HOUSTON—A friendly fellow by the name of Jim Willett often greets visitors to the Texas Prison Museum, cheerfully telling interesting stories from the colorful history of the state’s penal system.
He’ll point to an elaborately carved tree stump and tell the story of the convict who halfway finished his work, won parole, then landed back in the same prison to finish his handiwork. He’ll show the exhibit dedicated to the 1974 prison hostage drama that ended with a bloody shootout at the state’s oldest penitentiary.
And if you ask him, he’ll tell you an interesting detail about his life.
“I oversaw 89 executions,” he says.
Willett served as warden of the Huntsville Unit, nicknamed the “Walls Unit,” for three of the busiest years in the history of the Texas death chamber. Every couple of weeks, he would stand before a condemned murderer strapped to a gurney and quietly remove his glasses, a secret signal ordering a guard to flip a butterfly valve that would begin dripping powerful muscle relaxants into the inmate’s veins.
“The first time is just unbelievable,” he recalls. “It’s something that’s taking place in front of you that you’re just not prepared for. “
It was enough, he remembers, to make him a nervous wreck.
“You’ve got a perfectly healthy person in front of you that’s fixing to be dead in a little bit,” he remembers. “And for me it’s a matter of, I’m the person that’s going to say, ‘Let’s do this.’”
Texas is doing it more often than any other state in the nation, so often it now stands ready to cross a historic threshold. Unless she wins a reprieve, Kimberly McCarthy – a 50-year-old woman convicted of beating and stabbing a college professor to death in her home—will become the state’s 500th condemned murderer executed by lethal injection.
Executions have become almost routine since the night in December 1982 when a huge crowd of demonstrators mobbed outside the so-called “Walls Unit” for the midnight death of Charles Brooks, the first inmate to die by injection. Before that, a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision had temporarily shut down the nation’s prison death chambers and commuted condemned inmates sentences to life in prison. But another court decision in 1976 allowed capital punishment to resume in the U.S., opening the door for Texas to move back into the business of executing murderers.
Now executions in Huntsville seldom attract large crowds or significant media attention. As opposed to the crowds gathering for executions in the early 1980s, even higher profile cases generally attract only a few dozen spectators.
But a small group of professionals have routinely attended Texas executions – guards, clergymen, newspaper and wire service reporters – amassing a grim but unique body of observations about the nation’s busiest death chamber.
Perhaps none of them have grown closer to the condemned inmates than a retired prison chaplain named Jim Brazill, who stood beside 155 convicted murderers as they gasped their last breaths.
“Sometimes they’d laugh,” Brazill remembers. “Sometimes they’d cry. Sometimes they’d pray.”
The retired chaplain remembers one inmate strapped to the gurney saying he was lonely. So Brazill placed his hand on the man’s ankle, a comforting gesture for the condemned man. From that day forward, he made a point of touching each convict’s ankle as he died.
Most of the convicts appreciated his kindness, he says. But of course, some were bitterly upset.
“Sometimes, they would really just talk and laugh and cut up,” he remembers. “Other times, they would want to be very quiet and very reflective, by themselves. Some of them were very, very remorseful. Some of them were laughing and joking, total state of denial. And others were angry.”
He fondly remembers Karla Faye Tucker, the convicted ax murderess who was the first woman executed in Texas during modern times. Evangelical Christians lobbied for clemency and a life sentence for Tucker, arguing that she had genuinely experienced a religious conversion. Brazill still has a bible Tucker borrowed from him and clandestinely signed, starting something of a tradition in which condemned inmates left messages behind in the pages of the chaplain’s book.
He also remembers helping the families of executed killers, many of whom hadn’t touched their loved ones for decades during their incarceration on death row. After the inmates were executed, relatives sometimes rushed to funeral homes.
“We would make arrangements for them to go to the funeral home where there were no guards,” Brazill says. “It was quiet in there. And (the dead inmates’ corpses) were still warm. Their bodies were still warm. And we would give them an opportunity to hold and touch their family members during that time. It always helped them in the grieving process.”
It is a process that repeats itself over and over, every time Texas executes a condemned convict.