On November 17, 1999 I witnessed the execution of death row inmate John Lamb at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas. I had begun corresponding and visiting John several years earlier, after I responded to his advertisement asking for a pen pal. I had been doing low-level anti-death-penalty work as a member of Amnesty International for two decades, but had never had contact with a death row prisoner, and when John’s ad mentioned he was a fan of Grateful Dead, a band I loved, I decided to contact him. At the time his case was winding through appeals (the state of Texas “lost” his case for five years), and the possibility of him actually being executed someday seemed remote. Now it was here.
I didn’t like the idea of John being killed with no one there who would truly care about him as a person. I didn’t think anyone deserved to spend their last minutes on Earth surrounded by people who wanted to kill him and then go on with their own lives. His mother was too ill to travel and he wasn’t in touch with any other family.
On Nov. 15 I arrived at Ellis Unit about 10am, went through the car and body searches and numerous electronic gates, and was in the waiting room when John was led into the steel cage on his side of a glass and mesh partition. It was very different seeing him this time, because I suddenly realized that we couldn’t talk about anything that related to the future, because he was going to be dead in one more day. For instance, he told me he had been waiting for “The Wizard Of Oz” to be on TV again because he hadn’t seen it in years, and it was just his luck that it was going to be on Sunday. It was shocking. He was living as someone who couldn’t plan a future. He seemed reasonably calm, although I noticed a few times he was tapping his feet quite a bit. He said he was ready to go to a better place, and made some statements about there being an afterlife, which he had never talked about before. I told him that I didn’t have to be there if he didn’t want me, but he said he understood and appreciated that I was going to do it.
While he sipped what he always called “soda water” (which I bought from a machine in the waiting area and gave to a guard for delivery), he gave me some information about Father Walsh, his spiritual advisor, another chaplain named Lopez, and Leigh-Anne Gideon, a reporter from the Huntsville newspaper he wanted me to thank. He wanted me to make sure that the money the Italian Amnesty International group raised would go to his mother, since Father Walsh had managed to arrange for his cremation and sending the ashes to his mother. He hoped she’d bury the ashes in a plot.
Because I wasn’t allowed to bring most objects into the visiting area, including ballpoint pens, I had to concentrate and remember anything John mentioned.
We spoke for about an hour and a half. We both said it was difficult to talk, since we’d gone over everything about his situation so many times. I thought, if I focus him on good times he experienced in the past, it might depress him more rather than get him to savor the good parts of his life. And if I talk about his case, it might give him some glimmer of hope that there would be a stay of execution, and that was very unlikely. I just kept telling myself that the situation was unique, I was doing a good thing just by being there to treat him like a human being, and neither one of us really knew how to deal with the horror. I told him I’d be back that afternoon (on the day before an execution, visits are possible all day instead of just one two-hour visit).
Two chaplains from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice found me, and I asked them to run over the schedule. They knew I was coming, but they asked if I was his “friend.” I said I didn’t use that word about my relationship with John — how could I say he was my friend when we didn’t grow up together, I didn’t share his life, we had only had limited contact with each other in strange circumstances? But I cared about him, yes. James Brazzil, the regional program administrator, told me all the different steps of what he called “the procedure” (I don’t think I heard a single guard or prison official use the word “execution” the entire time I was there, let alone “killing.”) He explained how Sodium Pentothal worked, how John would not suffer. He gave me directions to where the execution would actually take place — at the Walls Unit just about in the center of town, not out at Ellis which was many miles north. John would be moved on the day of execution about 12:30pm to the other unit. I had thought he would be executed at midnight, but Texas now carried out executions at 6 p.m. Brazzil asked me to meet him the next day at 3pm at the Hospitality House, which was a place where people attending executions were allowed to stay for free. I was content to stay at the motel, because I didn’t want to take the chance of running into anyone from the family of Jerry Chafin, John’s victim, or any pro-death penalty people who might want to argue with me — I wanted someplace where I could go and nobody would know me.
At the motel I felt a little angry with the entire town of Huntsville, which was carrying on normally, despite the fact there were three executions scheduled, Desmond Jennings on that Tuesday, John on Wednesday and Jose Gutierrez on Thursday.
I drove back to Ellis Unit and went through the routine again. When John came out, he told me that Desmond Jennings had refused to leave his cell when they came to get him for the transfer to Walls Unit, and the guards used pepper spray to get him out. John, next door, was gassed, prisoners on other tiers were gassed, even visiting Father Walsh was gassed. Desmond had soaked some rags and tied them around his face, so guards had to use two doses of pepper spray, go into his cell with riot gear and shields, and forcibly drag him out. John said the guards were being nicer to him already, saying things like “you’re not going to give us any trouble tomorrow, are you?”
I decided to talk to John about things he enjoyed in his life, and get him to appreciate the good times. We talked about the concerts we’d attended and the bands we liked. I told him that I’d started watching wrestling on Thursday nights with my son Josh, and that had been bringing us closer together, and we talked about the different wrestlers and story lines. John reminded me of some of the wrestlers that were popular in California when we were kids (John was only three years younger than I) and I laughed when he reminded me of the huge wrestler who wore bib overalls, Haystack Calhoun. It was the most relaxed time I’d ever spent with John. I left when they closed down visiting hours at 5pm, feeling better than I had since arriving. I had one more visit scheduled with John the next morning.
I drove to the Walls Unit at dusk and found the area behind yellow police tape where the protestors, both pro and con, were allowed to stand. There were no “pro” people there, and I walked up to the half dozen women holding anti-death-penalty signs and introduced myself. I took one of the extra signs and held it up. Few cars drove by, and the lighting was poor as the sun went down. I found out these people drove up from Houston to protest each execution. The two leaders seemed to be Gloria Rubac, a short, feisty, intense woman about my age, and Joanne Gavin, silver-haired, probably in her sixties and as I found out, a veteran of Freedom Summer in Mississippi and other progressive causes. They told me they were all involved with the Workers World Party, which I found out later when they gave me their newspaper is a “standard old-time” Marxist group. I was happy they were there, on the same side as me. Gloria held up a bullhorn and shouted “Tonight the worst serial killer in Texas will strike again! The State of Texas will murder Desmond Jennings in cold blood! George W. Bush is a premeditated killer!” In between blasts she told me that unless people took to the streets and gave up trying to influence politicians by voting, nothing would change. Only civil disobedience, disrupting business as usual, would make a difference.
I found out later that Desmond Jennings refused to come out a second time, and was forcibly removed again. He was executed around 6:15pm, and we saw the witnesses walking out afterward. That’s where I’d be tomorrow, I knew.
On Nov. 17th I drove to Ellis for my last time with John. I decided to fast from sunup to sundown, just like I do for Jewish “public fast” days. It seemed like the right thing to do. John had already told me he didn’t want to meet past 10:30am so he’d have the afternoon to give away his few remaining possessions, see Father Walsh and rest before being moved to Walls Unit for the final hours. I arrived just after 9am and John led off by saying “It’s all been said and done, now, hasn’t it? It’s hard to get through my head that in about nine hours they’re going to kill me.” He looked away and shook his head. “But I’m ready.”
He told me what he’d picked for his last meal, but he didn’t think he’d be able to eat it. I assured him my friend Gene and I would make sure his mother got the money sent by the Italians. A feeling of lightness welled up in my chest when I said “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of it.” I’d never made a promise to someone “on their deathbed.” I wanted to touch his hand or arm. I had never touched John — the glass was always between us.
I told him I considered myself lucky to have known him. “Given the way your life has gone, the fact that you’ve gone through 17 years on death row without being an asshole is really something. Every day you’ve been here, you could have decided to be pissed off and a jerk, but instead you’ve been kind and have cared about other people. You’ve avoided fights. You haven’t joined any gangs. You are really an extraordinary person today, and it’s really a horrible thing that they are doing this to you. I just hope that it means something positive to someone, somewhere. I can’t see it, though. I’d like to believe in progress, that the death penalty is going to go away someday, but it’s hard to believe in it right now.” John said that the man in the next cage over who was being visited by a number of family members, including a couple little kids, was Jose Gutierrez, who was going to be killed on Thursday. It was chilling. Two men in adjoining cages who knew the end was here.
Just after he told the guard he was ready to go back to his cell, Father Walsh walked up and I finally met him. A man in his seventies in a coarse brown monk’s robe, he was smiling and laughing — very cheery. His eyes positively twinkled. John definitely lit up when he came over. Father Walsh’s “up” was a little disconcerting at first, but he was obviously doing John a lot of good, and I could feel the positive energy just pouring off him. Maybe that’s what comes with such a high level of religious commitment, I thought.
Shortly thereafter, as John was going to be led away, Father Walsh put his palm on the glass, and John put his on the other side so they “matched”. It was a greeting and farewell I’d seen several times during my visits, and in movies, but I’d never done it with John. John waved goodbye to me before being handcuffed.
I changed into the black suit I’d brought, checked out of the motel, and spent some time at the Hospitality House and nearby Texas Department of Criminal Justice office, where I met Chaplain Lopez, Father Walsh, and the correctional officer assigned to stay with us constantly from that moment until the execution was over. I was searched again. Father Walsh and I discussed The Psalms, which he’d brought, and the Biblical view of retribution and punishment. We didn’t agree on much.
At 6pm we walked single file out a back door, across a walkway and into the entrance to Walls Unit. I looked to the right and saw my friends from last night in the protest area. I heard the bullhorn. “The State of Texas is about to murder another victim!”
We were led into a disheveled room and told to sit. There were several other people in the room, joking and chatting away, including a few reporters, including Leigh-Anne, who I told “John wanted to thank you for the article you wrote about him.”
My heart was beating fast, and I was starting to feel a little weak, sitting down. I looked at the clock on the wall. They must have been inserting the needle into John (he told me he hated needles) and strapping him down right then.
We were told it was time. We went down a long corridor, through a series of locked doors opened by various officers, and into a little courtyard outdoor area, then into a little room with a glass front and a few bars across it. I was right up against the glass, Lopez and Walsh on my left, the reporters and others behind me. John was on the execution table just on the other side of the glass, maybe three feet away. He looked at me when I came in. I probably have never been more focused on anything in my life, looking at John, thinking “I’m with you. I’m with you. I’m with you.” He was trembling a little, and breathing with difficulty. He was strapped down in a “cross” position, his arms perpendicular to his body, and he had intravenous lines in both arms. (So he had to endure two needles, not just one.) His hands were covered in bandages, held by metal clips, so his body was immobilized except his head. Suspended from the ceiling was a microphone, the end about 12 inches from John’s mouth. Brazzil was standing at his feet, and the prison warden was standing near his head.
John was asked if he had a final statement, and he said yes. I knew that on the other side of the wall to our left, the family of John’s victims were standing — they had decided to come after all. Policy was that we would be kept apart during the “procedure”. John turned his head toward them as far as he could and said “I’m sorry for what I did. I wish I could bring him back, but I can’t.” Then he turned back to look up at the ceiling. “I’m done. Let’s do it.” He was trembling more, but tried to set his mouth. A tear rolled down from his right eye. I was crying too, quietly, and I think Father Walsh was too, but I didn’t take my eyes off John. My hand was on my heart and I was breathing deeply.
The upper part of John’s body rose up, he gave a short gasp, and his eyes glazed over. The tear continued to drip down his cheek, but I could see he was already dead. Everyone stood where they were. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Father Walsh doing something with the little bottle of holy water he’d brought. I could also hear someone else crying, a female, from the other side of the wall. A member of the Chafin family probably. Were they tears because she was reminded of Jerry’s death? Or was she in some way crying for John too?
At 6:19pm a doctor examined the body with a stethoscope, felt for a pulse at the neck, and pronounced John dead. Brazzil had to shut John’s eyes twice in order to get them to close. I could still see the tear on his cheek.
I was sobbing a bit as we were led outside and across to the other building. When we emerged I looked toward the protestors and for a second I thought of raising my fist in a “power salute”, but I didn’t feel defiant or angry enough. I felt drained, and a little dazed. I wasn’t horrified to see John die. He just moved quietly from one state to another. It was like watching someone go to sleep. I weakly raised my left hand and gestured in their direction. Hi, Gloria and Joanne. I did it.
I lost track of Father Walsh at that point. I think he went to arrange to claim the body and deal with the funeral home. Lopez and I walked out the front door and he offered to drive me to the Hospitality House. He was parked right near where Gloria and Joanne and the others were. He said “Oh, there are the protestors” in a way that meant “we’d better avoid them, they’re bad news” and I said “Yes, I know, that’s where I was last night.” He looked at me funny and said “Really?” I didn’t say it, but I was thinking, Where else would I have been?
A few minutes later Joanne and the others pulled up, and I followed them as they drove back to Houston. When we got to Joanne’s place, it turned out she had lots of cats (and I’m allergic) so I decided not to stay with her, and just get a motel near the airport on my own. I felt capable of being on my own and just sitting with what had happened. I didn’t want to talk about it. She gave me a hug, which surprised me, but we all need as many hugs as we can get. I hugged her back.