the execution | frontline online
graveyard awash in crosses
interview with reverend jim brazzil
He had arrived as chaplain on death row about a year  before Boggess was executed in June 1998. He had attended over fifty condemned men in their last hours and was with Boggess when he died.  He said later that Boggess was more at peace than any of them.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. 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 oneWhere 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 attitude?

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.

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