Main Site         

In the death chamber: So Texas thinks this is a humane substitute for the electric chair?

1998 February 4
by Paul Vallely

Blue is the colour of death in Huntsville, Texas. Pale blue. I know because I have been inside the chamber in which the lethal injection is administered. Indeed I have leaned against the padded metal gurney to which Karla Faye Tucker was last night due to be strapped. I looked up. Overhead was a neon light and the ceiling of powder blue. Such is the final earthly sight of the condemned prisoner. “A psychologist suggested that colour,” the assistant warden told me. “It is very relaxing.” It minimises the urge to struggle, apparently.

The gurney is the only piece of furniture in the death chamber in the Walls Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections prison. To the side is a window like that of the control booth in a TV studio. Karla Tucker nominated five people to watch her die from behind the thick plate glass, the maximum number of personal witnesses allowed. Three relatives of her victims also asked to be present.

But there is another room, hidden from the view of the condemned individual. It houses the equipment from which the fatal cocktail is administered by an official who cannot see the person the state has decided to kill. Three tubes feed into a single catheter which passes through the wall and to the gurney. Along it passes pavulon (a muscle relaxant), sodium thiopental (the lethal poison) and potassium chloride (which stops the heart dead). “If you don’t get the balance right,” the assistant governor told me, “he would kick like a horse”.

It was “he” in those days. Executions are a pretty routine thing in Texas. But they were all men. Karla Faye Tucker is the first woman to be executed there since the American Civil War. “I don’t like doing it, but it is a part of my job,” said the man responsible for the protocol of the executions as he outlined the rules on who is allowed to visit in the Death Cell and on the convict’s last shower, change of clothes and final meal. Karla Tucker, we are told, requested a banana, peaches and a tossed salad. Very healthy.

There is a ghastly irony about so much to do with the execution process. Apart from the thick broad straps of fawn leather by the metal bed, the atmosphere in the chamber is medical. There is a strap to wrap around the condemned arm just like the one the doctor uses when you have a blood sample taken. And before the deadly needle is inserted, the arm is thoughtfully swabbed with disinfectant. The person who inserts the needle in the arm is not the same one who then activates the plunger, so that responsibility is shared, just as with a firing squad some soldiers are given blanks. No doctors are involved in the act (though one is on hand to certify death) and yet there seems about the process an unnatural and rather wilful inversion of the Hippocratic Oath, much as there is in satanic parodies of Christian worship. In this atmosphere the cold courtesy of the prison officials seemed to me to be chilling.

All this was some years ago. I had gone to Huntsville not long after Texas abandoned death by electrocution for the “more humane” injection. Just down the road from the redbrick jail, I met Sam Gilstrap, who for 26 years had been the master mechanic for the electric chair until the new technology made him redundant. His contempt for the lethal injection was almost palpable.

“If a man is sentenced to death, he ought to have something to fear rather than a needle which lets him go to sleep. When you kick that motor on and you hear it moan – well, that gets him a little upset,” said the grizzled old executioner over coffee at a small-town diner where the tables were covered in red-checked gingham. I recalled the story that a former head of the Texas prison service had told me. “I had to supervise 14 executions,” Dr George Beto had said. “The worst was that of a black man who sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as he walked from the cell to the chamber. I couldn’t see him at first, I could just hear him coming along the hall. Even today that song makes my flesh creep.” But Sam Gilstrap had taken part in 125 executions. At night, he said, he slept well enough.

I returned to the jail and Death Row where I had arranged to interview the next man to be executed, Carlos DeLuna. He was a 24-year-old who had been convicted of stabbing to death a petrol station attendant in the town of Corpus Christi, in southern Texas, three years before. All along he maintained his innocence, but few people believed him.

Looking into the eyes of a man who is condemned to die it is hard to resist the temptation to make a judgement. The young Hispanic convict sat in a metal cage and peered through a slot of thick reinforced glass. For some reason throughout the interview I was seized with the compulsion that I had to decide whether I believed him. “The courts should stop playing these games. If one of us kidnapped someone and locked them up for ten years and told them every day that they were to be killed, people would say it was a barbaric crime, but for the state it is legal. It is like abortion; it is the very same people who are against killing babies who are in favour of killing me,” he said.

It was, I remember thinking at the time, not a diatribe so much as an expression of bewilderment. “The reason I agreed to talk to you was so people can see that I have feelings too, that I’m not an animal. This is a human being speaking. Is it right to do this?”

All at once I was overcome with the certainty that he was guilty. And yet, at the same time, I knew his guilt was a matter of utter irrelevance in the face of what was about to happen. He was one of 250 men and three women on Death Row. They were not the only murderers in the jail, and indeed many of those not under sentence of death had committed crimes far more heinous. But they had lost in the legal lottery in a state where 90 per cent of cases are settled by plea bargaining in which the accused accepts a lighter sentence in return for a guilty plea. It was the poor, the simple and the inept who ended up on Death Row, the ones who couldn’t afford a decent lawyer.

If only Karla Tucker had had one she might have been able to transform her case into a gender issue earlier, just as O J Simpson turned his trial into one about race and Louise Woodward’s became one about whether mothers should go out to work. Had Tucker harnessed at a much earlier stage the support which has mushroomed from born-again Christians (after her conversion), anti-death penalty liberals and most latterly women’s groups, it might have been a different story. But for Karla Tucker fame, it seems, came a little too late.

Comments are closed.