Culture > April 16, 2007
Inside the Death Chamber
Reporter Leighanne Gideon witnessed her first execution at the age of 26. As a reporter for the Huntsville Item she saw 52 Texas prisoners executed.
The following transcript was adapted from “Witness to an Execution,” a radio documentary produced by Stacy Abramson and David Isay, which is included in the new book Writing for Their Lives: Death Row USA (University of Illinois Press), edited by Marie Mulvey-Roberts. “Witness to an Execution,” which was originally presented on “All Things Considered,” won a Peabody Award in 2000. To hear the complete broadcast or see more photographs by Andrew Lichtenstein taken during the making of the documentary, go to SoundPortraits.org.
Warden Jim Willett: I’m Jim Willett. I’ve overseen about 75 executions at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas. I started as a guard here 29 years ago and have been warden since May of 1998. The Walls takes up almost two city blocks right in the middle of town. … Since 1924 all executions in Texas have taken place right here. We’ve carried out a lot of executions here lately, and with all the debate about the death penalty I thought this might be a good time to let you hear exactly how we do these things. Sometimes I wonder whether people really understand what goes on down here and the effect it has on us.
Chaplain Jim Brazzil, Texas Department of Criminal Justice: I have been with 114 people at the time of their execution. … I’ve had ‘em where they wanted to sing. I had one offender tell lawyer jokes. … And I’ve had ‘em want to do exercises, do calisthenics sitting in there, you know, because it’s such a nervous time. Because at that time reality has truly set in that in a few moments he’s going to be dead.
[Warden Willett will] walk up to the cell where we are and he’ll say, “It’s time.” And so they will unlock the cell and he’s not handcuffed or chained. He’s just sitting there. And he and I will walk into the chamber.
Willett: When he gets into the chamber, I’ll tell him to sit down on the gurney and then lay down with his head on [the] pillow. At that time when he gets in there, all of the straps are undone. And within probably 30, 45 seconds the officers have him completely strapped in.
Major Kenneth Dean: I’ve participated in over a hundred executions as a member of the tie down team. Each supervisor is assigned a different portion—like we have a head person, a right arm, left arm, right leg, left leg. And the right leg man will tell him, “I need you to hop up onto the gurney. Lay your head on this end, put your feet on this end.” Simultaneously while he’s laying down the straps are being put across him.
Captain Terry Green: I’m a member of the tie down team in the execution process. What I do, I will strap the offender’s left wrist. And then there are two belts—one that comes across the top of his left shoulder—and then another goes right straight across his abdominal area.
Dean: Some of them are very calm. Some of them are upset. Some of them are crying.
Green: Some of them have been sweating. Some of them will have the smell of anxiety, if you will, of fear.
Dean: Usually within about 20 seconds he’s completely strapped down—20 to 30 seconds. I mean, it’s down to a fine art. … After all the straps are done they will look at you and they’ll say, “Thank you.” And here you’ve just strapped them into the table. And they look at you in the eye and tell you, “Thank you for everything that you’ve done.” And, you know, that’s kind of a weird feeling.
Willett: At 6:05 the medical team inserts the needles and hooks up the IVs. … I have been somewhat surprised. It never crossed my mind that some of these people are just like the rest of us and are scared to death of a needle. Usually, if it goes right, and normally it does, usually in about three minutes they’ve got this guy hooked up to the lines. And at that time the inmate’s lying on the gurney and myself and Chaplain Brazzil are in the execution chamber with the inmate.
Brazzil: I usually put my hand on their leg right below their knee, you know, and I usually give ‘em a squeeze, let ‘em know I’m right there. You can feel the trembling, the fear that’s there, the anxiety that’s there. You can feel the heart surging, you know. You can see it pounding through their shirt.
Leighanne Gideon, former reporter for the Huntsville Item: I witnessed 52 executions. … A lot of inmates apologize. A lot of inmates will say that you’re executing an innocent man. And then there have been some men who have been executed that I knew, and I’ve had them tell me goodbye.
John Moritz, a reporter for the Fort Worth Star Telegram: The warden will remove his glasses, which is the signal to the executioners behind a mirrored glass window. And when the glasses come off, the lethal injection begins to flow.
Gideon: I was 26-years old when I witnessed my first execution. After the execution was over, I felt numb. And that’s a good way to explain it. And a lot of people will tell you that, that it’s just a very numb feeling afterwards. … I’ve walked out of [the] death chamber numb and my legs feeling like rubber sometimes, my head maybe not really feeling like it’s attached to my shoulders. I’ve been told that it’s perfectly normal, everyone feels it, and that after a while that numb feeling goes away. And indeed it does.
Wayne Sorge, news director of KSAM in Huntsville: I have witnessed 162 executions by lethal injection in the state of Texas. … I wrestle with myself about the fact that it’s easier now, and was I right to make part of my income from watching people die? And I have to recognize the fact that what I do for a living is hold up a mirror to people of what their world is. Capital punishment is part of that, and if you are in the city where more capital punishment occurs than any place else in the civilized world, that’s got to be part of the job.
Brazzil: I’ve had several of them where watching their last breath go from their bodies and their eyes never unfix from mine. I mean actually lock together. And I can close my eyes now and see those eyes. My feelings and my emotions are extremely intense at that time. I’ve never … I’ve never really been able to describe it. And I guess in a way I’m kind of afraid to describe it. I’ve never really delved into that part of my feelings yet.
Gideon: I’ve seen family members collapse in there. I’ve seen them scream and wail. I’ve seen them beat the glass.
Sorge: I’ve seen them fall into the floor, totally lose control. And yet how do you tell a mother that she can’t be there in the last moments of her son’s life?
Gideon: You’ll never hear another sound like a mother wailing whenever she is watching her son be executed. There’s no other sound like it. It is just this horrendous wail. You can’t get away from it. That wail surrounds the room. It’s definitely something you won’t ever forget.
Willett: I do worry about my staff. I can see it in their eyes sometimes, particularly when we do a lot of executions in a short period of time. … I’ll be retiring next year and to tell you the truth this is something I won’t miss a bit. There are times when I’m standing there, watching those fluids start to flow, and wonder whether what we’re doing here is right.
MusicDigital Revives the Indie Pop Star By David Hadden
In this new age of satellite radio and personalized playlists, only 35 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds are turning to the once mighty FM radio to find new artists. Meanwhile, online music sales nearly doubled last year to about $2 billion, or 10 percent of all sales.
The reason, says Ben Zalman, radio promotion manager of the Planetary Group, a Boston based music promoter, is simple. “Although I don’t think radio’s days are numbered, people are getting more used to the on-demand style of consumption. If someone is in the mood to listen to Modest Mouse, they no longer have to hear the new Red Hot Chili Peppers hit five times before they can.”
While Internet consumption patterns have yet to render mainstream radio irrelevant, to once marginalized independent artists and labels, it is the radio. It is where they market and sell their music. Mariella Luz from K Records, an underground pop institution that has nourished acts like Modest Mouse and Beck, says piracy is “still a good way for people to hear new music, and if in the end it means our bands have more fans, then I am not opposed to it.” Asked if such “borrowing” has adversely affected overall sales, Luz replies simply: “No.”
This response stark contrasts to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Representing major record companies, the RIAA recently sent more than 400 pre-litigation settlement letters to 13 different universities informing them of impending copyright infringement lawsuits against one of their students or personnel. Matt Zimmerman, an attorney from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization advocating citizens’ rights in the digital world, has called the lawsuits “remarkably short sighted.”
So how exactly are the indies doing it?
As a genre, “indie” is an umbrella term for rock bands that release music independently in order to retain creative freedom. Considering the parade of lip-synching blondes and boy bands on major labels, it isn’t hard to imagine that, today, a young Bob Dylan or John Lennon would prefer being signed to an indie label. And while perspectives in indie rock range far beyond radical politics, an inherent desire to challenge, or at least ignore, corporate culture remains. In Money for Nothing, a 2001 documentary exploring the commercialization of popular music, Ian McKaye, member of Fugazi and cofounder of independent label Dischord, said, “I have a lot of contempt for the record industry. To exist independent of the mainstream is a political feat, in my opinion.”
The very mainstream iTunes store has created a venue where even the most obscure artists can exist—and even thrive—independent of major labels. For instance, in most record stores, “you have to pay to get the placement, the listening stations, and posters, whereas with iTunes, the promotions are [staff] determined,” says Chris Jacobs of Sub Pop Records.
More importantly, 70 of the 99 cents of the download fee goes directly to the artist. With this more favorable exchange, and freed from the burdens of a major label’s enormous cash advance, the independent artists benefit most. Apple’s dominance of online retail—last year, they had more than $1 billion in annual sales—has created a check on major labels. This was evident in 2005, when Apple refused the majors’ requests to raise downloading fees. If this benevolent giant’s behavior is in any way indicative for the future of online retail, indie rock may have one less thing to be cynical about.
In addition, indies are leading the pack in ideas. Visit K Records’ Web site and you’ll find an online boutique of downloadable tracks at 50 cents a pop. According to the label, sales have been increasing monthly, and the site is adding more content. Meanwhile, Matador Records has adjusted to the fact that even its vinyl enthusiasts probably wear iPods and now provide codes so customers can download free mp3 copies of the vinyl they buy.
And though indie bands have always built audiences without the Top 40, the advent of Web 2.0 and resulting proliferation of niche markets make traditional means of promotion look inefficient. Stereogum, which averages about 13,000 hits a week, is one of many online communities that features user-generated reviews, features, and videos of indie bands while unabashedly keeping the public up on the latest Britney headline. The Hype Machine, an aggregator of such blogs, updates hourly with dozens of new songs and their links to Amazon and iTunes. These user-generated sites not only empower listeners to decide what will be popular, but have the ability to do something a copy of Rolling Stone never could—play music. Hype Machine’s Web site puts it this way: “We do this to let people discover new artists, fall in love, buy their CDs and go to their shows.”
In 2002, David Bowie presciently said, “Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity. You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting.”
If big business continues losing its grip on its music industry monopoly, perhaps we’ll see a more democratic arena where creativity can compete with commerce.