I was just working in the shop and all of a sudden something just triggered in me, and I started shaking. And then I walked back into the house and my wife asked, `What's the matter?' And I said, `I don't feel good.' And tears, uncontrollable tears, was coming out of my eyes and she says, `What's the matter?' And I told her. I said, `I just thought about that execution that I did two days ago, and everybody else's that I was involved in.' And what it was, something triggered within, and it just, everybody all of these executions all sprung forward."
Fred Allen couldn't take it anymore. He was part of the so-called "tie-down team" in the unit that contains the "death house" in Huntsville, Tex., where all of the state's executions are carried out. The five members of the tie-down team are each assigned a different part of the condemned prisoner's body, and are responsible for strapping that body part arm, leg, head, etc. to the gurney on which the prisoner will die.
Mr. Allen was a 35-year-old captain of corrections who had participated in 130 executions when he finally suffered a breakdown in 1998. The relentless killing had become too much for him. He couldn't bear to strap one more live body to a gurney for the sole purpose of turning that body into a corpse. He now works as a carpenter.
Fred Allen is one of several ordinary people who are part of an extraordinary and powerful radio documentary, "Witness to an Execution," to be broadcast Thursday on the National Public Radio program "All Things Considered."
Since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. in 1977, one-third of all executions have taken place in Texas. In "Witness to an Execution," men and women who have participated in or witnessed a significant number of those executions tell what it's like.
Jim Brazzil, a chaplain with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said: "I usually put my hand on their leg, right below the knee, you know. And I usually give them a squeeze, let 'em know I'm there. You can feel the trembling, the fear that's there. The anxiety that's there. You can feel the heart surging, you know."
Michael Graczyk, an A.P. reporter who has witnessed about 170 executions, said: "When they're on the gurney, they're stretched out, his arms extended. I've often compared it to almost a crucifixion-like activity. Only as opposed to having the person upright, he is lying down."
Another reporter, John Moritz of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, said: "The warden will remove his glasses, which is the signal to the executioner behind a mirrored glass window. And when the glasses come off, the lethal injection begins to flow."
The documentary is narrated by the warden, Jim Willett, who has presided over 75 executions. "Sometimes I wonder whether people really understand what goes on down here and the effect it has on us," he said.
Killing people, even people you know are heinous criminals, is a gruesome business, and it takes a harsh toll. "The executions seem to affect all of us differently," said Warden Willett. "Some are quiet and reflective after, others less so. But I have no doubt that it's disturbing for all of us. You don't ever get used to it."
"Some people, they might like to drink and, you know, forget about it," said Kenneth Dean, a major in the Huntsville corrections unit. "I can take my mind off things when I go fishing. I like the outdoors, and that's just how I cope with it."
The documentary is the work of Stacy Abramson and Dave Isay of Sound Portraits, a nonprofit, independent radio production outfit in New York. It gives us a sense of the increasing emotional distress that has accompanied the accelerated pace of executions in Texas.
The Rev. Carroll Pickett, a chaplain who was present for 95 executions before he retired in 1995, said: "You do three a year is one thing. You do 35 a year, that's a lot. It's hard to watch that. . . . Lots of guards quit. Even those tough guards you're talking about, a lot of those quit."
Said Warden Willett: "I'll be retiring next year and to tell you the truth, this is something I won't miss a bit. You know, there are times when I'm standing there, watching those fluids start to flow and wonder whether what we're doing here is right. It's something I'll think about for the rest of my life."
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company