Texas: From America’s Busiest Death Chamber, a Catalog of Last Rants, Pleas and Apologies Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Karl Eugene Chamberlain went to his neighbor’s apartment that night in Dallas under the pretense of borrowing sugar. He returned later, forced her into a bedroom, bound her hands and feet, raped her and then used a rifle to shoot and kill her. His victim, Felecia Prechtl, 29, was a single mother with a 5-year-old son.
11 years after he was convicted of capital murder, Mr. Chamberlain, 37, was strapped to a gurney in Texas’ execution chamber at the Walls Unit prison here and was asked by a warden if he had any last words. “Thank you for being here today to honor Felecia Prechtl, whom I didn’t even know,” he told her son, parents and brother on June 11, 2008. “I am so terribly sorry. I wish I could die more than once to tell you how sorry I am.”
His words did not die with him. Texas wrote them down, kept them and posted them on the Internet.
The state with the busiest death chamber in America publishes the final statements of the inmates it has executed on a prison agency Web site, a kind of public catalog of the rantings, apologies, prayers, claims of innocence and confessions of hundreds of men and women in the minutes before their deaths.
Charles Nealy asked to be buried not to the left of his father but to the right of his mother. Domingo Cantu Jr., who dragged a 94-year-old widow across the top of a chain-link fence, sexually assaulted her and then killed her, told his wife that he loved her and would be waiting for her on the other side.
The condemned praised Allah and Jesus and Sant Ajaib Singh Ji, a Sikh master. 3 cheered for their favorite sports teams, including Jesse Hernandez, whose execution last year made headlines after he shouted, “Go Cowboys!” They spoke in English, Spanish, French, Vietnamese, Gaelic, German (“Meine schone prinzessin,” said Mr. Cantu, German for “my beautiful princess”). They quoted the Koran and the Bible, but also Todd Beamer’s phrase aboard United Airlines Flight 93.
“Sir, in honor of a true American hero, ‘Let’s roll,'” said David Ray Harris, who was dishonorably discharged from the Army and was executed in 2004 for killing a man who tried to stop him from kidnapping the man’s girlfriend.
The execution on Wednesday of Kimberly McCarthy – a 52-year-old woman convicted of robbing, beating and fatally stabbing a retired psychology professor near Dallas – was the 500th in Texas since December 1982, when the state resumed capital punishment after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. In those 30 years, Texas has executed more people than Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma and Virginia combined.
The state’s execution record has often been criticized as a dehumanizing pursuit of eye-for-an-eye justice. But three decades of last statements by inmates reveal a glimmer of the humanity behind those anonymous numbers, as the indifferent bureaucracy of state-sanctioned death pauses for one sad, intimate and often angry moment.
“I hope that one day we can look back on the evil that we’re doing right now like the witches we burned at the stake,” said Thomas A. Barefoot, who was convicted of murdering a police officer and was executed on Oct. 30, 1984.
Among the death-penalty states, Texas and California are the only ones that make the last words of offenders available on their Web sites. But only Texas has compiled and listed each statement in what amounts to an online archive. The collection of 500 statements, which includes inmates’ verbal as well as written remarks, has been the subject of analysis, criticism and debate by lawyers, criminal justice researchers and activists who oppose the death penalty.
It has spawned at least one blog, Lost Words in the Chamber, which has regularly posted the last statements since 2011. Officials with the prison agency, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said there were 3 million page views of inmates’ final words last year.
“It’s kind of mesmerizing to read through these,” said Robert Perkinson, the author of “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire” and a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “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 cliches, 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.”
The last statements are not uttered in a vacuum – they are heard by lawyers, reporters and prison officials, as well as the inmates’ families and victims’ relatives. But the power of their words to change the system or even heal the hearts of those they have hurt is uncertain.
Nearly 7 years after he murdered a Houston city marshal who caught him with cash and loose change stuffed into his pockets from the bar he had just robbed, Charles William Bass refused his last meal and told the warden in 1986, “I deserve this.” “I think he was correct,” said Mr. Baker, 63, a minister at the Church of Christ in Emory, Tex., who was 29 when his father was killed. “It’s called capital punishment for a reason.”
Strapped to a gurney in a spare brick room painted dark green, the inmates nowadays speak into a microphone attached to the ceiling, their arms stretched out and buckled into a T-shaped gurney so the drugs flow easily from the IVs into their veins. With the victims’ and the inmates’ witnesses in place in 2 separate rooms, the warden asks the inmate if there is a last statement. The last words are not recorded, but transcribed by hand by staff members listening inside the warden’s office.
Jim Willett, 63, a retired Walls Unit warden, said none of the 89 statements he heard from 1998 to 2001 changed his support for the death penalty.
“You can hear it in their voices sometimes and in their delivery that they are sincerely hurting for the pain that they put their own family through,” said Mr. Willett, the director of the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville. “I saw the strangest thing one night. You got this little wall here like this, separating those 2 witness rooms. One night I saw the daughter of the inmate and the daughter of the victim, and they were both leaning against that wall. They were that far apart and didn’t even know it.”
Jason Clark, a spokesman for the prison agency, said the last statements were posted to respond to the demand for that information by the public and journalists. But opponents of the death penalty call it a perverse tradition.
“The death penalty is a process, not an act, and posting the final words of a condemned person after a process which has usually lasted a decade or more is simply a disservice,” said Rick Halperin, director of the Embrey Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “How is one to assess the phrase of ‘Go Cowboys!’ from a man on a gurney?”
Freddie Webb said 1 word – “Peace” – but James Lee Beathard, who murdered his accomplice’s father, stepmother and half-brother, said 684 of them in December 1999, in a rambling statement that mentioned the embargoes against Iran and Cuba. He viewed his final minutes the way others had – as a fleeting moment on a stage, with a silent, watchful audience. “Couple of matters that I want to talk about,” he said, “since this is one of the few times people will listen to what I have to say.”