Texas' death-row peep show

The state doesn't just hold a record for executions -- it proudly posts online the macabre details of hundreds of convicts' last suppers and final words.

Published February 4, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

While Illinois Gov. George Ryan announced a death-penalty moratorium this week, Gov. George W. Bush's home team is publishing nearly every grisly detail of its execution records online. Like a macabre, taxpayer-funded "FBI's Most Wanted" for the Internet crowd, the site catalogs the last meals and final statements of 206 men and women executed in Texas since 1982, 119 since Bush took office in 1995.

Larry Todd, spokesman of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, says the department's site helps quench the public's insatiable interest in prisoners on death row. Texas leads the nation in executions -- and has given lethal injections to six men already in 2000. "There is a fascination, as morbid as that might be, about executions in Texas ... They ask us how tall, how long it took him to die ... As soon as we lay down the phone, it rings again," he says.

Todd's office is only too eager to comply. For example, the site notes that before his 1984 execution, Ronald O'Brien (convicted of poisoning his son with cyanide-laced Halloween candy) requested a last meal of "T-bone steak (medium to well-done), french fries and catsup, whole kernel corn, sweet peas, lettuce and tomato salad with egg and french dressing, iced tea, sweetener, saltines, Boston cream pie, and rolls." Scrolling through the painstakingly detailed final moments of executed inmates, it's hard not to feel as if you are violating the privacy of the dead.

On Jan. 24, Todd's office added convicted killer Betty Lou Beets to the site's "Scheduled Executions" list. Beets is set to be executed on Feb. 24, the first woman Texas has injected since Karla Faye Tucker in 1998.

Death-penalty opponent Mary Robinson -- who contends that the 62-year-old grandmother was abused, is deaf and mentally unbalanced and had ineffective legal counsel -- is mounting an e-mail blitz in an attempt to save Beets' life. (Beets was convicted of killing her husband, a Dallas firefighter, and the bones of her previous husband were also found at her Gun Barrel City, Texas, home).

On Jan. 29, Robinson e-mailed "From Darkness to Light" -- a testimonial in which Beets describes how she was battered and lost control of her life -- to anti-death-penalty mailing lists and Bush adversaries, in an attempt to rally opposition for the impending execution. Her effort attracted the attention of Amnesty International, which then issued an Urgent Action Appeal on Beets' behalf, detailing evidence of mental and physical abuse that it says was not presented at her trials. The alert requests a clemency hearing from Bush, a last-ditch hope since the U.S. Supreme Court last week refused to hear Beets' appeal. But Amnesty doesn't sound hopeful. "Texas has consistently violated international human rights standards in its use of the death penalty, including its failure to provide any meaningful clemency review," the international human rights organization states in its appeal.

Robinson, who runs the online magazine Women SpeakOut From Prison and Death Row, finds the Texas death-penalty site abhorrent. Using the Web to post clemency addresses and the like is fine, but by focusing on sensational trivia, the state avoids having to discuss what it is actually doing, she argues.

"Those little minutiae, the details of what a person ate, what they wore -- these are kind of ugly details. It's like asking, 'How many hours until rigor mortis sets in? How warm was the body at the funeral parlor?' ... They have to talk about the ritualistic part of what they're doing. This is human sacrifice."

Todd readily admits that the site is jarring, but argues that people have a right to know. "We try to answer every possible question," he says, adding that the site is designed to lead reporters directly to the gruesome details they want and to show taxpayers where their money -- $2 billion a year on this agency alone -- is going. "Yes, it's a P.R. tool, but it's also a public-information tool."

The kind of information it offers is hardly typical of a government-funded site, however. Want to know many pairs of brothers the Lone Star state has executed? Six, the first pair in 1925, the most recent in 1993. How were people executed before lethal injections? By hanging until 1923; by electrocution until 1964. What's in a lethal injection? Sodium thiopental to sedate the person, pancuronium bromide to collapse the diaphragm and lungs, potassium chloride to stop the heart. The lethal cocktail costs $86.08 per elimination and takes about seven minutes to work.

Eager for more death-row trivia? Associated Press reporter Mike Graczyk has witnessed 92 Texas executions, condemned prisoner Jay Kelly Pinkerton (May 15, 1986) didn't eat his last meal in honor of Ramadan. In his final statement (posted as a PDF file), Henry Porter (July 9, 1985) proclaimed his innocence: "They call me a cold-blooded killer when I shot a man that shot me first. The only thing that convicted me was that I am a Mexican and he was a police officer." And in a final hand-written note before her February 1998 execution, Karla Faye Tucker apologized to the families of her victims.

You can even view JPEGs of the actual "Execution Recordings" in the handwriting of the executioner: On May 4, 1999, Jose Delacruz was strapped to the gurney at 6:01, injected in right hand at 6:05, left hand at 6:09, gave his last statement at 6:14, pronounced dead at 6:23. Scrawled in the space for unusual occurrences: "no sir."

Though the most intimate details of executed prisoners are revealed in this morbid peepshow fashion, information about the executioners and the prisons remain confidential. "You won't see any maps in there, or diagrams of prisons. We won't tell you what kind of weapons we use in the guard towers," Todd says.

The site isn't political, in Todd's view. "We don't judge the inmates; we're not pro or con the death penalty. We carry out the orders of the court," Todd says, adding that news of wrongful convictions have a home there, too. "That information would certainly be communicated on the site," he says, though there have been none "in recent memory."

The site may pander to the voyeuristic, but Todd says it is an invaluable service of the state. "Our Web page is the most dynamic and rewarding communications tool that we have had in recent history ... We're not selling anything; we're telling people about their prison."

By Donna Ladd

Donna Ladd writes about technology for the Village Voice, Feed and IntellectualCapital.com, and syndicates her weekly Silicon Lounge column through Alternet.org.

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