Friday, April 14, 2017

I could have seen Texas' first-ever back-to-back executions

Instead I took in the first. That was plenty for this witness.

Read on.

There's been a spate of publicity about the State of Arkansas' now-collapsing back-to-back executions.

The stories have taken me back to 1995, when The Milwaukee Journal awarded me a grant to work on a project on capital punishment - - which led me to the Texas Death House in Huntsville...and then to the corrections' system's already-busy death chamber to witness an execution which promised some Texas-style history:

*  It would be the first by the newly-sworn-in Governor, a Republican by the name of George W. Bush.

*  It would be the first of two executions, back-to-back for the first time to be carried out by Texas corrections officials to see if their systems and protocols and staff could kill two inmates with a quick turn-around.

Short answer: Yes, they did, and I skipped the second, having see everything I needed to see as a reporter when the first reached its intended conclusion.

Some years later, I wrote up some of that experience for the Madison Capital Times, copied below:

The Capital Times
© Copyright 2006, Madison Newspapers, Inc.
DATE: Saturday, October 07, 2006

BYLINE:  James Rowen


     Polling tells us that the Nov. 7 advisory referendum to reinstate Wisconsin's death penalty will pass. So expect the far right to push for a full-fledged state constitutional amendment legalizing capital punishment and aligning once-progressive Wisconsin with Southern and Western states, where capital punishment is rooted in lynchings.
     See "The Rope, the Chair and the Needle: Capital Punishment in Texas, 1923-1990," by James W. Marquart, Sheldon Ekland-Olson, Jonathan R. Sorensen, University of Texas Press, 1993.
    Texas leads all U.S. states in death sentences. That's why, to complete a series on capital punishment for the Milwaukee Journal, I traveled to Texas in 1995 to talk to James Marquart, one of the book's authors, carry out other interviews and witness an execution.
    Before I place some of my Texas experience into the Wisconsin debate, let's set aside some irrelevancies that clutter death penalty discussions.
    Like the relevancy of the Bible.
    Sure, the Old Testament talks about an eye for an eye, but it also proscribes death for drunkenness, gluttony, premarital sex, proselytizing Israelites to convert and gathering wood on the Sabbath. So unless you want to fill up the world's largest death row with various weekend woodcutters, young lovers and the entire Jews for Jesus movement, let's focus on one real question:
    Will putting some murderers to death -- and it will only be some because good lawyering will always save wealthier defendants (three-word reminder: Orenthal James Simpson) -- deter murderers from killing? And here is where I offer up my Texas experience.
    When processing my request to serve as an execution media witness, Texas prison officials suggested I arrive in January 1995, when they were to try something new: two executions on the same day.
    With a death penalty proponent taking office as governor -- one George W. Bush -- why not show off their death penalty's smooth operation by gearing it up twice in a day?
    So I got myself to Houston, then drove north to the small city of Huntsville, where Texas executes its condemned prisoners inside the fortress-like death house known as "the Walls Unit."
    Inside the Walls Unit and at other stops, I interviewed prison employees, academics and several death row prisoners, including the two men headed for what prison officials were calling "the back-to-back." 
    If you believe that capital punishment deters murders, you'd have thought the extra publicity about "the back-to-back" would have turned potential Texas killers more peace-loving, at least temporarily.
    So imagine my surprise when I picked up a newspaper in a Huntsville cafe and saw that a different double execution had knocked the "back-to-back" to the back pages.
    Frank Picone, an ex-Houston police officer -- a person trained to uphold the law, mind you -- had murdered his two young sons, shooting one boy with a shotgun as he slept, then drowning the other.
    A few days after reading that Picone had turned a nasty custody dispute into his own domestic massacre, I witnessed, on Jan. 31, 1995, another homicide -- the execution of 33-year-old Clifton Russell Jr. in the opening half of "the back-to-back."
    At 18, Russell and another teenager, William Battee, were charged with beating a man in Abilene to death and stealing his car.
    Russell had pleaded not guilty, but was convicted. After 15 years on death row, and without a single rule infraction, prison officials said, Russell got the injection and moaned when it stopped his heart. His death suggested that lethal injection is not as humane as some proponents believe, though the eye-for-an-eye crowd argues it's not painful enough.
    Nevertheless, Texas isn't going to bring back "Old Sparky," though its retired electric chair is displayed prominently in the Texas Prison Museum on Huntsville's downtown square.
     And what about William Battee, Russell's co-offender?
    Tried separately, Battee pleaded guilty and was incarcerated -- then was released, only to reoffend and return to prison before Russell was executed, prison officials said.
    Therein lies another problem with capital punishment: It's not applied uniformly, state-to-state, county-to-county, criminal-to-criminal.
    As for Frank Picone -- the ex-cop turned double child killer?
    He got life imprisonment.

1 comment:

Raven said...

> "Sure, the Old Testament talks about an eye for an eye, but it also proscribes death for drunkenness, gluttony, premarital sex, proselytizing Israelites to convert and gathering wood on the Sabbath."

Proscribe means "prohibit or limit."

Prescribe means "set down authoritatively for direction."

In effect they are antonyms.