Book on Texas' Death Row Presents Just the Facts
If you live in Texas this October, you no longer have to wait until the very end of the month to get spooked. All you have to do is spend a bit of time with Texas Death Row: Executions in the Modern Era. This chillingly conceived and perfectly presented guidebook to every inmate executed in Texas since 1982 is brought to us by Michael Donahue, Bill Crawford, and Bill Carson, the three "editors of the SunRiver Cartel." Donahue and Crawford had the idea to publish this public record, Crawford compiled the information in Huntsville from the files of the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice, and Carson put the information together in a form that you won't soon forget. Reduced to a single page and at best two mug shots, each offender killed by the state is treated just the same. The shock lies not in the "celebrity executions" we remember, but rather in the scores that we read of for the first time. Many of the offenders killed a peace officer, the quickest way to be put to death, but the sheer inanity of much of the violence is what leaves you dumbfounded. The horror of the worst crimes may result in some sleepless nights.
The executions are listed in order by date, beginning with Charlie Brooks Jr., executed December 7, 1982, and ending with Gary Lee Graham, who was executed on June 22 of this year, just before the book went to press. The momentum of Texas Death Row becomes much more intense the closer you come to the present day: For the first three years listed, there were a total of four executions; during the last three full years -- 1997 through 1999 -- there were 92.
We're in the midst of a tremendous outpouring of media attention on capital punishment, particularly in the Lone Star State, but there's nothing that equals the understated power of this book. What follows is an interview with the book's compiler, Bill Crawford.
Austin Chronicle: Whose idea was it to put together Texas Death Row? The only attribution on the title page is "From the editors of SunRiver Cartel."
Bill Crawford: The idea for the book came up in discussions between myself and Michael Donahue. We had worked on a couple of other projects together, and we both felt that the death penalty was deserving of a serious, nonpolemical treatment. I brought the material back to Austin and we gave it to Bill Carson to design. I told Bill that the unit at Huntsville was known as the Walls Unit, and he came up with the cover and the layout for the book. The book is a group effort. SunRiver is a design group. The material presented is all in the public record. All we did was present the information in a provocative and even-handed manner.
AC: What was the reaction of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice when you presented them with this idea?
BC: Larry Fitzgerald is the public relations officer at TDCJ in Huntsville. He is a good guy and a dedicated professional. He was extremely encouraging about the project, and extremely helpful, as was Tracy Espinosa, his assistant.
AC: Your first trip to look at the execution records in Huntsville was with another writer?
BC: I went to Huntsville to check things out with Steve McVicker, an old friend of mine who writes for the Houston Press. He had witnessed an execution before and had worked with Larry Fitzgerald. Larry told us that the files were open to the public and that there were no restrictions on the use of the TDCJ materials contained in the files.
AC: What was your first trip there like?
BC: We arrived at the Walls Unit in Huntsville. The Walls Unit itself is striking, just a few blocks from downtown and from Sam Houston State University. It's called the Walls because the walls of the unit are made of blood-red brick, and rise up 20 feet from the sidewalk. The public relations office is in a nondescript government building across the street from the Walls. We were both immediately captivated by the material. We found ourselves reading carefully through the newspaper clippings and other reports in the files, jotting down specifics of the crime and the execution, but soon realized that we had to limit what we recorded or we would never finish the job. We spent a day going through the files in the public relations office. I was fascinated by the information and the photos. I found that each case was so overwhelming, I had to stop myself from looking into anything more than the summary record maintained for each death row inmate.
AC: Is the entry for each prisoner complete?
BC: The information in each of the files was uneven, due largely to the fact that different staff people at TDCJ had different systems of record keeping. But most of the basic information was available on each of the executed offenders. In several instances we weren't able to locate photos of executed offenders, but I am sure they are available somewhere within the TDCJ system and we will publish them in future editions of the book. The most interesting thing about going through the files was realizing that only a small percentage of executions draws public attention. Karla Faye Tucker and Gary Graham, for example, drew enormous national attention. But most of the offenders are executed without any public protest.
AC: So all of the files on all the executed prisoners are together?
BC: The non-celebrity executions are interfiled with the celebrity executions, the only difference being that the celebrity executed offender files are thick with newspaper and magazine clippings. The non-celebrity executed offender files are thinner. Both celebrity and non-celebrity files include copies of the press packet that the TDCJ distributes to journalists at every execution. This packet contains basic facts about the execution process, a list of prior executions, and other material. The files of death row inmates are kept in the file drawers that follow after the executed offender file drawers. The basic offender information sheets, which include a mug shot, personal data, and crime information, are also kept in a series of three-ring binders which are kept in the public relations office. When an offender is executed, his file is moved from the death row section of the file drawers to the executed offender section.
The files of the executed offenders are kept in file cabinets in the Huntsville public affairs office. They are filed alphabetically by last name. The previous-execution list maintained by the TDCJ and distributed as part of the press packet at all executions lists the executed offender by the order in which they were executed. That is the way we chose to present the executed offenders in the exhibit and in the book.
AC: Are these entries on each executed prisoner available to anyone who requests them?
BC: Yes. When we began the project, the information was not available online. Now, most of the information presented in the book is actually available at the TDCJ Web site (www.tdcj.state.tx.us/stat/executedoffenders.htm/) Once again, the TDCJ is to be complimented for maintaining open records and an excellent Web site.
AC: Were you surprised by how open these records were to the public?
BC: Yes I was. And I was surprised at the professionalism of Larry Fitzgerald and the other folks I met at TDCJ. They take it as their duty to make the system as open as possible to the citizens of Texas who pay the bills. This is in contrast to the California state prison system, which is much more restricted. And it is important to remember that California has more inmates on death row than Texas.
AC: I wonder how many "civilians" had examined these records before you and McVicker did.
BC: I wonder as well. Most journalists focus on one execution, one story, and don't take the time to examine all the executions. As far as I know, we are the first journalists to go through each and every file. Also, most people who examine the files do so with an agenda. Abolitionists ignore the cases in which the offender admits the crime and welcomes execution as a means of atonement. Pro-death-penalty folks ignore the cases in which there is a question of innocence. We are the first investigators to give equal weight to every single execution. We present just the facts, which should be the basis for any discussion of the death penalty.
AC: What was your very first reaction to reading the files?
BC: I was fascinated by the photos of the offenders. I felt as I did when I was a little kid growing up in New York City and I went to an exhibit of photos of Ellis Island immigrants. I was frightened by the faces, and fascinated as well, trying to imagine what the world looked like through their eyes. It took some time to get comfortable with the files and figure out how to get the information we needed most efficiently. As I became familiar with the vile nature of the crimes perpetrated by the offenders, I found myself laughing at particularly grisly specifics. Humor is the ultimate protection against horror.
One of the most intriguing bits of research was looking for the offender's last words. No recording devices are allowed in the death chamber, so the last words are handwritten on a piece of paper and placed in the public file by a TDCJ employee who is a witness. If the last words are lengthy, the TDCJ employee is usually not able to write them all down. If they are in Spanish, they are not recorded.
AC: To what extent are the entries in the book edited or rewritten by you? It struck me that there is a general absence of mitigating information (e.g., death row inmate "X" had an IQ of 68) that might create a different feeling about some of those executed.
BC: We did very little rewriting. For the most part, we reproduced the record as maintained by the TDCJ. One of the hardest aspects of the project was to keep ourselves from not including mitigating information. By doing that, we forced ourselves and the readers to look at the overall execution data and not focus on specific aspects of specific crimes. The overall impression one gets from looking at the record is that we Texans have defined and are executing a certain criminal underclass -- violent, drug- and alcohol-abusing individuals, with low IQs and low incomes. There are mitigating circumstances in each case. Is society to blame for the acts perpetrated by these individuals, or are they born to kill? It comes down to the old question, nature or nurture. I feel it's an unfortunate combination of both. However, lack of money seems to be an important factor. Certainly individuals who are wealthy and have homicidal tendencies are less likely to wind up executed than poor individuals. Is that because the gene pool of the wealthy is somehow purer than the gene pool of the poor? I don't believe so.
AC: Among other things, Texas Death Row serves as a catalog to the exhibit currently up at the Pro-Jex Gallery. How did that come to be?
BC: Two things led to the art exhibit. One: I read reviews of Without Sanctuary, an exhibit of lynching postcards that was held in New York City. The book based on the exhibit and published by Twin Palms Press was a big seller. Two: I'm friends with Neil Coleman at the Pro-Jex Gallery. Neil's approach to photography has always appealed to me. He is always looking for ways to use images to promote public discourse, and he is willing to present provocative shows which may not be the most lucrative. I talked about the idea of the show with our mutual drinking buddy Curtis Craven. I told Curtis that I thought we should present the pages of the book on the walls of the gallery. Curtis suggested that we exhibit the actual mug shots because they are both artifacts and images. Of course, we went with Curtis' idea because he is a creative genius.
AC: For me, Bill Carson's design for the book provides perfect documentary access to the contents.
BC: The design of the book is transparent. All you have to do is pick it up and start reading anywhere. I particularly like the fact that there are no page numbers, just execution numbers. That reflects the reality of the offenders. They are identified by number, not by name. I also like the fact that the photos vary in quality and that the records vary in comprehensiveness. It adds a human dimension to an inhuman process.
AC: So far, has anything surprised you about reactions to the book?
BC: No surprises of a political nature so far, but the book has just been published. I have been surprised by how the book works as an object of fascination. Once people pick it up and start reading, they have a hard time putting it down. The crimes are unimaginably horrible, and the last meals and last words are rather banal.
AC: Did working on the book change your viewpoint at all?
BC: Working on the book did change my viewpoint. I used to be opposed to the death penalty on moral grounds. Not anymore. The crimes these people were convicted of committing were horrible. Our way of dealing with the crimes is equally horrible. The entire situation is beyond morality, which is why the work is so difficult and draining for the folks at TDCJ. When we deal with death row, we are dealing with a dark place in the human soul. I still oppose the death penalty, but on civil libertarian grounds. I do not feel that governments should have the right to execute their own citizens, no matter what they have done. That power is too easy to abuse, and, yes, mistakes do happen. Let's assume that the criminal justice system in Texas convicts the right person in 99% of cases (and that is a stretch). Since 1982, we have executed 232 individuals. This means that we have probably executed two individuals who were innocent. I think that is a fair estimate. I mean, if we can't trust our government here in Travis County to build a jail properly, how can we trust that it will deliver justice in complicated criminal situations? We can't. I am surprised that conservatives who believe in limiting the power of government support the death penalty. What could be a greater governmental power than the power to execute select individuals? I believe that Gov. Allan Shivers of Texas once supported the death penalty for members of the Communist party. Who knows what crimes in the future will be punishable by death?
However, I also believe in democracy, and I understand that the death penalty is hugely popular. Texans dig executions. And any Texas politician who takes an anti-death penalty stance commits political suicide. So, I am resigned to the fact that we Texans will continue to carry out executions at the rate of about 40 per year for the foreseeable future. Our interest is in preserving the record so that we can remember what we have done. This project is an attempt to present and preserve the record of each and every execution performed by the people of Texas. And that is an important thing to remember. As Texas taxpayers, each of us is responsible in part for the execution of 232 individuals. We're killers. Some would say it's a good thing, some would say it's a bad thing. But there is no denying the fact that we are all executioners.