Executions in 2018: min. 690 plus 'thousands' in China

Information on execution procedures in the US

Execution methods in the USA

The primary execution method in the USA is lethal injection, which was used for the first time in 1982 by the State of Texas. The State of Nebraska used the electric chair as their sole execution method until it was declared unconstitutional by the Nebraska Supreme Court in 2008. Subsequently, the state developed the protocol for lethal injection which substitutes since 2009 the electrical chair.

Lethal injection is used by all US federal states that impose capital punishment. Nevertheless, in states that offer alternative execution methods, the electric chair, gas chamber, firing squad or hanging could regain primary status if lethal injection should be classified as unconstitutional one day by the United States Supreme Court. Currently in those states, condemned inmates have the option to choose which method they prefer, and in rare cases, the method that was originally used for execution in the respective state is chosen.

A table with execution methods by state can be found here.

Lethal injection

In execution by lethal injection, three intravenous injections are successively used consisting of the barbituate Sodium Thiopental (an anaesthetic to reach unconsciousness or medically induced coma), Pancuronium Bromide, Suxamethonium chloride or Tubocurarin chloride as a muscle relaxant (causes paralysis of the musculature and therefore also of respiration) and Potassium Chloride which causes a depolarisation of the heart (cardiac arrest).

Ohio and Washington use only one chemical, Sodium Thiopental. 

Some states inject an antihistamine in approach of the execution to avoid an allergic reaction to the chemicals. 

Before the execution begins and between each single chemical that is administered, a saline solution is injected to avoid a reaction of the chemicals with each other.

Many doctors have already expressed their fears about the non-effectiveness of the drugs if the condemned inmate is diabetic, or a previous drug user in the event that his or her veins are difficult to find. Additionally, if the condemned was a former drug user, it is also possible that the barbiturate might have an weaker effect, which could result in the following homicide being very painful for the prisoner.


Execution by electric chair (Electrocution), by which lethal co-current flow is sent through the body of the convicted, has visible destroying effects. Internal organs and fabrics are burnt.

The electrodes are fastened to the head and the legs of the prisoner. When administering the stream, the body of the convicted shoots forwards against the leather belts which tie him to the chair.

The bowel of the prisoner can empty itself, he can urinate or vomit blood. The body changes color, the flesh flushes, and skin and hair can catch fire.

The body temperature rises on up to 60 ° C (140° F). To determine whether death has occurred or not, the body of the convicted has to cool down first.

Witnesses always report that a smell of burnt meat occurs.

It is unknown how long people on the electric chair remain conscious.

Gas chamber

The convicted is shut in a hermetically sealed steel chamber. On a signal from the executioner, a valve opens from which hydrochloric acid flows in a hollow, that is located under the seat of the prisoner. After another signal about 230 grams of Potassium Cyanide crystals or Potassium Cyanide capsules fall down into the acid. The originating Prussic Acid gas which is lighter than air and rises slowly upwards prevents the formation of Hemoglobin1 in the blood. The result is a standstill of the respiration.

This execution method requires the cooperation of the convicted to reduce the torture. He has to inhale deeply to reach a quick unconsciousness. If he stops breathing over and over again, the mortal agony lasts several minutes.

After the prisoner is declared dead, filters clean the steel chamber of any gas that remains. A team detoxifies the dead body while wearing gas masks with a bleaching solution and degases him. If this would not happen, an unsuspecting undertaker could be killed as well.

The prussic acid gas used for execution is identical with Cyclone B which was used during the Holocaust for the homicide in concentration camps.


The convicted is weighed prior to execution. The "fall" depends on his weight so that 1,260 foot-pounds will be applied to the neck. It is alleged that a nearly immediate death and a minimum of bruises is thereby guaranteed as well as it excludes strangulation (slow suffocation) or decapitation.

If hanging is achieved properly, the death is caused by a forcible separation of the third or fourth cervical vertebra.  But if the fall in the sling is too short, the hanged person dies a slow and agonising death by suffocation; if it is too long, the head is separated.

The winding of the rope is normally placed behind the left ear of the convicted, for the neck snaps aside after the fall.

Firing squad

There is no official protocol that exists for the procedure. 

Reportedly the execution team consists of 5 people. The convicted is tied up to a chair and covered with a hood. A target is fastened on his breast. One of the firearms contains a blank cartridge, so that nobody knows which shooter delivered a fatal shot.

Since the reintroduction of capital punishment two people were executed this way; Gary Gilmore in 1977 and John Taylor in 1996. Taylor whipsawed the state Utah by this, because negative publicity for the upcoming Olympic games was feared.

This execution method contains big problems, because the danger exists that members of the execution team could miss intentionally to ensure they are not personally responsible for the death of the convicted.

Kentucky's lethal injection protocol as an example of execution protocols

An article of the Louisville Courier-Journal of April 2008 states:

'Kentucky's once secret protocol for executing inmates by lethal injection describes in chilling detail what to do if an execution goes bad, and even spells out measures to revive the condemned if there is a last-minute stay.

If an inmate doesn't "flatline" within 10 minutes after being given a 3-drug cocktail, the protocol demands that the same drugs should be given again.

'This process will continue until death has occurred,' says the protocol, a portion of which the U.S. Supreme Court ordered released this week.

Read more ....

The order came as the court considers whether Kentucky's method of lethal injection -- similar to that used in 35 other states -- is constitutional.

The Kentucky Corrections Department had refused to release its 29-step protocol, citing security concerns. And the document released this week omits some details, including the time of executions, for example.

State Justice Cabinet spokeswomen Jennifer Brislin said making that public could cause executions to be disrupted.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide by June whether the procedures used by Kentucky and the other states violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The appeal was brought by condemned Kentucky inmates Ralph Baze and Thomas Clyde Bowling Jr.

The 16 pages of the protocol released Wednesday mandate that the execution team practice 10 times a year, and that each practice include a walk-through of an execution, including placing intravenous lines into a human volunteer.

The protocol also says that:

If the team cannot secure 1 or more IV lines into the condemned inmate in one hour, the corrections commission shall notify the governor and request that the execution be rescheduled.

If the condemned isn't unconscious within 60 seconds after delivery of the 1st drug, sodium thiopental, the warden should order that a new flow be started in a backup IV.

If the inmate doesn't "flatline" within 10 minutes after all 3 drugs are given, the warden shall order a 2nd round.

Objections to procedure

Lawyers for Baze and Bowling contend the procedure offers no guarantees that the chemicals will work properly or that the condemned inmate won't suffer excruciating pain.

'It is woefully deficient,' said their lead counsel, David Barron, an assistant public advocate.

The Rev. Pat Delahanty, chairman of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, questioned whether a warden is capable of determining whether an inmate is unconscious.

'That seems to me to be a serious flaw that could lead to pain and suffering,' he said.

Delahanty also asked, 'If the intention of lethal injection is to be humane, why would there ever be 2nd round" of the drugs administered?

Brislin said the Justice Cabinet had no comment on the protocol itself, but its lawyers have maintained that if the 1st drug is properly administered there will be a painless death.

The protocol offers detailed instruction on every aspect of the procedure, from the maximum duration of the condemned's final statement (2 minutes), to when the curtain on the chamber window should be opened and shut, to the order in which witnesses shall be escorted away after watching the execution (first media, then inmate witnesses, then the victim's witnesses.)

The protocol sets out procedures starting 2 weeks before the execution.

Nurses are required to check the inmate on every shift, and a doctor must do so daily. The inmate also must be given a physical exam and a psychiatric examination no later than 7 days before the execution, and the warden must be informed of any changes in his condition.

Inmates are limited to four visitors at a time, and pastors and the media may only visit on weekdays.

Members of the execution team may be a certified medical assistant, a paramedic, an EMT, a phlebotomist or a military corpsman, and each must
have practiced at least twice.

Steps in execution

The execution starts with an "IV Team" inserting a main line and a backup, with the 'insertion site of preference in the following order: arms, hands, ankles and or feet/neck.'

After the lines are inserted, the leader is to recheck all restraints, determine they are secure and advise the warden.

The warden, after checking one last time with the attorneys, is to turn on the microphone, announce the condemned's name, and allow him to speak.

When the warden orders the execution to proceed, a designated team member will begin 'a rapid flow of lethal chemicals.'

If all goes as planned, the coroner and physician will confirm death by checking the condemned's pulse and pupils and so advise the warden, who will state, 'At approximately ---- p.m., the execution of ---- was carried out in accordance with the laws of the commonwealth of Kentucky.'

In the event a stay is issued after the execution has started, the warden
will have an ambulance, a medical crash cart and defibrillator standing by, and medical staff will attempt to 'stabilize the condemned,' the protocol says.

The procedure was sealed at the Corrections Department's request when the
case was tried in Franklin Circuit Court in 2005, and it was filed under seal last year with the U.S. Supreme Court.

In arguing to keep it sealed, Barron said, the department cited a state law that allows the commissioner to keep records confidential if their release might endanger a corrections officer or inmate.

As an example of the potential danger, Barron said, the department told the Supreme Court that former Gov. Ernie Fletcher was confronted in 2004 by Bowling's mother while walking his dog in Frankfort.

But Barron said the report was exaggerated and falsely implied that the governor had been stalked. Barron said Bowling's lawyers brought her to talk to the governor when he came out to talk to the media during a demonstration against the death penalty.

Brislin said the Justice Cabinet had no comment.

Baze was convicted of fatally shooting Powell County Sheriff Steve Bennett and Deputy Arthur Briscoe in 1992 as they attempted to arrest him.

Bowling was convicted of killing Edward and Tina Earley of Lexington and wounding their 2-year-old son in 1990.

Lethal injection protocol of Kentucky


Notify Department of Corrections of receipt of Governor's Death Warrant (immediately).

Begin a special section of condemned's medical record for all medical actions (X-14 days).

Nurse visits and checks on the condemned each shift, 7 days a week, using the special medical section to record contacts and observations (X-14 days).

(Redacted) personally observes and evaluates the condemned five (5) days per week, Monday through Friday (X-14 days).

Place the (redacted)'s documentation in the permanent record immediately after personal contact. Department of Corrections (redacted) or his designee reviews and initials nursing documentation in #3 daily (X-14 days).

(Redacted) reviews nursing and doctors documentation weekly.

Physical examination is completed by the (redacted) or his designee no later than seven (7) days prior to execution.

Place the physical in the permanent medical record upon completion.

(Redacted)'s evaluation is completed by (redacted) no later than seven (7) days prior to execution. Place the psychiatric evaluation in the permanent medical record and send copies to the Warden. (Redacted) or his designee personally observes and evaluates the condemneds medical condition weekly.

Place the (redacted) or his designee notes in the permanent record immediately after personal contact.

Notify all medical staff to immediately notify the Warden, (redacted) or designee and (redacted) of any change in the inmates medical or psychiatric condition.

Sequence of Events

At (redacted), the Warden orders the condemned escorted to the execution chamber and strapped to the gurney.

The IV team members will be the members of the execution team who site and
insert the IV lines.

The team enters the chamber and runs the IV lines to the condemned inmate, site and insert one (1) primary IV line and one (1) backup IV line in a location deemed suitable by the team members.

The insertion site of preference shall by the following order: arms, hands, ankles and/or feet, neck. To best assure that a needle is inserted properly into a vein, the IV team members should look for the presence of blood in the valve of the sited needle.

If the IV team cannot secure one (1) or more sites within one (1) hour, the Governor's Office shall be contacted by the Commissioner and a request shall be made that the execution be scheduled for a later date.

The team will start a saline flow.

The team will securely connect the electrodes of the cardiac monitor to the inmate and ensure the equipment is functioning.

The team will then move to the hallway and stand by.

The team leader will recheck all restraints and determine they are secure and so advise the Warden.

The Warden will confirm that all is ready.

The Warden will make one final check with the attorneys stationed outside the chamber.

The Deputy Warden will open the curtain and turn on the microphone.

The Warden states, "At this time we will carry out the legal execution of (condemned's name)."

The Warden asks the condemned if he wants to make a final statement (two (2) minutes allowed). Upon the Warden's order to "proceed" and the microphone turned off, a designated team member will begin a rapid flow of
lethal chemicals in the following order:

1)Sodium Thiopental (3gm). NOTE: If it appears to the Warden that the condemned is not unconscious within 60 seconds to his command to "proceed," the Warden shall stop the flow of Sodium Thiopental in the primary site an order that the backup IV be used with a new flow of Sodium Thiopental.

2)Saline (25 mg).

3)Pancuronium Bromide (50 mg).

4)Saline (25 mg).

5)Potassium Chloride (240 meq).

A designated team member will begin a stopwatch once the lethal injections are complete. If the heart monitor does not indicate a flat line after ten (10) minutes and if during that time the physician and coroner are not able to pronounce death, the Warden will order a second set of lethal chemicals to be administered (Sodium Thiopental, Pancuronium Bormide (sic), and Potassium Chloride). This process will continue until death has occurred.

A designated team member will observe the heart monitor and advise the physician of cessation of electrical activity of the heart.

The curtain shall be drawn when the Physician and coroner enter the chamber and confirm death by checking the condemned's pulse and pupils and
so advise the Warden.

The curtains will then be opened. The Warden turns on the microphone and states: "At approximately ___ p.m. the execution of _______ was carried out in accordance with the laws of the Commonwealth of Kentucky".

The microphone is turned off and the curtains will be drawn.

The witnesses are escorted out of the witness room, first the media, inmate's witnesses, and then the victim's witnesses.

The team will prepare the body for departure.

Release body per prior arrangements.

Funeral director completes death certificate.

Not more than one (1) day after the execution, the Warden shall return the copy of the judgment of the court pronouncing the death sentence, of the manner, time and place of its execution.

Close out inmate account during next business day.

Contact individual designated to receive condemned's personal property for pick up of property the next business day.

Compile all documents pertaining to Execution and place in inmate file.

Execution Team Qualifications

1)The following people with at least 1 year of professional experience may be on the IV team:

a)Certified Medical Assistant, or

b)Phlebotomist, or c)Emergency Medical Technician, or

d)Paramedic, or

e)Military Corpsman

2)Prior to participating in an actual execution, the member of the IV team must have participated in a least two (2) practices.

3)Members of the IV team must remain certified in their profession and must fulfill any continuing education requirements in their profession.

4)The execution team shall practice at least ten (10) times during the course of one (1) calendar year. 5)Each practice shall include a complete walk through of an execution including the siting of two (2) IVs into a volunteer.

6)Execution team members, excluding the IV team members, must have participated in a minimum of two (2) practices prior to participating in an actual execution.

Stabilization Procedure After The Execution Has Commenced

1)In the event that a stay is issued after the execution has commenced, the execution team will stand down and medical staff on site will attempt to stabilize the condemned with the below listed equipment and personnel.

a)The Warden will arrange for an ambulance and staff to be present on institutional property.

b)A medical crash cart and defibrillator shall be located in the execution building.
(source: Louisville Courier-Journal)

Reports on executions

Witness of an execution - Gabi Uhl

Gabi Uhl, member of the German Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, witnessed the execution of her pen friend Clifford Boggess on June 11th, 1998. She gave a very impressive description of her sensations and feelings:

Read more ...

June 11th, 1998, 6:21 pm: Inmate no. 887 is pronounced dead

TDCJ informs about his last meal: 2 Double cheeseburgers, a salad, french fries, one liter of ice-cold Pepsi, chocolate-brownies, 1 cup of Blue-Bell Ice Cream - and a piece of a birthday cake. The 153th execution in Texas since reinstatement of the death penalty hits his 33rd birthday:

Clifford Boggess


The execution 

It must have been around 6:00 p.m., as they escorted us for the short path across the road - passing a couple of TV cameras and few demonstrators - to the opposite building, the Walls Unit, where the executions take place. We had to wait five or ten minutes in an office room once more and we finally were led into the witness room. I don't know whether only my knees trembled in fear, or if it was my heart beating. The witness room is so small that there are no chairs. The relatives of the victims are next to us, separated on the left by a wall. The four of us, three friends of Cliff and his Spiritual Advisor, a Franciscan priest, (no one of Cliff's family was there), are standing close to each other directly in front of the glass window. Behind us are the bodyguards and a few reporters, which I was not aware of at all. In front of us there is the execution chamber with walls painted blue. We have seen it repeatedly on pictures or television but in reality it is much smaller than it seems on the pictures. Cliff is laying there on the gurney, strapped with numerous belts, if it wasn't for the glass we could reach for him. The arms with the IV's are stretched out, the hands are totally wrapped, he is able only to turn his head slightly. He is ready for the deathly injection, ready to be put to sleep like you put to sleep an old or sick dog. The prison chaplain is standing by Cliff's feet, one hand on Cliff's leg. At this moment I feel mankind as unbelievable arrogant, because people are here in the full consciousness of what they are doing, and are killing another man. Of course, Cliff had done this also and this was worst wrong. But that this shall happen in the name of law and order!? What good will this death do anyone? It takes away a person from me that became an inestimable worthy friend in short time. And who of us all watching how Cliff is being killed, would go into death with such strength, confidence and dignity as he does?  

When we've entered the witness room and Cliff sees us, he welcomes us, whereupon smiles extended over his whole face. I am somehow surprised. I don't know what I have expected; this actually matches exactly to him, is typical, and maybe his extended smile is just so incomprehensible to me, because my face feels frozen in this death serious situation. The next day I learned from a newspaper, that his smile and his positive attitude were judged by the victim's relatives who said he didn't take it seriously, and everything had been much too easy. I doubt that Cliff's wish his execution should bring the longed-for peace to the relatives of his victims, has been fulfilled.  

Cliff starts with his last words and turns to the relatives of his victims first, professing that he is sorry for the pain he had caused them. Then he looks at us and says: "To my friends, I'd like to say that I love you and I'm glad you've been a part of my life. I will miss you. Remember that TODAY, I'll be with Jesus in paradise and I'll see you again." While he speaks to us this way, his smile has disappeared and the corners of mouth twitch as he fights back the tears. Then he looks up, says a prayer, and looks in our direction one last time. He whispers: "I love you", turns his head, and the poison streams into his veins. Things happen quickly, and he is unconscious, he does not move any more. After seconds we hear the weighted noise similar to a snoring a single time, when the lungs collapse and the air escapes, which the prison chaplain has demonstrated to us in the afternoon. Then nothing happens for an eternity. As we were informed before, after the injection they wait for four minutes. For four minutes that seem endless, we stare at the lifeless body before us, till a doctor enters the room, examines Cliff, states the death and announces the time of death at 6:21 p.m.  

They escort us out of the witness room. We have to wait at some place to give the other group, the relatives of the victims, some distance. We again cross the road, pass the cameras, and finally be dismissed in the lower floor of the administration building. It is over.


The complete report, photos and paintings by Clifford Boggess can be found at http://www.todesstrafe-texas.de/.

Witness to the Execution - Dr. Rick Halperin

Dr. Rick Halperin Director of Southern Methodist University Human Rights program recounts an execution he witnessed in 1998.

Killing time

By the American journalist Mary Maples, published in The Nation on October 23rd, 2009

Read more ....

Huntsville, Texas

We all sat, separate but together, watching the clock and waiting to be summoned. Would-be witnesses were confined to an office; the warden and the guards gathered not far from the gurney; the victims' family was in a meeting room, the killer's friends were sequestered by the Coke machines. The anonymous executioner waited inside the prison to take his position behind the death chamber's two-way mirror. The condemned was alone in his cell.  

Four hundred and five times in the past twenty-five years, the call had come for all to assemble and enter the Texas death chamber. The ritual had nearly always ended the same way--the dead in a hearse pulling away from Huntsville's old brick prison, the living left in search of a stiff drink.

On this night, however, the evening would end with a beginning, with what appears to be the start of a nationwide moratorium on execution. Even in Texas.

When the Supreme Court agreed on September 25 to consider whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, it triggered a brand new avenue of appeal for inmates on death row. Most states quickly decided to hold off on executions until the Court reaches a decision.

But in Texas, the free world's epicenter of execution, the state vowed to press on, sticking to its plan to execute at least four men in September.

I was on hand in Huntsville because I believed that after more than twenty years of covering capital punishment, I should follow the system to the bitter end, to the execution itself. I'd arrived at the prison complex at 4:30, an hour and a half before I was to witness the state-ordered demise of Carlton Turner. A 28-year-old high school dropout who coldly shot to death his adoptive parents nine years ago, Turner had stuffed his parents' bodies in the garage and was using their car and credit cards when police arrested him.

He spent nine years on death row before being brought to Huntsville to be executed.

The prison here is referred to as The Walls, an apt name for the massive brick fortress, which stands forbiddingly just off the city's quaint downtown, like a monster in a cottage backyard. Ancient and imposing, it looks like the kind of place where someone could get killed.

The opposite is true of the prison's administrative offices. It would be easy to mistake the place for some kind of bland marketing distribution center. Dilbert would feel at home here amid the cubicles.

A few windows and doors are decorated with pictures of newborns, Halloween posters or funny notes. Much of the office is bare. The real business of this business is buried, hidden inside the stacks of paper and digital databases that indicate where an inmate will be housed, what he will be fed, whether or when he will be put to death.

Proponents of Texas's tough system have known for years about the growing concern among the faint of heart elsewhere over whether the condemned suffered when killed with chemicals or whether the training of the team inserting the I-V was adequate, whether the dosage was correct or even whether the inmate died slowly or swiftly. That didn't matter in Texas.

Most other states handle only a few executions a year and sputter along, regularly stopping to tweak and tinker with the machinery of death. Texas is in a league of its own.

Efficient Executions

Of the 1,099 people executed in the United States since 1976, 405 of them took their last breath on a gurney in Texas. The state's death chamber functions as a magnificently efficient engine. With an execution every couple of weeks, sometimes several a month, the Texas system is slick and smooth, fine-tuned and fast.

Execution teams at Huntsville are so well trained and so practiced that other states regularly came here to see how it's done. In at least one case, a Texas team was hired to work an out-of-state execution.  

There is an odd, almost Orwellian process at play in this capital punishment capitol that keeps the people who do this work removed from it. You can hear it in the execution etiquette that defines conversations. No one here refers to witnessing an execution; instead people talk about "witnessing." The doctor doesn't pronounce the inmate dead; the doctor "pronounces."

But then Huntsville prison employees aren't participating in the state-ordered homicide of a human being; they're "working late." One longtime warden was known for initiating the short walk with an inmate to the death chamber by saying, "It's time to go to the next room."

People who work at the prison, many of whom have witnessed executions by the dozens, usually won't acknowledge, even when pressed, the actual number they have taken part in. That is considered bad form, at least until the person retires and they count up the final tally.

Then the numbers can be staggering.

Larry Fitzgerald, the prison system's now-retired public information officer, took part in 219 executions, more than double the number that have taken place in any state outside Texas. He admits that he occasionally needed "to crawl into a bottle of scotch" after some of the executions, particularly the days when two people were put to death. "Those two-a-days were tough," he told me. "Once they scheduled three in one day, and we were more relieved than the inmate when the last one was canceled."

Fitzgerald witnessed some of the most infamous executions and saw firsthand some of the system's occasional complications. He recalls a watching a "blowout" when the I-V burst free from the inmate's arm.

In 1988, one spectacular "blowout" resulted in the lethal chemicals being sprayed around the room. Even then Texas didn't call a halt and re-examine the lethal injection procedure. The one comfort for would-be witnesses is there is now a Plexiglas window in place so they are protected from such a mishap. Old hands at the prison say witnesses used to stand behind a simple rail, almost close enough to reach out and touch the gurney.

Former warden Jim Willett oversaw eighty-nine executions in his three years as head of the Huntsville prison. He now oversees the nearby Texas Prison Museum, a tourist attraction just outside the city with a world-class collection of lethal homemade shanks, old photos and Old Sparky, the state's out-of-commission electric chair.

The chair carried 361 inmates to their death before it was unplugged for the last time in 1964. When executions began again, the chair was replaced with a gurney, and a chemical solution did the work of the electric current.

Willett was in charge of the process as warden. He still speaks with awe about the efficiency of the Texas execution teams. "These guys are so well trained that it just goes like this." He snapped his fingers in cadence three times. "Every time."

Willett's job meant he stood in place at the head of the gurney, one of the last faces the condemned would see, signaling when it was time for the chemicals to begin pouring into the inmate's veins. Now retired, Willett seems chastened by his time in the death chamber. He says he has to "search my soul all the time about the morality--the morality of my participation. I was a participant."

When I told Willett, a sweet and perpetually teary-eyed man, that I would be witnessing the scheduled execution that night, he said with great sincerity, "Oh, you don't want to do that. Don't do that. Please don't do that. Once you've seen that it will always be with you. You're never gonna forget it. And you might want to."

Two days before my visit another execution had been scheduled here in Huntsville. The same kind of group had gathered at the prison: guards, witnesses, the victims' family and a lone villain.

This was the same day the Court had announced it would hear arguments on the humaneness of lethal injection. Seeing an opening, a team of anti-death penalty attorneys flew into action, preparing an appeal for the inmate based on the pending decision. Maddeningly, their computer crashed; and while they scrambled to fix it, one of the team called the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to advise that the appeal would be a few minutes late and to beg the court to stay open. They were told matter-of-factly that the court closed at 5 p.m. Period.

If the appeal didn't go through the Texas court, it couldn't go any further. The lawyers missed the deadline by twenty minutes. Their client was dead a few hours later.

The decision to close the court at its regular time was made by longtime Texas Appeals Court Judge Sharon Keller, notorious in anti-death penalty circles for her staunch support of the practice. She may be best known for her refusal to accept definitive DNA evidence to clear a man in a rape case. She didn't trust the science.

Rulings like that are just one of the reasons that death row inmates rarely live long enough to digest their last meal in Texas.


As a first-time witness, I was an oddity at the prison that night. Everyone else in the witness room was a veteran. They'd seen dozens. One man, Michael Graczyk, had seen hundreds of men and women die.

An Associated Press reporter based in Houston, he sat quietly in the corner tapping out advance stories on Turner's death. Graczyk is believed to have witnessed more state-run executions than any warden, any executioner, any guard or anybody in the modern Western world. He serves as a kind of living memory bank for the people working at the prison and a guide for those of us who hadn't seen the death chamber in operation before.  

While a string of sitcoms and a recap of the previous night's vote totals on Dancing With the Stars played loudly on the TV in our waiting area, Graczyk pointed out the time and warned that traditionally, the longer the wait, the worse it looked for the inmate.

I told him I had never seen an execution. He grumbled that there wasn't much to see. "It's very uneventful. Very, very uneventful," he said, "There's virtually no reaction. He may snort or gasp very briefly, snore and that's it. The doctor comes in, he pronounces him dead and we leave."

Graczyk told me he'd lost count of the number of executions he had seen when "it became an issue" for death penalty opponents who accused him of regarding executions "like notches on the belt." He says he attends because someone in the press has to. "If the state is going to take somebody's life, I would hate to see that happen without someone watching."

He's right, of course, but there are few takers.

A young reporter from another paper offered me a tip. "I try not to think of them as people. Or it would make it really hard when you went home. You know?"

We waited for hours. The phone in the room rang regularly. Unlike in the movies, it was never the governor's office on the line. Instead, the public information officer would bark into the phone "It hasn't happened yet" or "We're still waiting." She dismissed the callers as "death penalty groupies," people who phone constantly on execution nights to find out whether the inmate is dead. She said she's never figured out whether they are eager for the execution or praying for a reprieve.

More than four hours after the execution was scheduled to start, not long before the death warrant ran out, the Supreme Court stepped in and stopped the execution of Carlton Turner.


Deep inside The Walls in a bare cell, Turner had already polished off his last meal: three omelets, a pizza, two cheeseburgers and a chocolate cake. With the court ruling, he was escorted back to his cell to spend the night stretched out on his own bed instead of on a slab.

In a state unaccustomed to standing down on the death penalty, Turner's last-minute reprieve was met with stunned disbelief. Witnesses flew out of the building as though they had been shot from a cannon.  

Outside the prison, the protesters were flabbergasted. A band of Europeans who had chosen to spend their vacations in Huntsville visiting death row pen pals were shocked and overjoyed. A German film crew scrambled to capture the rare celebration. During the hubbub, the vigil candle burned out. No one really noticed.

In the parking lot a prison employee and a longtime protester exchanged "Praise the Lord" salutes as they passed each other.

The heavy load of executions in this state is uniquely difficult for the people who work in the Huntsville prison. Beginning officers earn less than $24,000 a year, and they don't make extra money to participate in executions. But for decades, these people have repeatedly volunteered for the tough duty; to be part of the team, to be professionals, to feel they are protecting the public. They often end up paying for the privilege.

They are met by distraught protesters on execution nights. When they go home, they have to live with what they've seen.

Corrections officers have counseling available, but few seem to take part. Expressing any concerns or doubts about the death penalty gets them moved off the team. Most often, they are left to the cold comfort of Lone Star beer and the company of people in the same position.

Former warden Jim Willett every day ponders his own morality while he putters around the prison museum. Retired prison spokesman Larry Fitzgerald says he still supports capital punishment in some cases but concedes that he lives with what he calls "the sorrow."

On the other hand, the politicians who have pushed--and profited from--the death penalty in Texas are still loyal to lethal injection. Yet most of these folks have never made the short trek from the state capitol to the prison to see their policies in action.

George W. Bush approved 152 executions and never deigned to watch one.

His successor, Rick Perry, has given the go-ahead to 166 executions, more than any governor in modern times, but he has never been around when the deed has been done. He has visited the death chamber, but only when it was empty. He was simply a well-heeled tourist taking in the sights.

The elected judges who rule so imperiously in favor of execution can't clear their calendars to watch one, either. Judge Sharon Keller, who closed the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rather than wait for a life-or-death argument, has never come to Huntsville to see the results of her rulings. Neither have any of the other judges on the state appeals court who decide these cases on a regular basis.

The US Supreme Court does its work in splendid isolation, a world away from the smell of the chemicals, the pain of the evening, the pangs of conscience the workers in Huntsville carry out of the death chamber with them.

After years of performing executions at a pace that scares the bejesus out of the rest of the civilized world, Texas finally has had to put the brakes on its machine. At least for now, the state's politicians and legal potentates are not in charge. Like the corrections officers and the condemned, they can do little but wait for a court ruling.

In the death chamber tonight, for the first time in a generation, the engine has been left idling.

Pending US-Executions

Unfortunately the United States of America still is one of the countries which regularly executes people.

You’ll find a list of the already scheduled executions here.