Texas Capital Punisment – Takes pride in its Executions
May18th 2014 By Fire Stone
Under a guard’s watch, inmates planted flowers in front of the prison known as the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Tex. Inside is where the 515 men and women whom Texas has executed since 1982 have died by lethal injection. Even some death penalty critics agree that the state acts competently. Credit Michael Stravato for The New York Times
HUNTSVILLE, Tex. — If Texas executes Robert James Campbell as planned on Tuesday, for raping and murdering a woman, it will be the nation’s first execution since Oklahoma’s bungled attempt at lethal injection two weeks ago left a convicted murderer writhing and moaning before he died.
Lawyers for Mr. Campbell are trying to use the Oklahoma debacle to stop the execution here. But many in this state and in this East Texas town north of Houston, where hundreds have been executed in the nation’s busiest death chamber, like to say they do things right.
For two years now, Texas has used a single drug, the barbiturate pentobarbital, instead of the three-drug regimen used in neighboring Oklahoma. Prison administrators from other states often travel here to learn how Texas performs lethal injections and to observe executions. Texas officials have provided guidance and, on at least a few occasions, carried out executions for other states.
Even the protesters and television cameras that used to accompany executions here have, in most cases, dissipated. “It’s kind of business as usual,” said Tommy Oates, 62, a longtime resident who was eating lunch last week at McKenzie’s Barbeque, about one mile from the prison known as the Walls Unit. “That sounds cold, I know. But they’re not in prison for singing too loud at church.”
Robert James Campbell in 2009. Credit Texas Department of Criminal Justice
More than any other place in the United States, Huntsville is the capital of capital punishment. All of the 515 men and women Texas has executed since 1982 by lethal injection and all of the 361 inmates it electrocuted from 1924 to 1964 were killed here in the same prison in the same town, at the red-brick Walls Unit. Texas accounts for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s executions.
So many people have been put to death and so often — in January 2000, seven people were executed in 15 days — that people here take little notice.
Gov. Rick Perry is a staunch defender of the state’s record, saying that “in Texas for a substantially long period of time, our citizens have decided that if you kill our children, if you kill our police officers, for those very heinous crimes, that the appropriate punishment is the death penalty.” On NBC’s “Meet the Press” recently, he added, “I’m confident that the way that the executions are taken care of in the state of Texas are appropriate.”
Some of those who condemn the state grudgingly agree that it kills with efficiency — from initial slumber into cessation of breathing — even though a prisoner who died of lethal injection in April was reported to have said, “It does kind of burn.”
“Texas’s death chamber is a well-honed machine,” said Robert Perkinson, the author of “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire,” a critical history of the Texas prison system.
David R. Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston who has represented more than 100 death row inmates during their appeals, explained the state’s record of seeming success simply. “When you do something a lot, you get good at it,” he said, adding archly, “I think Texas probably does it as well as Iran.”
‘Almost Second Nature’
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In Huntsville, a city of 40,000 that cuts through pine forests along Interstate 45, the Walls prison sits like a fortress in the heart of town, roughly half a mile from City Hall, the county courthouse and the campus of Sam Houston State University. Huntsville is part college town, part prison town — there are seven state prisons, including Walls, in the Huntsville area, as well as the headquarters of the state prison agency, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
But many residents do not dwell on the pace of executions. “Unless the high-profile cases are going on, you don’t really know until you read about it the next day in the paper or you hear it on the news that an execution was going on,” said Heike Ness, 48, an insurance agent.
Eric Hunter and Courtney Campbell both students in Huntsville, at the Texas Prison Museum’s electric chair exhibit. Credit Michael Stravato for The New York Times
Some of those who work in the system are proud of their expertise. Jim Willett, who was the warden at the Walls prison from 1998 to 2001, oversaw 89 executions. Staff members who prepare prisoners for execution are trained and skilled, he said. The “tie-down team” that straps the prisoners onto the table “can take that man back there and put those straps on perfectly and easily in 30 seconds,” he said. “This may sound odd to an outsider, but they take pride in what they do.” He added, “They’ve done it so often that it’s almost second nature to them.”
Mr. Willett, now retired from the prison, is director of the Texas Prison Museum, about three miles from the Walls prison, which celebrates the institution and, to an extent, its history of execution. It received 31,280 visitors last year.
It was built to resemble a state prison and has a replica guard tower in one corner of the building. The electric chair that was used until 1964 is there, displayed behind a protective glass barrier with a sign that reads, “Attention: Please do not enter past the rope or attempt to touch ‘Ol’ Sparky.’ An alarm will sound if you do try to enter.”
Mr. Willett said he was not haunted by his time supervising executions, but he was touched by it and drained by it.
Since 1976, Texas has carried out more executions than six other states combined — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma and Virginia — all of which have some of the busiest death chambers.
A Question of Methodology
On Monday, an appeal by Mr. Campbell’s lawyers to stop the execution reached the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. The lawyers cited the “horrifically botched” execution in Oklahoma, where Clayton D. Lockett writhed and moaned on the table until prison officials halted the procedure. Mr. Lockett died 43 minutes after the delivery of drugs into a vein in his groin began. Oklahoma has declared a six-month stay of the next execution.
The lawyers focused on efforts by states to restrict information about the source of lethal drugs, arguing that “secrecy” is the “common denominator” between Oklahoma and Texas.
Last Friday, Judge Keith P. Ellison of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas denied Mr. Campbell’s request for an injunction because of prior rulings, but he urged the Fifth Circuit “to reconsider its jurisprudence that seems to shield crucial elements of the execution process from open inquiry.”
Tommy Oates called executions “kind of business as usual.” Credit Michael Stravato for The New York Times
Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general, has opposed the request to stop the execution, arguing in a brief on Monday that Texas’ execution protocol is “vastly different” from Oklahoma’s, and that pentobarbital has been used successfully in 33 executions in Texas. He wrote that testing showed the batch of the drug to be used, which came from a compounding pharmacy, was potent and “free of contaminants.”
Texas has declined to disclose how its drug is tested for potency and purity.
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State officials say that Texas is not like Oklahoma partly because it uses a single drug, the barbiturate pentobarbital, instead of the three-drug series employed north of the Red River. This approach, along with other protections for prisoners in the process, was favored by a new report on the death penalty from The Constitution Project, a group that includes supporters and opponents of capital punishment.
Maurie Levin, a lawyer who has worked on death penalty cases and who is one of Mr. Campbell’s lawyers, said in an interview that “Texas doesn’t have some kind of magic touch.”
She added, “There’s nothing that says we can’t trust Oklahoma, but we can trust Texas.” The risks of mistakes, she said, “are exponentially greater when executions are carried out in secret.” In fact, she noted, Oklahoma’s publicly available protocol is far more detailed than the one provided upon request from Texas.
A Texas execution in April has raised questions. Jose Villegas, 39, who was convicted of fatally stabbing his ex-girlfriend, her young son and her mother, reportedly complained of a burning sensation as a lethal injection began to take effect. Texas argued that the Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution “does not require the elimination of all risk of pain,” only that the method not be “sure or very likely to cause serious illness and needless suffering.”
Opponents of the death penalty question Texas’ reputation. Austin D. Sarat, an Amherst College professor who has studied the death penalty, put the state’s rate of mishaps at about 4 percent, slightly higher than Oklahoma’s, if difficulty in finding a vein is included in the calculation.
One of the botched executions was that of Raymond Landry Sr. in December 1988. Two minutes after prison officials began administering the drugs, a tube attached to a needle inside Mr. Landry’s right arm began leaking and shooting the drugs across the death chamber toward the witness room. The warden then pulled a curtain to block the view. When the curtain reopened 14 minutes later after prison officials had apparently reinserted the needle, Mr. Landry was motionless with his eyes half-closed, according to The Associated Press. Three minutes later, two doctors arrived and declared him dead.
Texas’ 10-page execution protocol requires each “drug team” to have “at least one medically trained individual,” whether a certified medical assistant, emergency medical technician, phlebotomist, paramedic or military corpsman.
Jim Willett, a former warden at Walls, said the 89 executions he oversaw drained him. Credit Michael Stravato for The New York Times
Rick Halperin, the director of the Embrey Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the former president of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said he is tormented by the attitudes in Texas. “If you do raise the questions as to the morality of this,” he said, “you are immediately painted as if you are unsympathetic to the plight of the families who lost loved ones and sympathetic to violent felons.”
Support for the death penalty in Texas runs higher than in the rest of the country; in a May 2012 University of Texas-Texas Tribune online poll, 53 percent of Texas voters said they supported the death penalty for murder over life imprisonment without the chance for parole. A Quinnipiac University telephone poll conducted in May 2013 found that 48 percent of American voters favored the death penalty over a life term for people convicted of murder.
In the late 1990s, 40 to 50 death sentences a year were being handed down in Texas; since 2010 the number has fallen below 10 a year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a group that opposes the death penalty.
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Part of the reluctance to sentence people to death springs from the more than 140 high-profile exonerations in the state in recent years, including a dozen death row inmates; there have also been questions about the guilt of some executed prisoners. The State Legislature allowed juries to impose sentences of life without parole for capital crimes in 2005.
One person who has no qualms about seeing Mr. Campbell die is Israel Santana, a cousin of Alexandra Rendon, Mr. Campbell’s victim. Mr. Santana is a criminal defense lawyer in Houston and has defended people on capital murder charges.
But not in this case. In 1991, Mr. Campbell and his co-defendant, Leroy Lewis, kidnapped Ms. Rendon, raped her, then took her out into a field and told her to run for her life, the state said. Mr. Campbell tried to shoot her in the head but missed; he then shot her in the back and left her for dead.
“She had her whole future ahead of her,” Mr. Santana said, “and this guy took it away without a second thought.”
He plans to drive to Huntsville on Tuesday to be a witness at the execution. “I’m a deacon in my church,” he said. “I’m taught I must forgive.” Still, he allowed, “I will not lie and say there’s not a battle within me.”
He added, “I’m sure in my heart, before the needle is put in, I’ll forgive him.”