Executions in Texas: No Big Deal

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Billy Joe Woods waited to die, the manager of public information for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice ate a pretzel.

In less than an hour, a needle would be inserted in Woods' left arm, and then in his right, filling his veins with a lethal dose of sodium thiopental. There was really no doubt that this would happen, no possibility that Woods would be spared by a last-ditch appeal, no question about the swift and clinical effect of the injection.

There was so little drama, in fact, that Larry Fitzgerald, the public information man, tried to create some.

"Who wants in on the pool?" he asked, turning his attention to the four reporters who had come to witness the execution.

6:17 p.m.? 6:18? 6:21?

What time would the drugs finally flow into Billy Joe?

No other state puts as many people to death as Texas does. No other state even comes close. Since the U.S. Supreme Court paved the way for the resumption of capital punishment two decades ago, Texas has executed 119 convicts. That accounts for nearly a third of all executions in America.

Compared with California, which has executed just four inmates in the same time, Texas' death chamber runs like clockwork. Billy Joe Woods was one of six men executed here in April. Four others have been executed so far in May, including one Monday night. Another is set to be executed today. And another Wednesday, and another the day after. In June, 10 more men are scheduled to die, few with any hope for a reprieve.

At this rate, with 12 executions already, 1997 is expected to become the busiest year ever on Texas' death row--or any other state's, for that matter--surpassing the previous record of 19, set here in 1995. If and when that happens--most likely next month--it could very well reignite the debate over capital punishment across the nation, inspiring activists on both sides of the issue alternately to hail and condemn the milestone.

But among average Texans, the historic tally is being greeted with a collective shrug.

Despite the extraordinary pace--or because of it--executions don't generate much news here anymore. There's no media circus, no countdown to death, no drumbeat of coverage--neither for killer nor victim.

TV crews almost never show up on execution days in Huntsville, home to death row, about 70 miles north of Houston. No major newspaper, not from Houston or Dallas or Austin or San Antonio, bothers to send a reporter regularly. It's quite possible to wake up in any of those cities without an inkling that a man was put to death the night before.

In most other states, even with widespread support for capital punishment, tension and ambiguity still swirl around each execution. In Texas, those conflicts--legal, moral, political--were long ago laid to rest. Elected officials don't wring their hands. Appellate courts don't often impose eleventh-hour stays. Prison guards don't brace for glitches or snags.

As it did with the space shuttle-- another Texas achievement--repetition has rendered the execution business routine.

"You've seen one, you've pretty much seen 'em all," Fitzgerald said.

From the public information office, the four media witnesses were led outside, across a short walkway and into the Walls Unit, an enclosed prison yard so named for the towering red-brick walls that form its perimeter. There is usually room for five reporters to attend an execution here. But, as is often the case, less than a full contingent was on hand.

Two of the witnesses were Huntsville journalists. A third, Michael Graczyk, staffs the Houston bureau of the Associated Press. He is somewhat of a legend in the annals of death chamber correspondence, having covered about 70 executions (he claims to have lost count), more than any other reporter in America.

"It's my job," he once told an interviewer. "It's like going to cover a baseball game, or a basketball game, or an explosion at a chemical factory."

After being frisked by a guard, Graczyk plopped into a seat in the Walls waiting room, his manner unruffled and easygoing. Years of experience had taught him not to expect surprises.

In his laptop computer, he already had written a story that said Billy Joe Woods was dead.

When he was convicted July 13, 1976, of murdering Mabel E. Ehatt, Woods was front-page news. The hideous nature of his crime had something to do with that.

A high school dropout and itinerant oil rig roustabout, Woods, then 29, had broken into Ehatt's Houston apartment, strangling the cancer-stricken 62-year-old widow and smashing in her head with a frying pan. Evidence indicated that he had raped Ehatt, who used a walker to get about, then continued the assault even after she was dead. Police arrived to find Woods still at the scene, a bottle of Ehatt's pain medication in his pocket and her bracelet on his wrist.

Woods' conviction--for "one of the most unconscionable, brutal, vicious slayings I have known of," as the judge said at the time--was important for another reason. Eleven days earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld Texas' death penalty, reformulated by state lawmakers after being declared unconstitutional in 1972. Woods was the first convict from Houston to be sentenced under the new law.

The story ran in the Houston Chronicle on the front page, above the fold. It was accompanied by a big, portrait-sized photo of Woods, looking surly and smug. But on April 15, 1997, the day after Woods' execution, there was only a short, 300-word dispatch from Graczyk, buried on Page 14, inside the Metropolitan section.

"I think our readers care about crime and punishment," said Kit Frieden, the Chronicle's state editor. "But I don't know how much they care about each individual execution."

It wasn't always like this.

The first execution here in 1982, after an 18-year moratorium, triggered a staggering barrage of coverage. Protesters burned candles and cried. Hundreds of rowdy college students from nearby Sam Houston State rallied in favor of the execution, waving crude signs.

A year later, they were still at it, guzzling beer to toast the death of a man condemned for killing a minimart clerk while stealing a six-pack. And a year after that, a festive mob mugged for TV cameras while dressed up in Halloween costumes--a nod to the infamous Ronald Clark O'Bryan, executed for poisoning his son's trick-or-treat candy.

But after more than 100 executions and 21 years, the story of Billy Joe Woods and Mabel Ehatt couldn't compare.

Because of the passage of time--far too much time, it could be argued--the rituals of the punishment seemed strangely detached from the horrors of the crime.

Nobody from Ehatt's family was here to witness her killer's death, and prison officials knew of no immediate survivors. The prosecutor who brought Woods to justice wasn't here, nor was anyone else involved in the case. Although this April day marked the official beginning of National Crime Victims' Rights Week, there was no pro-death-penalty rally, nobody to point a finger at Woods or to take satisfaction in his demise.

The only sign that anyone hoped to focus attention on this event came from a smattering of anti-death-penalty activists, no more than a dozen, gathered on the fringe of the prison grounds. But after years of shouting in the wilderness, unable even to provoke a debate, their voices sounded shrill--and virtually oblivious to the crime for which Woods would be dying.

"Murderer!" they cried, not at the convicted killer inside the prison, but at his gray-shirted guards outside.

Later, like a mantra, they chanted into a megaphone: "God bless Billy Joe Woods. God bless Billy Woods. God bless Billy Joe Woods."

The vacuum of coverage cuts both ways. Death penalty foes would like every execution to receive intense scrutiny. The keener the spotlight, they believe, the greater the likelihood that the nation will confront what they consider to be the inequities and prejudices riddling capital punishment. They contend that a cold, hard look at the realities of state-sanctioned death will ultimately undermine public support.

If nothing else, they argue, society has a moral obligation to pay attention. "At least people ought to know what they're doing," said Marta Glass, an ACLU activist and member of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "They shouldn't be allowed to eat their beans in peace while some poor sucker is being poisoned."

The lack of any real interest, as far as abolitionists are concerned, is tantamount to a conspiracy of silence. "I don't mean to equate this to the Holocaust, but it's a similar phenomenon--people just push it out of their mind and sort of pretend it's not really happening," Houston defense attorney Mike Charlton said. "The more bureaucratized and sanitized you make something, the more palatable it becomes."

Death penalty proponents are troubled by a different aspect of that routine.

If capital punishment is to have any value as a deterrent, they believe, each execution ought to be trumpeted as a poignant reminder of the price Texas exacts for the ultimate crime.

Advocates often cite the work of Wayne State University professor Steven Stack, who has documented small dips in the U.S. murder rate after highly publicized executions. Between 1950 and 1980, Stack found in one study, there was a nationwide drop of roughly 30 homicides over a 30-day period whenever a renowned killer was put to death.

He is hesitant to call it a deterrent effect, suggesting that other factors--such as the heightened caution of potential victims--may also explain the decline. But he believes it is no less significant.

"If people were to publicize executions, they would probably be saving a human life," Stack said.

The problem, as far as law-and-order activists are concerned, is not that executions occur too frequently, but that they're not frequent enough. In a country that averages 20,000 homicides a year, only 1 in about every 550 killers is put to death.

"If you get it down to 1 out of 100, maybe that'll be enough to publicize it constantly," said Dudley Sharp, vice president of Justice For All, a Houston-based victims' rights group. "Maybe then, people in the business of violence will start to take notice."

While prison officials strapped Billy Joe Woods to a white-sheeted hospital gurney with thick leather belts, his arms outstretched like a cross, a friend and attorney, Paul Looney, tried to console his loved ones.

They were huddled in a separate corner of the prison, Woods' 77-year-old mother, his niece and a pen pal, waiting for word that the execution would begin. What struck Looney, as much as the grief of his companions, was the nonchalance of their escorts.

"Instead of standing silently, the guards were all talking about their kids and the Little League team and where they've got to go tomorrow--right up to the very end," he said. "I don't mean to be cruel--the same group has to do this over and over so many doggone times--but it was bizarre to look around and see all these people just doing their job. It was another day at the office."

For the convenience of all involved, executions in Texas are now held at 6 p.m., instead of the traditional midnight hour.

How did Texas become the death penalty capital of the free world?

The answers are varied, sometimes complex, but it all starts in Houston. Murderers from Harris County represent about 30% of the 450 inmates on death row. Even if the rest of Texas halted all executions, Houston alone would maintain the state's No. 1 ranking.

Much of the credit--or blame--goes to the longtime district attorney, Johnny Holmes, winner of more death sentences than any prosecutor in America. An aggressive lawyer and charismatic politician, he once summed up his philosophy this way: "I say without apology that if you murder someone here, the state of Texas is going to kill you."

But Holmes alone can't ensure that his death sentences will withstand legal challenge. A confluence of other factors--from a sympathetic Court of Criminal Appeals to a piecemeal system for appointing defense attorneys to the attorney general's deft selection of cases for federal review--all have been cited for establishing a streamlined system reluctant to put on the brakes.

Then there is the historic, frontier-era theory. "We've got a lot more pickup trucks and a lot more cowboys and a lot more beer-drinkers than you probably have in California," said Al Schrank, a Harris County grand jury foreman. "The Old West, so to speak, is still alive and well here."

From behind the death chamber's plexiglass window, Billy Joe Woods revealed almost nothing. He was a 50-year-old man, of average height and average build, his most remarkable feature being the gray that flowed from two bushy eyebrows to a thick mane, combed back.

His blue eyes were blank, sharing no unspoken message. Dressed in a light blue shirt, dark blue pants and white canvas high-top Converse sneakers, he suggested neither panic nor churlish defiance.

The warden asked if he had any final words.

Woods shook his head, then closed his eyes.

His next breath was a cough. His chest heaved. He gasped twice. The last bit of air sputtered through his lips.

"Oh my God," whispered his niece.

But any journalist who has covered a traffic accident or a gang shooting or even an explosion at a chemical plant has surely witnessed a more horrifying sight. Seen more blood. Heard more anguished cries. Felt a more nauseating turn of the gut.

Billy Joe Woods, as banal as it may sound, looked nothing so much as asleep.

And that's just as it's meant to be. As the first state to use lethal injection, adopting the method in 1977, Texas was not merely seeking a "humane" way to end a killer's life.

Earlier that year, a federal judge here had agreed to allow TV cameras into the death chamber. No filming ever took place. But lawmakers grew concerned that Texas' 1920s-era electric chair, affectionately known as "Old Sparky," might someday produce such graphic footage that it would stir public outrage--as Florida's malfunctioning chair recently did. Lethal injection would be, as one legislator said at the time, "less spectacular."

For much of human history, executions were public spectacles, from stonings to the guillotine to the gallows. In past centuries, the condemned man was paraded through town. Schools and shops closed. Parents brought their children, offering a stark lesson in community values.

But as such pageants grew into drunken carnivals, prompting calls for a more dignified procedure, the act itself grew increasingly remote. Executions were moved from public squares to prison yards, then to windowless chambers, open only to a select few. The noose became a chair, the chair now--for the most part--a syringe.

"The fact that it's become more impersonal somehow makes it more horrible," said Mount Holyoke College professor Richard Moran, an advocate for televised executions.

Victim rights groups don't object to that assessment, albeit for a slightly different reason. If you want to show the execution, they say, you should also show the crime that provoked it--reenact the rape, the torture, the utter violation of human rights.

Then see how the public feels about watching a killer die.

It was still light outside, a sunny spring day, by the time everyone was ushered from the death chamber. The Associated Press reporter added a few quick details to his story. The public information man handed out copies of the state's "Execution Recording," a one-page synopsis that reads like a scorecard.

Woods, according to the official chronology, had been taken from his holding cell at 6:03 p.m. and strapped to the gurney at 6:04. The first needle went in his arm at 6:08. The witnesses were allowed in at 6:20. The lethal dose began flowing at 6:22. At 6:30, he was pronounced dead.

Nobody won the pool.

Times researcher Lianne Hart contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Execution Totals

The number of executions by state since 1976:

Texas: 119

Virginia: 39

Florida: 39

Missouri: 24

Louisiana: 24

Georgia: 22

Arkansas: 15

S. Carolina: 11

Oklahoma: 9

Alabama: 15

Delaware: 8

N. Carolina: 8

Illinois: 8

Arizona: 7

Nevada: 6

Utah: 5

California: 4

Indiana: 4

Mississippi: 4

Nebraska: 2

Pennsylvania: 2

Washington: 2

Oregon: 2

Maryland: 1

Montana: 1

Wyoming: 1

Idaho: 1

Source: Death Penalty Information Center

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