars. He was executed on
February 17, 2004 for the 1991 arson deaths of his 3 children. Gov. Perry
refused to grant him a 30-day stay, despite questions about his guilt.
According to a bogus forensics report, Willingham's house was
intentionally burned down.
In 2005, Texas instituted a forensic science commission to investigate
mistakes and wrongdoing by forensic scientists. Baltimore fire expert
Craig Beyler, who was hired by this commission to look into the Willingham
case, concluded that there were no scientific grounds to characterize the
fire as an act of arson. As The New Yorker reported, Beyler said the
approach of the arson investigator in the case denied rational reasoning,
was based on "folklore and mysticism rather than science," and violated
"not only the standards of today but even of the time period." This, in a
state whose fire investigators typically had a high school diploma, and
unlike other states, no requisite experience and no specialized training
So, the Texas commission was reviewing Beylers report, and Gov. Perry,
running for reelection, eliminated the members of the commission before
they could issue their findings. Pure politics. After all, we dont want
people going around and talking about the execution of innocent people.
Meanwhile, Judge Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of
Criminal Appeals, that state's highest criminal court, could find herself
in deep trouble. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct initiated
impeachment proceedings against Keller for incompetence, violating her
duties as a judge and casting public discredit on the court. For a state
such as Texas with such abysmal standards of integrity in its criminal
"justice" systemyou must wonder what she did to stand out among the crowd.
Keller refused to keep the court open after 5pm when she knew Michael
Richard, a death row inmate, sought a last-minute appeal challenging the
constitutionality of his punishment of lethal injection. The inmate was
unable to file an appeal and was executed. Also, Keller rejected a new
trial for Roy Criner, a mentally retarded man convicted of rape and
murder, even though DNA evidence showed that he did not rape the victim.
"We can't give new trials to everyone who establishes, after conviction,
that they might be innocent," Judge Keller said. "We would have no
finality in the criminal justice system, and finality is important. When
witnesses testify, and when jurors return a verdict, they need to know
that they can't come back later and change their minds."
Keller was unrepentant, and Perry said the execution of Willingham was
appropriate based on the "totality of the issues." Ex-governor Mark White
suggests that Texas might have to do away with the death penalty
altogether, given that it does not deter crime and is unfairly
administered, with a risk of executing the innocent. Bad habits are hard
to break, and with 423 executions since 1974, including 152 under Gov.
George W. Bush, Texas has the most voracious appetite for capital
punishment. But perhaps the Willingham case is what is needed to end the
My take on this subject is that the death penalty never was intended to be
fair, as it is a holdover from Jim Crow lynching. Capital punishment was
an effort to transplant lynchmob justice into the courtroom and make
lynching official, if not respectable. A broken system that was designed
to be brokenjust clean it up and no one will notice, they thought. Guilt
or innocence is of little concern here, as finality reigns supreme. And
Judge Keller essentially said as much. It is no accident that the states
of the former Confederacy the states with the most violent racial history,
a deep legacy of extrajudicial terror and killings have been among the
most enthusiastic executioners. Interestingly, those states also seem to
have the lowest educational and health standards. Typically, the inmates
on death row are people of color, and poor white folk like Mr. Willingham,
those who lack resources and are unable to afford the best justice money
can buy. We will never know how many people have been wrongfully executed.
But Cameron Todd Willingham certainly would not have been the first. And
perhaps we will never know how many opportunistic individuals have built
their political careers on the corpses of the executed, whether guilty or
Rick Perry and Sharon Keller now have ethical clouds hanging over their
heads. They utilized death as a political tool, but now, ironically, the
death machine that helped bolster their careers could be their undoing.
Yet, both are appropriate spokespersons for the death penalty. They have
helped perpetuate an inherently unjust, incompetent and capricious system
that legalized the lynchmob.
(source: BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member David A. Love, JD is
a journalist and human rights advocate based in Philadelphia, and a
contributor to The Huffington Post, theGrio, The Progressive Media
Project, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, In These Times and Philadelphia
Independent Media Center. He also blogs at davidalove.com, NewsOne, Daily
Kos, and Open Salon.
Death penalty abolitionists to march on Austin
This Saturday, anti-death-penalty activists will descend on Austin, TX,
for the 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty. The march will
begin and end at the Texas Capitol Building and will culminate in a rally
that will feature speeches from 3 now-exonerated former death row inmates
as well as individuals involved with the case of Cameron Todd Willingham
(which I highlighted in a previous article). Information about the rally
can be found at marchforabolition.org.
The organizers and participants in the march will be fighting yet another
battle in a war that should have long been over. Now that Japan has
appointed death penalty abolitionist Keiko Chiba as justice minister,
effectively eliminating capital punishment since she would have to sign
off on any execution, the United States is the only country in the
"developed world" that still puts criminals to death.
Capital punishment is not simply a moral issue. It makes no pragmatic
sense. It is now well known that it actually costs more to put a prisoner
to death than it does to incarcerate him or her for life. Basically, we
are paying more for a policy that results in no tangible benefits, but
does result in more dead people (kind of like our current health care
system). In fact, murder rates are consistently higher in states that do
execute prisoners than in those that do not.
The fact of the matter is that the death penalty is simply not an
effective deterrent over imprisonment for life, which is the sentence a
would-be death row inmate serves where capital punishment is not an
option. Such crimes are not the type to result in the limited sentences
and parole that other, "lesser" murders do. In crimes of passion, reason
and consequences, such as potential punishment, simply do not factor into
a killer's decision making until after the deed is done, if at all. In the
instance of a cold, calculated murder, the perpetrator's intention is not
to get caught at all, effectively rendering severity of punishment
irrelevent. As for any case on the spectrum between these two extremes,
life in prison is akin to capital punishment in the sense that it keeps
convicted murderers off the streets and results in the loss of their lives
as free citizens. Therefore, it is unlikely that someone deterred from
killing by the prospect of execution would somehow be emboldened by "only"
facing life in prison. Thus, the "benefits" of the more expensive option
of capital punishment are negligible.
A key benefit of life imprisonment over the death penalty is the obvious
fact that it keeps inmates alive. This can prove to be invaluable in the
instance of an overturned conviction. Advancements in forensic science,
such as the use of DNA as evidence, have repeatedly exposed the
fallibility of our legal system. (This is not meant to critique that
system, but simply to show that, as with any other human system, it is far
from perfect.) The chilling fact that the government has unwittingly
executed innocent people on numerous occasions has been made painfully
clear. Organizers and speakers at the march and rally will be highlighting
the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed by the state of
Texas in 2004 after a conviction based on flawed evidence. A petition,
which will be presented at the march, for Texas Governor Rick Perry to
acknowledge Willingham's innocence can be found here.
Capital punishment raises countless moral dilemmas while producing little
to nothing in terms of real results. In essence, it is nothing more than
an expensive and elaborate method of societal revenge. Unsurprisingly, the
rest of the "developed world" has decided to abandon it. It is time the
United States joined them. I strongly urge anyone who is in the Austin
area to attend the rally on Saturday. Also, I have signed the
aforementioned petition to Gov. Perry and would like to ask you to do so