Inside the Texas death machine

Last meals and last words are just part of the daily routine for death-row employees featured in an NPR documentary.

Topics: George W. Bush, NPR,

Jim Brazzil has listened to the last words of 114 death-row inmates in Texas. “I’ve had ‘em want to do exercise, do calisthenics sitting in there, you know, because it’s such a nervous time,” he said. He has sometimes had to steady their trembling legs. “At that time reality has truly set in that in a few moments he’s going to be dead.”

Brazzil works at the Walls Unit, a maximum-security prison of 1,500 and state death house in Huntsville, Texas. A small, blistering-hot town 70 miles north of Houston, Huntsville has been home to all 232 Texas executions carried out since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977 — more than one-third of the total executions in the United States during that period.

Celebrated radio documentary producer David Isay and his partner, Stacy Abramson, visited the Walls Unit in November to interview two death-row inmates for the New York Times Magazine.

“While Dave was waiting for me to finish up my interview, he was talking with Larry Fitzgerald, the public relations officer at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice,” Abramson explained. “Larry got a phone call, and when he came back, he looked crestfallen and emotionally drained. He said that an inmate by the name of James Bethard had gotten an execution date, and that it would be hard for a particular Associated Press reporter to attend his execution.” Bethard had been a favorite among the media people because he was always happy to give journalists a quote.

Isay, who produced such award-winning documentaries as “Ghetto Life 101″ about life in Chicago housing projects, and “The Sunshine Hotel” about the notorious skid row on the Bowery here, started thinking about the people whose jobs take them inside death row every day — from the Jim Brazzils to journalists to executioners.

In “Witness to an Execution,” a 22-minute documentary that aired on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” Oct. 12, men and women like Brazzil who make ends meet off the death-row economy recall the typical execution from the moment the governor’s office gives the go-ahead to the attending physician’s pronouncement of death. Some of the subjects interviewed have witnessed as many as 170 executions. At times a harrowing and haunting portrait, “Witness to an Execution” is almost poetic in its simplicity, quiet intensity and candor.

“What we were trying to do in this piece was shine a light on a hidden corner of America,” Abramson said, “and let people know what it is that happens in those 20 minutes before someone is put to death.”

In a recent telephone interview with Salon from her office at Sound Portraits Productions, Isay’s nonprofit organization here, she shared her enthusiasm for the project and affection for its subjects.

Was there anything that struck you in particular about the death penalty process in Texas?

I talked to Don Cabana, a former warden from Missouri who has been a part of four executions and wrote a book called “Death at Midnight: The Confession of an Executioner.” They were using gas. He said it doesn’t matter whether you do four or 104, whether you use gas or lethal injection, it’s pretty much the same. It has an effect.

Were there any other reasons why you chose to do the documentary in Huntsville?

I was talking with people in Virginia and Florida, too. But when Texas opened up like this in terms of access, everything else fell by the wayside. So far this year, Texas has carried out practically half of all the executions in the country. The numbers were kind of a determinant. These guys are doing this once or twice a week. In terms of looking at what the effect of doing so many is, and how that affects the people doing it, we were most interested in Huntsville.

How did you get access to all these people? Were they ready and willing to talk?

I got the access primarily through Larry Fitzgerald. I started e-mailing Larry to find out who were the cast of characters who do this as part of their job. It started with talking to reporters and chaplains. Then we went back and forth to Texas and talked to the tie-down guards. A lot of the people had never talked to the press before. When I called Jim Brazzil, the current chaplain, there was a little code word I had to use which meant “Larry says it’s OK. You should talk to me.”

There definitely was a process of building up trust. But Larry really opened up the whole system for us. I felt like some of these tie-down guards and the warden — people who hadn’t granted many interviews, if any at all — seemed pretty happy to talk. I wasn’t asking them whether they were for or against the death penalty. It wasn’t an unsafe, scary topic. I was just asking how they feel.

Did you decide not to ask whether they believed in the death penalty prior to the interviews?

Actually, we didn’t. That was on our original question list. I think it was an unspoken understanding though. We never talked about whether we were for or against it with Larry, and we never asked whether he was for or against it. It just would have become about something else, like we had an agenda. We didn’t. Everyone has a job that they’re doing and whether they’re for or against capital punishment is almost irrelevant.

Did you sense that they were relieved to talk about it?

A lot of these guys don’t usually talk to people about what it feels like. They’d never been asked about it. I think in some ways it was almost cathartic. They were relieved at how easy the interviews were — that it involved just talking about what they felt or how they slept at night. It wasn’t like we were trying to trip them up.

Did you notice any differences in the reactions to your questions? For example, were the journalists a little bit more removed from it than the tie-down team?

Everybody definitely acted like “this is my job, this is what I do.” The journalists were more introspective. They had sort of processed it more because that’s what they do. And I think they were a little bit more detached. They have to be.

Why did you decide to have the warden, Jim Willett, narrate the piece?

I was very nervous that the warden was going to say no. But he said he’d rather have their story told by him as opposed to somebody else. His hope was to let people know that these guys are people, that this does affect them. They’re not monsters and they’re not country bumpkins.

Part of the way we do stuff here is we don’t really want to have our own voices on the documentary. We want to have the voices of the people who the stories are about. It’s part of our mission to be a vehicle or a lens through which other people tell their stories. The warden and I worked back and forth with the script. I’d write something based on phone conversations I’d recorded, and the warden would say, “No, I’d say it more like this.” He was intimately involved in the creative process.

It’s also hard to dispute whatever you learn in this piece because it is told by the warden. The warden is the person who oversees the executions and this is his story.

Did the warden or anyone else give you a sense that he felt this was a story that had been neglected?

I don’t know if he would have said this has been neglected. But I think they were interested in talking because this was something they’d never been asked. It wasn’t political; it wasn’t loaded in that way. There was a sense that there’s so much talk in the news about the death penalty, but nobody knows what they — the people who carry it out — feel.

How have they reacted to the documentary?

It’s absolutely amazing. It was the most perfect thing: They were really honest and they feel that their stories were told with justice. Every one of them loved it. We kept sending the warden drafts as we were involved to make sure he was comfortable with it. Then we went down and played it for his wife before it aired. He got sort of emotional listening to certain parts.

Larry said he had a barbecue and played it for all the tie-down guards. And Fred Allen — the guard who had the breakdown — had been really nervous. He had never talked to anyone other than the chaplain and his wife about it before. We wanted him to feel comfortable. He did a really brave thing.

We flew in Fred and his wife and Chaplain Pickett and his wife [for the public premiere here]. Fred was really moved and very quiet and had a hard time talking when people asked him questions. He was happy with the piece but it’s still an upsetting topic. When you start to talk to him — even after doing hours of these interviews — he gets incredibly choked up.

How has the public reacted?

There’s been an incredibly positive reaction. We’ve gotten hundreds of letters. From people on both sides of the issue. I think people were stunned.

Why do you think that a lot of those you interviewed keep working at the Walls Unit?

A good portion of them — I would say the majority though I’m not sure — are probably pro-capital punishment. They believe in the criminal justice system and don’t necessarily know how it’s affecting them while they’re doing it.

They also believe that this is their job and they’re going to do the best job that they can. It’s almost like being in the army. Do the job you’re told to do.

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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