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‘Let’s roll’: Texas posts inmates’ final words before execution
The collection of 500 last statements from those sentenced to execution has been the subject of analysis, criticism and debate by lawyers, criminal-justice researchers and activists.
The New York Times
HUNTSVILLE, Texas — Karl Eugene Chamberlain went to his neighbor’s apartment that night in Dallas under the pretense of borrowing sugar. He returned later, forced her into a bedroom, bound her hands and feet, raped her and then used a rifle to shoot and kill her. His victim, Felecia Prechtl, 29, was a single mother with a 5-year-old son.
Eleven years after he was convicted of capital murder, Chamberlain, 37, was strapped to a gurney in Texas’ execution chamber at the Walls Unit prison in Huntsville and was asked by a warden if he had any last words.
“Thank you for being here today to honor Felecia Prechtl, whom I didn’t even know,” he told her son, parents and brother on June 11, 2008. “I am so terribly sorry. I wish I could die more than once to tell you how sorry I am.”
His words did not die with him. Texas wrote them down, kept them and posted them on the Internet.
The state with the busiest death chamber publishes the final statements of the inmates it has executed on a prison agency website, a public catalog of the rantings, apologies, prayers, claims of innocence and confessions of hundreds of men and women in the minutes before their deaths.
Charles Nealy asked to be buried not to the left of his father but to the right of his mother. Domingo Cantu Jr., who dragged a 94-year-old widow across the top of a chain-link fence, sexually assaulted her and then killed her, told his wife he loved her and would be waiting for her on the other side.
The condemned praised Allah and Jesus and Sant Ajaib Singh Ji, a Hindu master. Three cheered for their favorite sports teams, including Jesse Hernandez, whose execution last year made headlines after he shouted, “Go, Cowboys!” They spoke in English, Spanish, French, Vietnamese, Gaelic, German (“Meine schöne prinzessin,” said Cantu, German for “my beautiful princess”). They quoted the Quran and the Bible, but also Todd Beamer’s phrase aboard United Airlines Flight 93.
“Sir, in honor of a true American hero, ‘Let’s roll,’ ” said David Ray Harris, who was dishonorably discharged from the Army and was executed in 2004 for killing a man who tried to stop him from kidnapping the man’s girlfriend.
The execution Wednesday of Kimberly McCarthy — a 52-year-old woman convicted of robbing, beating and fatally stabbing a retired psychology professor near Dallas — was the 500th in Texas since December 1982, when the state resumed capital punishment after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
The state’s execution record has often been criticized as a dehumanizing pursuit of eye-for-an-eye justice. But three decades of last statements by inmates reveal a glimmer of the humanity behind those anonymous numbers.
“I hope that one day we can look back on the evil that we’re doing right now like the witches we burned at the stake,” said Thomas Barefoot, who was convicted of murdering a police officer and was executed on Oct. 30, 1984.
Among the death-penalty states, Texas and California are the only ones that make the last words of offenders available on their websites. But only Texas has compiled and listed each statement. The collection of 500 statements, which includes inmates’ oral as well as written remarks, has been the subject of analysis, criticism and debate by lawyers, criminal-justice researchers and activists who oppose the death penalty.
It has spawned at least one blog, Lost Words in the Chamber, which has posted the last statements since 2011. Officials with the prison agency, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said there were 3 million page views of inmates’ final words last year.
“It’s kind of mesmerizing to read through these,” said Robert Perkinson, author of “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire” and a professor at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. “Most people about to be executed haven’t had a lot of success in school or life. They’re not always so skilled at articulating themselves. There are plenty of clichés ... But I think many of these individuals are also striving to say something poignant, worthy of the existential occasion.”
The last statements are not uttered in a vacuum; they are heard by lawyers, reporters and prison officials, as well as the inmates’ families and victims’ relatives. But the power of their words to change the system or even heal the hearts of those they have hurt is uncertain.
Nearly seven years after he murdered a Houston city marshal who caught him with loot from the bar he had just robbed, Charles William Bass refused his last meal and told the warden in 1986: “I deserve this.”
David Baker did not attend the execution. Baker’s father, Charles Henry Baker, was the marshal Bass killed. Told of Bass’ remarks, Baker paused.
“I think he was correct,” said Baker, 63, a minister at the Church of Christ in Emory, Texas, who was 29 when his father was killed. “It’s called capital punishment for a reason.”
Jason Clark, a spokesman for the prison agency, said last statements were posted to respond to the demand for information by the public and journalists. But opponents of the death penalty call it a perverse tradition.
“The death penalty is a process, not an act, and posting the final words of a condemned person after a process which has usually lasted a decade or more is simply a disservice,” said Rick Halperin, director of the Embrey Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “How is one to assess the phrase of ‘Go, Cowboys!’ from a man on a gurney?”