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Death Penalty Victims
Published on Thursday, October 12, 2000 in the New York Times
Death Penalty Victims
by Bob Herbert
 
Leighanne Gideon was 26 when she witnessed an execution for the first time. Ms. Gideon is a reporter for The Huntsville Item in Texas, and part of her job has been to cover executions. Nowhere in the Western world is the death penalty applied as frequently as in Texas. Ms. Gideon has watched as 52 prisoners were put to death.

In a documentary to be broadcast today on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," Ms. Gideon says: "I've walked out of the death chamber numb and my legs feeling like rubber sometimes, my head not really feeling like it's attached to my shoulders. I've been told it's perfectly normal everyone feels it and after awhile that numb feeling goes away. And indeed it does."

But other things linger. "You will never hear another sound," Ms. Gideon says, "like a mother wailing whenever she is watching her son be executed. There's no other sound like it. It is just this horrendous wail and you can't get away from it. . . . That wail surrounds the room. It's definitely something you won't ever forget."

Not much attention has been given to the emotional price paid by the men and women who participate in or witness the fearful business of executing their fellow beings. The documentary, titled "Witness to an Execution," is narrated by Jim Willett, the warden at the unit that houses the execution chamber in Huntsville, where all of the Texas executions take place.

"Sometimes I wonder," Mr. Willett says, "whether people really understand what goes on down here, and the effect it has on us."

Fred Allen was a guard whose job was to help strap prisoners to the gurneys on which they would be killed. He participated in 130 executions and then had a breakdown, which he describes in the documentary.

I called him at his home in Texas. He is still shaken. "There were so many," he said, his voice halting and at times trembling. "A lot of this stuff I just want to try to forget. But my main concern is the individuals who are still in the process. I want people to understand what they're going through. Because I don't want what happened to me to happen to them."

Everyone understands that the condemned prisoners have been convicted of murder. No one wants to free them. But this relentless bombardment of state-sanctioned homicide is another matter entirely. It is almost impossible for staff members and others in the death chamber to ignore the reality of the prisoners as physically healthy human beings men and (infrequently) women who walk, talk, laugh, cry and sometimes pray. Killing them is not easy.

"It's kind of hard to explain what you actually feel when you talk to a man, and you kind of get to know that person," says Kenneth Dean, a major in the Huntsville corrections unit. "And then you walk him out of a cell and you take him in there to the chamber and tie him down and then a few minutes later he's gone."

Jim Brazzil, a chaplain in the unit, recalls a prisoner who began to sing as his final moment approached: "He made his final statement and then after the warden gave the signal, he started singing `Silent Night.' And he got to the point, `Round yon virgin, mother and child,' and just as he got `child' out, was the last word."

Dave Isay, who co-produced the documentary with Stacy Abramson, said: "It is certainly chilling to hear the process of what goes on, the ritual of the execution. The folks who do these executions are just regular, sensitive people who are doing it because it's their job. And it has an enormous impact on some of them."

The Rev. Carroll Pickett, a chaplain who was present for 95 executions in Huntsville before he retired in 1995, told me in a telephone conversation that symptoms of some kind of distress were common among those who participated in the executions. "Sure," he said. "It affects you. It affects anybody."

I asked how it had affected him. "Well," he said, "I think it was a contributing factor to a triple bypass I had about 18 months later. Just all of the stress, you know? I have to say that when I retired I probably had had as much as I could take."

I asked Fred Allen, who suffered the breakdown, if his views on the death penalty had changed.

"Yes," he said. Then, after a long pause, he said, "There's nothing wrong with an individual spending the rest of his life in prison."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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