Sometimes I play a mental game of “what if” – often silly stuff. What if our hands and arms were just like they are now except our thumbs were on the other side of our hands – it’s actually kind of hard to imagine – hold your hands out in front of you palms down – now what if your thumbs weren’t nearest your pointer finger but were attached on the side where your pinky is? Now imagine picking things up – imagine shaking someone’s hand – imagine trying to have thumb wars? What if I won the lottery – I won’t bore you with all of those “what ifs” but let’s just say you’ll all be invited to a big party to celebrate and you can look for a beer labeled “Springer Stout” at a store near you!
Just about all of the NTMs I’ve done so far have been fun (or comically tragic), or at least I felt like I was the better for having done it. This one – it just doesn’t fit neatly into the mix. And that’s OK – I don’t always need a clean fit – real life is often messy as hell. The guidelines for NTM don’t require that the new thing be fun – just that it be new. This NTM was not fun or entertaining. It was sad and sometimes gutwrenching and soberingly intense and tiring. I did meet some very interesting folks – but I don’t know that I’m personally any better off for having done it. Maybe I’ve seen something from a new perspective, and I always feel like that is a good thing.
Houston, Texas is a great place and I don’t want to live anywhere else (except maybe in August). Just like anywhere else, Houston’s not perfect. Houston is in Harris County and Harris County is where roughly 1 in every 10 people on death row in the entire United States were convicted. Harris County has around 4,000,000 people and there are about 310,000,000 people in the U.S. So Harris County has a little over 1% of the U.S. population. One percent of the population and 10% of the death row inmates? This is not an area to be an overachiever. If you’ve never visited Harris County, I promise you it’s not full of murderers and thugs. People here are mostly hard working and friendly and we look out for each other. Come visit and I’ll show you my Houston – I promise you a good time and good people. Harris County’s leadership in this area is likely attributable to two things (1) we have had very zealous “tough on crime” district attorneys who were quick on the trigger in seeking the death penalty, and (2) the County has a big enough budget to afford numerous death penalty cases – they are very expensive cases to prosecute and carry on through multiple appeals.
There’s a great resource here on the death penalty if you are interested. Also, there is a really informative website here that outlines the process of carrying out the death penalty in Texas. I corresponded by email with the writer of the website and learned some additional info from him in preparation for this NTM. He has really done a great job of presenting the facts of what goes on. I also recommend a CD called Witness to an Execution and a DVD called At the Death House Door. The CD is a collection of interviews with people who are part of the execution team. You can listen to it for free on the link above (if you have realplayer). The DVD is about Carroll Pickett, the chaplain at the Walls Unit for 15 years. He was with 95 people who were executed – including Carlos De Luna – the focus of the film. I’ll loan you my copies if you would like to listen/watch either of the above.
In Texas, males on death row are housed in the Polunsky Unit near Livingston. There are 304 males on death row. Death row for females is at the Mountain View Unit. There are currently 10 women on death row in Texas. The condemned are transported to Huntsville, the site of the execution chamber the day before or early the morning of the day the execution is to take place. The actual name of the Unit that includes the execution chamber is the Ellis Unit but it is more commonly known as the Walls Unit because of its distinctive high, red brick walls.
Just up the road from where I live, death sentences are regularly carried out (467 times since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976) and it often happens without me even knowing it unless it happens to be a case that has a lot of national attention or I happen to read that section of the Houston Chronicle that day. I’ve read all the pro and con arguments and I’ve thought a lot about this, but I kept having gnawing feelings about it. It seemed like the right thing to do for me was to face the system and look at it as closely as I could. When I think about this topic, one quote keeps coming into my head, even when I try to keep it out or convince myself it does not apply.
“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness;
only light can do that. ” Dr. M.L. King, Jr.
In both cases I’ll describe below there were confessions, no real doubts as to guilt, numerous appeals considered at the state and national level, and behavior by the condemned that was vicious, horrific and evil and that took the life of an innocent person – in each case a relatively helpless victim. There is no doubt in my mind that the murders described below have dropped a darkness over the family and friends of the victims. As I looked into things, it didn’t sit well with me to read the accounts of the events described below, decide without ever meeting them that these two men deserved to die and then go on my merry way. Even more unsettling was to take the position that a jury decided they should die and I had nothing to do with it so I just don’t need to worry about it and let the State do its thing. I felt a need to consider this issue more deeply. I can’t shake the feeling that this is a societal issue and that I have some part in it. Maybe not in the specific events recounted below or the lives of those involved, but in the system. I’ll confess that in the past, when in a voting booth and without much info about the two candidates for D.A. , I probably voted for the one whose campaign commercials trumpeted “tough on crime” the loudest. So I can’t now claim freedom from involvement in the death penalty issue. There is true darkness in the events of February 15, 1998 and February 20, 2002. I can’t imagine the darkness the two men described below brought to their victims and those who loved their victims. For me, this NTM was about looking at something born out of darkness – the darkness of evil actions, revenge, fear, hatred, and apathy and seeing if there was some way to find some light in it.
I looked up the TDCJ website with death penalty information to determine when the next execution was scheduled. I knew from the website mentioned above that there are media witnesses to each execution, the family of the victim can observe the execution, as can family or other witnesses requested by the condemned. You can’t just go watch an execution, which is probably good, because I’m sure you’d have a bunch of psychos making a spectacle of it all if you could. I decided to go up to Huntsville for both executions mentioned above. I had no idea how close to the building I could get, if I’d be there alone, or what it would be like. I figured if nothing else, I could stand there alone at 6 pm and quietly acknowledge the fact for myself that something very serious was going on behind those walls at that moment and sit with that knowledge and see what thoughts came up.
Michael Wayne Hall was born April 6, 1979. He only completed the 9th grade. On February 15, 1998, Hall and one co-defendant abducted a 19 year old white female named Amy Robinson from a public street in Tarrant County. Amy Robinson had Turner’s Syndrome, which is characterized by lack of physical development at puberty, small stature and reduced mental abilities. The two defendants and Amy worked at the same supermarket and they knew she rode her bike to work. They grabbed her off her bike and drove her to a remote part of the County. They fired a crossbow at her and a pellet gun at her. Then they killed her with a rifle. Several days later, they returned, fired more bullets into her body, stole about $4 dollars from her pocket, and took some personal effects. They were caught a few days later trying to slip into Mexico. They bragged to reporters that Amy had been “target practice” and said their plan had been to become serial killers who killed minorities. Hall’s co-defendant was convicted in 1998 and executed by lethal injection 5 years ago. Michael Wayne Hall was executed by lethal injection on February 15, 2011. His last meal was fried, barbecued and baked chicken, along with pizza, brownies, sweet tea, milk and vanilla pudding. His final statement was:
“First of all I would like to give my sincere apology to Amy’s family. We caused a lot of heartache, grief, pain and suffering, and I am sorry. I know it won’t bring her back. I would like to sing, I would like to sing for that person’s dead. The old is gone. I am not the same person that I used to be, that person is dead. It’s up to you if you would find it in your heart to forgive.
As for my family, I am sorry I let you down. I caused a lot of heartache, and I ask for your forgiveness. I am not crying for myself, I am crying for the lost and those that are dying for their sins, those that are committing suicide, those that don’t know God and have never been set free. I’ve been locked up 13 years. I am not locked up inside, all of these years I have been free. Christ has changed me. Even though I have to die for my mistake, he paid for mine by wages I could never pay. Here I am a big strong youngster, crying like a baby. I am man enough to show my emotions and I am sorry. I am sorry for everything. I wish I could take it back, but I can’t.”
We’ll never know what Amy’s last statement was. But we know that at the time of her death she was not attended by a spiritual advisor of her choosing, she did not get to choose a favorite last meal and she did not get a combination of drugs intended to cause unconsciousness before they cause death. Amy’s sister witnessed the execution and said she had not forgiven Michael Hall. She said she attended so that her face would be the last face Michael Hall saw before he died. She said she did not think he was remorseful but that he was afraid. She said that by killing Michael Hall on February 15th, the same day of the year he killed Amy, “they turned a bad day into a good day.”
Timothy Wayne Adams was born August 22, 1968. He was a high school graduate and an Army veteran. On February 20, 2002, Adams shot his 19-month old son in the chest twice during a fight with his wife who had threatened to leave him and take the boy. He was convicted in Harris County and sentenced to death. On February 22, 2011, Michael Wayne Hall was executed by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas. His final meal was fried chicken, french fries, lemon pie, root beer and sprite. He gave no final statement when asked if he had any last words. His son would have been about 12 now. His son did not receive a trial, numerous appeals, or the chance to play soccer or ride a rollercoaster or fall in love.
Numerous family members, including Adams’ ex-wife (the mother of the son he shot) begged the Governor and the Board of Pardons and Paroles for clemency. Timothy’s father said that his family has already lost their grandson and they shouldn’t have to lose their son too.
The Walls Unit is located just a few blocks from the campus of Sam Houston State University – right in the middle of Huntsville. I’ve driven through Huntsville numerous times and I always just assumed that all the prison there was what you could see from I-45. I got there early to check things out on February 15th. I was able to drive down the one-way street right in front of the unit. They close that road to through traffic around 5 pm and block it off with police tape. I asked the guy blocking it off some questions and he answered my questions but was pretty terse. He showed me the area where the protesters would gather and they started to show up a few minutes after 5. I would later learn that sometimes there are death penalty supporters who show up with signs – they are instructed to gather way down the street over a hill where you can’t even see them from where the anti-death penalty folks gather. This is separation of differing viewpoints on purpose. That seems like a pretty cowardly idea to me. It seems like a better idea to make ‘em face each other – the folks for it and against it – and they can yell and scream and call names like 4 year olds, throw rocks if their moms didn’t teach them any better and maybe when they get tired of screaming in defense of their own position and figure out that doesn’t work worth a damn, they’ll start wondering why the other side is so sure of their position and talk about the situation. I hoped someone supporting the death penalty would be there one night while I was there so I could go talk to them – no such luck. I learned it’s pretty rare that death penalty supporters show up.
If you imagine yourself standing where the picture above is taken from, you are down near one corner of the Walls Unit. Directly across the street from the front door of the building in the picture is another TDCJ building. I learn later that this is where the media witnesses and the family of the victim gather before walking over to the Walls Unit right near the time of execution. The family of the condemned is already inside the Walls Unit. There is an armed guard tower right above where the protesters are allowed to gather (picture below). The building is not huge, it’s not pretty or ugly. It looks old and somewhat cold and dark. I think it would look that way even if you did not know what goes on behind the doors. As the sky gets darker you can see some lights in the windows and you can see prisoners walking past barred windows above the walls. The thing that stood out to me is a large clock that you can see in the picture above at the top of the main entrance to the building.
A few minutes after 5, the police tape has gone up and some officers are milling around looking like they are just hanging out after a day at work. I learned later they were a different law enforcement division (not TDCJ) responsible for security outside the prisons – in case folks like me get rowdy I suppose. Some other folks get out of cars and begin to get signs out of their trunks. Two white men, probably 10-20 years older than me, walk up and take a place on the street corner, right across from the nearest guard tower. A white woman, maybe, a little older than me, gets out and has a big speaker with a stand and a microphone hooked up to it. It’s clear they all know each other and are sort of “regulars”. One of them, a very kind, thoughtful guy, is a professor at Sam Houston. I end up standing next to him almost the whole time. He stands with the protesters but does not hold a sign. He lights and holds a candle. He knows a lot about the process and is very open to talking about it.
The lady with the speaker system is Gloria – and she is affiliated with the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement. She almost immediately gets set up, right up next to the police tape, turns on her mic and starts speaking – loudly. “Texas is about to commit state sanctioned murder.” “Texas murders minorities and poor people.” “Texas executes mentally handicapped people.” I support her right to stand there and yell whatever she wants – and as you know if you’ve read some past NTMs, I love the very idea of a protest. I’d support the right of someone to stand on the opposite corner and yell that the death penalty is the very best thing about Texas if they wanted to (obviously, that is someone who has never floated the river). Every few minutes Gloria says, in a calmer tone, that the death penalty is just wrong and I think she believes that it is always wrong. But if you listen to most of what she says you might start to think that she’d be fine with it as long as high IQ, rich, white people also get executed sometimes. I don’t dispute her facts at all – the numbers don’t lie – a poor person is far more likely to get the death penalty for a similar crime than someone who can afford great lawyers. But for some reason her message doesn’t seem to get at the real issue for me.
Another car parked near mine as I was getting out, and two men and a woman who are somewhat dressed up got out. I smile at them the way I smile at anyone I make eye contact with in a parking lot. They don’t smile back. In fact, they seem to sneer a little. They walk around to the front of the building across from the Walls Unit and go in the front door of that building. Other small groups are gathering – some holding signs, some smiling and talking. There are a few college age folks, but mostly its people older than me.
I know before I go up there that all executions are scheduled for 6 p.m. Right at 6, the warden is supposed to get a call from the Governor’s office telling the warden that the execution can go ahead – this means the Governor has decided not to grant a stay. At this point, there are almost always still pending motions and appeals with the U.S. Supreme Court and/or the Board of Pardons and Paroles. Sometimes, but not often, the Supreme Court or the Board of Pardons or the Governor will grant a stay in order to consider an appeal more carefully. The clock I mentioned above chimes loudly on the hour. It seems like the whole world gets quiet while it chimes at 6 – even Gloria takes a few moments before she gets back on the mic. I know the condemned person must be able to hear that clock – and he knows he has less than a half hour left. His family knows. The victim’s family knows. It all comes down to this.
The condemned is in a cell near the execution chamber and he can have his spiritual advisor with him the whole time. The warden goes to get them at 6 pm and the condemned is taken in and strapped down. Two IVs are inserted – one is a backup. After the condemned is strapped down and the IVs are in, the family of the victim and the media witnesses are summoned from across the street (usually about 6:10). Half the media watch with the family of the victim and half watch from the room where the family of the condemned is located.
The regulars explain that when the family and the media are summoned and walk across the street, you know the last appeals have failed and the condemned is already strapped down with IVs in his/her arms. The professor points out that the media is walking across the street about 6:10. He recognizes them since they are mostly the same folks every time. Shortly after that, he points out the family of the victim is walking across the street. I get a lump in my throat – Amy’s family is the two men and one woman who sneared at me in the parking lot. They get a free pass on the dirty look – I wonder if they thought that I was somehow against them or didn’t value Amy’s life because I was hanging out with the anti-death penalty protesters?
Gloria offers her condolences to Amy’s family as they walk in via loudspeaker. I know they can hear her. The protesting group continues to hold their signs – “The Death Penalty Is Cruel and Unusual”, “Stop Killing People”, “Stop State Sanctioned Murder.” And Gloria continues to talk. In what seems like a really short time to have taken a life, but seems like a long time when you are sitting there quietly considering this event, the media walk back across the street, then the victim’s family walk back across. Almost immediately, the protesters begin to break up and head back to their cars. They say goodbye, some of them discuss upcoming death penalty abolition meetings, etc.
I’m the only one who parked in the section of the parking lot where Amy’s family did, and I again cross paths with them as they are coming out. They are walking fast and aren’t looking around. But I look directly into their watery eyes. This time I do not smile – there is nothing to smile about here. It doesn’t look to me like this execution took away any of their hurt, or provided any relief, or “turned a bad day into a good day.” I can’t imagine all they’ve been through and I wish they and Amy hadn’t ever crossed paths with Michael Wayne Hall – but I don’t see any light in their eyes- just more darkness.
The following week, I got there right at 5 on the day when Timothy Wayne Adams was scheduled to die. A former death row inmate from Florida (exonerated after years on death row) comes with Gloria. He takes a turn at the mic at times and points out that a life sentence is fixable if we learn later that there is new evidence or that someone else did it – the death penalty is not. There are more people protesting than last time, and the regulars are here. There is a camera crew from Europe who are doing a story on the death penalty. They are interviewing some of the protesters. A little tiny lady who looks tough and sweet at the same time – probably about 65 – has a sandwich board sign over her that says “Explain to me again why we kill people to prove that killing people is wrong?” There are more students than last time and several camera crews by 5:45. There’s a small group of college age people who are praying and holding rosaries.
There is a group of Black people standing near me who weren’t here last time; an older man, a woman about 65 or so, one man younger than me and one teenage female. I learn these are members of the victim’s and the condemned’s family. The older lady closest to me is sobbing and explains that she is the Aunt of Tim Adams. That makes her the great aunt of the boy he killed. The older Black man is his uncle, I think, and the young Black man is also a relative. The family is big so not all of them could be in the execution chamber. I speak to the Aunt a little and eventually can’t help but put my arm around her – she just buries her head in my shoulder and cries and cries. It’s the kind of crying that makes you unsure if someone can ever stop. She tells me she got to visit Timothy earlier that day and wants to say more but she can’t get the words out.
Again, there’s that eerie feeling when the clock rings out 6 p.m. Tears and gasps when the media goes across the street and again when the family goes. Then….just waiting. Then the media, and then family, come out the front door and go back across the street – and you know that Tim Adams will never hurt anyone again and neither will Michael Hall…but they also won’t ever do anything good again. And the darkness they caused is not gone….I can hear it, I can feel it, it is in the sobs of the woman standing next to me. She’s now had two great losses in her life – the second loss damn sure didn’t seem to have erased the first. The second loss did not bring any light.
As I listened to the clock chime 6 p.m. each time I was in Huntsville, I didn’t feel any relief that some horrible person was about to be rendered unable to do more awful things. I didn’t feel like the people of Texas would be safer at 6:20 than we were at 6:00. I didn’t feel like anyone “got what they deserved.” It didn’t help to tell myself that this was “the law of the land passed by democratically elected representatives and that a fair and unbiased jury had made this decision after considering all the facts and that numerous appeals courts had affirmed that decision.” I just felt like this was more darkness. The people around me didn’t smile. The guards didn’t smile. The media and the families weren’t smiling. I could not think of one single thing that was better at 6:20 than it had been at 6:00. I wonder where the light is in this. There has to be some, or at least the chance for some.
On the drive home both times I think about the families of the victims and the families of the executed. They are still here to hurt. The victims and the executed are done with whatever human hurt or suffering they may have been experiencing. And I listened to the CD I mentioned above – the interviews with men who tie other men down for execution. You can hear hurt in their voices, even the ones who say it is just part of their job, even the ones who are death penalty supporters – it’s still hard on them.
I wonder if the people who sentenced these men to die even stopped to acknowledge today that their decision was being carried out. I wonder – what if you told jurors or judges who were deciding on the death penalty that if they voted for it, they would be required to witness it or assist with it? I wonder what would happen if on his last day in office, the Governor just commuted all the death sentences presently pending to life in prison without any chance of parole. Note – after the original posting I learned that the Texas Governor can issue a stay, but does not have the power to change a death sentence to life without parole.
I think a lot about how the victim’s family could see the death penalty protesters as wanting to give the condemned more rights and more compassion than these two condemned men ever showed to their victims. That could add to their darkness. This blog might add to their darkness. I hope not – I can’t even imagine and am truly sorry for the hurt and loss they have experienced. I can almost hear Amy’s family, her sister especially, yelling at me “how dare you suggest that Michael Hall deserves mercy.”
And I think about the way in which we as a society deal with the most horrible or evil people among us – it reveals more about us than it does about Michael or Timothy. When faced with horrific acts like those described above, we can respond in kind – an eye for an eye so to speak – and that might be what Timothy and Michael “deserved”. But what if we required ourselves to live up to the rules we would have liked Michael and Timothy to follow even though they chose not to do so? To me, that feels like light.