How did you feel about this job when you got into it? |
I've been a pastor all my life, preaching since I was 28. I'm Southern
Baptist. The chaplaincy is a very rewarding job. Even though it's a difficult
job. It's a wonderful opportunity every day not just on the days there's an
execution because that's a small portion of what I do. But the opportunity to
work with the inmates who are being executed, the opportunity of working with
these inmates in this unit, the officers, it's truly a wonderful job.
When it comes to executions, what do you see is your job?
I look at my job as strictly being there for the inmate. When I go back
there I don't go back there with my own agenda. My opportunity is to go in
there in the love of God and the name of Jesus. Regardless of whether he wants
to receive that or not, that's my position. So I go in there simply to try and
meet his needs. If he wants to sit and talk about football all day we just sit
and talk about football. I just go in, and if he wants to tell jokes, we tell
jokes. If he wants to sing, we sing. If he wants to listen to the radio, we
listen to the radio. What ever he would like to do during that time it would
help him prepare for his death. That's what we do.
Helping him find some comfort?
Some comfort, some peace, some closure with his family. A number of
inmates have written letters to their family. They make phone calls to their
family. To friends, to write letters telling them good bye. And to put his
life back in order so you know when he does die, he leaves nothing undone.
How do you feel about him or her?
I look at this strictly ministerially. I don't go back with any political
agenda or any other agenda. I look at that person as a dying person. I
don't look at their background. I don't try to have an agenda with them. I
try to keep myself away from the crime. I just try to go back there and meet
that person's needs. To lead them to a peace with God. To help them find
closure. I don't look at them with any kind of agenda whatsoever. Just in
God's love. I guess that's a good way to put it.
I'm talking about personal feelings. Do you like him?
It depends on the individual. But, yes, in a situation when you go back
there, and you're dealing with people that are, how do you say it? Let's take
it back into the death house. And all the avenues are already closed. Where
there's nothing working in the courts, and they have no hope of walking out of
that chamber ever again. And they know that in just a matter of a few hours
they are going to die. All of the walls come down. You know, it's just that
person. There's nobody else except he or she or myself, and we can talk
without reservations, without any kind of holes barred, just an opportunity to
let that person be that person. When you have that opportunity to get all the
walls down, you have a tendency to bond very quickly. Of course I know some of
the inmates that have been back there. I knew them before they came over here,
because I used to teach Bible studies on death row. Some of them come over
here, and they are really open, and an avenue of bonding comes real close, and
they become a very real part of myself.
Isn't that difficult?
Very. Very difficult. It takes me about 3 days to really prepare for an
execution. Psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. To really get myself in
a position where I can minister to that man or that woman. And then it takes
me about 3 days to get over one. And sometimes longer. You know, it's like
any kind of pastor or chaplain who's working in a life or death situation, it
becomes a very real part of who you are. And you can't go in there and not
give of yourself and let the emotions come to you.
Does it sometimes seem to you that there's a contradiction or a paradox
that's involved in what happens in the execution system --taking a man to a
death house, where there's air conditioning. Letting him have a shower, giving
him a meal that he requests, letting him make phone calls, treating him nicely.
And in your case, helping him find comfort. And then killing him.
Well, I don't kill him, number one. I am just with him when he dies. I
am his minister. I am his spiritual advisor. And you know as far as the mixed
feelings, Certainly there's mixed feelings, but you know I used to be in para
EMS, you know I'd go out to a wreck, and I'd crawl into a car where a person
was dying who had their chest crushed or neck broken. Sit there and hold that
person until they die or they bleed to death. And you go into a hospital and
you sit down on a bed where a young mother has two young children, and she's
dying of leukemia or lung cancer, and you hold that person's hand until they
die. You know, or you go into a hospice situation where the person is
terminally ill for a long period of time, and you go in and you try to make
their last days, there last hours just as comfortable as possible. I do not
treat these people any different than I would anybody else in a free will
setting. My job is just the same. As far as the political issue. That's just
something that I'm very careful not to involve myself in. I just strictly look
at it from a ministerial position.
It does seem different, though, between those who are dying of sickness
or accident, and those who are purposefully being put to death.
When it comes down to death, they're all viewing it the same. These
people basically have had a terminal illness for many years; they've been on
death row 12, 14, 18, 20 years. Their feelings are very much the same as those
people who have had a long term illness where they're about to die. So really
the attitudes that they come in here with, certainly there's the angle with the
system, there's the angle with the victims, you know the way that they've been
treated, and yet there's also the repentance. You know anytime you're dealing
with grief, any time you're dealing with that kind of major crisis, there's
going to be anger, there's going to be strong emotions. And so you have to
deal with every man or person on an individual kind of level just to meet their
needs and not to go in there with any kind of agenda or any kind of motives
other than to just be with that person.
What are some of the common things that happen to a condemned person in
those final hours while he's in the death house?
Well, I could go on and on with that question. You take a man for
instance who all of the years, and I'm not saying this happens a lot, but I'm
saying it happens some. Take a man who has a family that has always supported
him and has been there for him. And he's got free will people out there that
are fighting for him, sending him money, that's trying to defend him in court,
and in all the years he's claimed his innocence. Simply because of those
family members that have looked at him and have said, "man, you're such a
great person, and we love you, and we're behind you, and we know that you're
innocent, and we want to stand here with you."
And he goes in through all those appeal process where he's not talked to anyone
about anything because he knows that at any time he shares something with
somebody there's always an opportunity for them to open up and tell a different
side of the story where they're going to deny him. So, as long as he's got
people out there working for him as far as the court is concerned, there's
going to be that wall. There's going to be that, "I'm not going to talk to
you about that. I'm not going to discuss this. You know I'm innocent into his
situation, and I'm not going to deal with it."
But whenever that last appeal goes down, and that just knowing that he's about
to die, then all of the hope and all of the system is gone. And all of the
knowledge that he's not going to walk out of the room any more sets in. And
there truly becomes the serious mode where you know, "Chaplain, it's just you
and me here. Ya, I did that crime. I can't tell my family that because my
family took a side for me, and I don't want to hurt my family. They're hurting
enough watching me die. Them knowing that I'm a bad person. I can't go out
with that kind of attitude." And it's very cathartic. They begin to really
open up and to just kind of just let everything fall where it may. And that
seems to be something that happens a lot.... And that's when the most
meaningful parts about the job is where the person can let everything out and
just be himself or herself, and to be able to bond with the spiritual aspects
and see that person with that peace and forgiveness and redemption.
You see some relaxation after those confessions happen.
Extremely. I've had them come in there doing jumping jacks and
push-ups, and all kind of stuff to relieve the stress. And then finally when
they do have that opportunity to let all the walls down, they just come to the
point where they are completely relaxed, completely at ease. I've had people
come in and says "You, know there's no disrespect to you all, but there's
absolutely no way that I'm going to walk in there to that gurney and be
strapped down. You are going to have to take me." I've been back there with
54 people. Not one time has anybody had to be carried or forced to go in
there. Everybody has walked out with a spirit of dignity, with a spirit of
calmness, and walked in there and jump up on the gurney, strap down of their
own direction, and they've never had to force anybody to go.
Even though there have been those who have come in with a stubborn
You know that 6 hour time or 8 hour time whatever it is, becomes the real
emotional time. But at the same time it becomes a very cleansing time.
There aren't many tears are there?
There's been a lot of tears. Back in the back. There haven't been a lot
of tears in the chamber itself. Very few times that I can recall where there
have not been tears. You know that's something. You know, that's a man thing.
For all of our lives we've been taught, 'Big boys don't cry. ' But when you
come back there, you can let your emotions out. It's just that person and
myself. Pastoral confidentiality kind a situation, tears come through. Tears
for their families, tears because of frustration in their own live, true
regret, true repentance in their life. Hating to say good bye to a mom or
having to say good bye to a child. You know the grief process is very real and
emotions are high, and there's a lot of tears.
I've gotten the impression from the conversations that I've had with
inmates on death row that for many of them they're past the point of tears. They
cried early on, screamed early on, and then stopped after a period. There's
still some left with they come to the death house?
That's right. Because it's a whole different perspective... You're
leaving the Eliss Unit, your home, the people that you've been with for years
and years, the officers that's worked with you, the inmates that you've shared
with them through the years. You walk out of that environment, where it's loud
and boisterous. And you walk into the death house, and you know you'll never
see the light of day again. It adds a whole new dimension to your life. And
so, I guess it's a renewing of old emotions and the reality is setting in that
death is getting close. So the tears, they come back. Many, many times.
Do you take a position on the death penalty?
No, I do not.
Does the word neutral apply?
I prefer not to even get into the political aspect of it simply because I
feel that I can best meet the needs of these people that are coming through
here, the best needs of me working with the inmates who live here on a daily
basis for that not to even be a part of who I am. My position is I am a
minister. I want to meet their needs whatever I can do to make their last
hours meaningful and productive, and easy for everyone.
Are some executions more difficult for you than others. I know you can't
name names, but what can you say about that?
Yes, I'd say that there are some executions that are more difficult.
circumstances, family members, yes, there have been a lot that have been
difficult. None of them are easy, but there are some that are a lot more
difficult than others.
What makes one difficult, more difficult that another.
I guess, that's a difficult question. Generally speaking, hypothetically
speaking, where you're dealing with a man who has small children, teenage
children or young adult children, where they've never had an opportunity to be
with that child, hold that child, hold his hand or let him sit on his lap, to
be able to have that opportunity to touch them, to hear the pain in that child,
the anger, the fear or why is this happening to me... I guess those are the
times that are more difficult for me. Just dealing with the families and the
loss the families are feeling as much as dealing with the inmate themselves.
Have you been able to judge what the execution does for or to the
families of the victims?
I really have not. And I think that's going to be up to each individual
family. I've had families come through and they were really glad it was over,
and that they felt that justice had been served, and they were really happy
that the process had gone through. I've had others really searching saying, "I
hated to go through this thing, but I felt like it was important for my family
to do this."
I think for everybody involved whether it be the inmates family or their
family, the system, you know the people who work here, you know. In all
honesty when it comes to the crime itself, there are no winners. And everybody
loses. And there's such a tremendous loss from everybody's perspective. It
takes its toll on everybody involved. So when it comes down to looking at the
closure with the victim's family, yes, to some it has given closure. I use that
word loosely cause I don't really think it's any closure to it. It just opens
up another avenue, it closes one section like a chapter, but it opens up a
whole new chapter. How do I deal from here? You take a family who's been
dealing with the anger, the frustration, going through the trials, is this ever
going to happen? They keep it fresh all this time, and they never let the
memories, they never let the grief process come completely through, and then
finally when that execution does take place, they say, "Now what am I going to
do with my life?" They have to go back, and they have to deal with that death
in a very real way. More closure, and they are saying their good-byes and
dealing with the grief process itself.
And I would say that the loss is always going to be there. It, their never
going to be able to put it behind them and say, "well, that's in the past and
you know we're just going to forget about that for the moment." It's always
going to be a part of who they are.
There's some inmates and others who have seen a similarity in the gurney
and the cross. Do you see that?
No I don't. I
do not look at the death penalty as a religious experience. I look at that
person dying as a religious experience, but as far as the process of death, you
know that's a political situation. I try very hard to stay away from that.
Do you need counseling after these things?
Yes, I need somebody's shoulder to cry on. And I do cry. I have to
express myself. My family's been extremely supportive, and other people, and
the system who I can use as my confidant where I can go and unload on them.
It's safe with them. I go home and talk, I write, I cry, I pray. Yes, I think
anybody who deals with death on a routine basis realizes that it never becomes
routine. It always becomes a part of you just as much as that person is going
through a grief then so are you. So I'm not ashamed to admit that my emotions
run high and low throughout my job relationships.
Do some of the corrections officers, medics, whoever who takes part in
the execution, need your counseling?
We talk a lot, yes. You know so many people, I feel, have the wrong
attitude about the officers, the people who work here. The people who work
here are extremely professional. They are very sensitive. We talk, we cry,
we laugh, you know, we work out whatever is necessary. Cause the tension is
there, grief is there for everyone. And the tears are there. There's been
many officers who've cried because of the experience they've gone through.