Texas Death Row Reviewed

Texas Death Row Reviewed

Texas Death Row: Executions in the Modern Era

by the editors of the SunRiver Cartel

Longstreet Press, 246 pp., $15.95 (paper)

A reader who begins this book on page one will notice, by the time he reaches somewhere around page 30, that a particular rhythm is manifesting itself in his head. It's the monotone dirge of convenience-store robberies gone woefully, inexplicably bad, of violence that often seems so bizarre you can't help but think the authors are going to explain it in an appendix somewhere. But they don't; they present the facts, and for the most part, only the facts. Besides, what kind of a tune accompanies the following words, used by the state to describe the way Anthony Williams killed 13-year-old Vickie Lynn Wright, who was "abducted from a bowling alley, sexually assaulted, and then beaten to death with a board"?

Whatever the tune, it's menacing, and it suffuses the pages of Texas Death Row. It's a somewhat surprising experience, given the strictly informational stance of the book. You think you're getting just the facts, but the facts, in this case, have an eerie tendency to overstay their welcome. For every inmate executed by the state in the "modern era" -- the period from the reinstitution of capital punishment in Texas in 1973 to June 22, 2000, when Gary Lee Graham was executed and this book went to press -- the facts include: "personal data" (education level, county of conviction, race, height, age at time of execution, etc.), last meal, last statement, time of death, date the inmate was "received" at death row, the length of the prisoner's stay on death row, and anywhere from a few sentences to a long paragraph about why the inmate was sentenced to die. The records are presented verbatim as kept by the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice, except in occasional cases where the authors felt the need to introduce what is not presented by the record, like an inmate being a minor when the offense was committed or the text of the public statement made by the Texas Board of Criminal Justice after the execution of Karla Faye Tucker. Those authorial intrusions are clearly demarcated as text written by the authors rather than by the state.

Most, perhaps all, attempts to present just the facts do not prevent other elements from seeping through the factual veneer. In 1986, Jerome Butler shot cab driver Nathan Oakley three times in the back of the head. This is the state's account of the murder:

Butler was convicted of capital murder in the shooting death of 67-year-old Nathan Oakley, a Houston cab driver, on June 17, 1986. Butler hailed Oakley's cab at the intersection of Blodgett and Scott at 4 p.m. After riding a short distance, Butler pulled out a pistol and shot Oakley three times in the back of the head. The prosecutor said Oakley's pockets were turned inside out and all his money was missing. Oakley, who drove a Skyjack cab, was believed to have been carrying more than $300. Prosecutors said Butler may have killed Oakley because the cab driver recognized him as the man who killed his good friend, A.C. Johnson, in 1973. Ironically, State District Judge Wallace Moore presided over both the Johnson murder case and the Oakley murder case.

It's impossible for the accounts of these crimes, even though written by the state, to not conform to some sort of narrative. Why does it matter that Oakley's cab was a Skyjack cab? Who inserted the detail that A.C. Johnson was not just Oakley's friend but a "good friend"? These are among the unexpected protuberances of humanity throughout this book. But -- and this may be the strangest thing about the book -- somehow that doesn't always seem like a good thing. The mention of Judge Wallace Moore's involvement in both of Butler's trials would be a great ending if the life of Jerome Butler were being pitched as a movie to Hollywood executives, but what is it doing here? The state as moralist and entertainer: If you have a sudden need to induce vomiting, the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice file on Jerome Butler should do the trick.

Crime doesn't pay. That lesson, taught to many of us by after-school specials, takes on a graver twist in the crime narratives presented by the TDCJ. For example, in 1982, after Larry Anderson abducted 28-year-old Zelda Webster from Shelee's Club, a bar in Houston that Webster managed, he stabbed her to death and stole $1,000 from the club, which he put in his truck. Then he drove toward the Addicks Reservoir without his headlights on, which is why the police stopped him. They happened to notice a bloody knife and two bank bags in the truck.

There must be a more effective source than Texas Death Row for learning lessons like "crime doesn't pay" or "once a felon, always a felon." The authors, who hope to enlarge the discussion about capital punishment with this book, aren't schoolmarms doling out life lessons; the state, however, often appears to be doing just that. But the beauty of this book is that you can take from it what you want, whether that's ammunition for your argument that only a certain type of individual is being routinely executed by the state, or justification for your belief that the process is working just fine.

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More by Clay Smith
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