Cover Story

At deaths door

It is no accident that the eyes of the world were on Texas in February when Karla Faye Tucker received capital punishment. Of the 73 prisoners executed last year in the United States, 37 died in Texas. That makes Texas the state where, according to some believers, biblical law is bravely carried out-but others protest. WORLD sent one of its correspondents to ground zero in the debate, Texas' Death Row at Huntsville prison, to describe some less-celebrated cases and the ongoing debate.

Issue: "Paying with your life," April 4, 1998

The official name of Death Row in Texas is Ellis One, an imposing brown brick fortress 12 miles north of Huntsville, which is about 70 miles north of Houston.

The towers, chain-link fences, and pervasive presence of barbed wire give Ellis One an ominous air, but the staff members on Feb. 18 were surprisingly jovial. One female guard manning the security hut at the gate was hawking Girl Scout cookies to visitors.

After signing in, visitors were escorted into a long, brick-walled room in the administration building. The room has large windows, a battered Coke machine, and a painting of the Nativity scene. A counter runs the length of the room with about 20 hard wooden chairs lined up along it. Half-a-dozen inmates, locked in four-foot by four-foot cages, waited on the other side of the counter behind thick metal mesh and an 18-inch-high panel of reinforced plate glass at face level.

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In one of the cages on that sunny afternoon sat Cameron Todd Willingham, 30 years old. The rap sheet said that on Dec. 23, 1991, he killed his three daughters, two-year-old Amber and one-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron, by setting fire to his house in Corsicana, Texas. In a good-ole-southern-boy accent, the Oklahoma native claimed he was asleep when it started. "That was the only thing I was guilty of, was being asleep in my own house," he asserted with wide-eyed sincerity.

However, investigators and then a jury found that Mr. Willingham started the fire intentionally with an inflammable liquid. His claims of heroic effort to save the girls were belied by his unscathed escape with little smoke in his lungs. The proceeds of an insurance policy on the girls were later used to buy a pickup truck. Mr. Willingham argued that his ex-wife's boyfriend started the blaze, but the jury in his 1992 trial delivered a guilty verdict and the death penalty. His date to die was March 4.

"Dying's no big deal," Mr. Willingham said. "It's just the thought of being dead that gets to you, huh?" He says that, in principle, he supports the death penalty in cases of extreme brutality. "If you take somebody's life in a senseless manner ..." he paused, "then I think you're just taking up space." Mr. Willingham claimed to be a Christian-"I'm just not a very good one"-but he did not know whether he will go to heaven.

"That's God's decision, not mine. If there's a place and he thinks I'm worthy, so be it. If not, I'll go wherever he sends me." He stated that because there are so many different interpretations of the Bible, nobody can say for sure what it means.

In another cage sat David Allen Castillo, in his 13th year on Death Row. He figured that number was trouble, right up to the time he was scheduled to be executed on March 5. "I just wanted to get over this year," he said. Mr. Castillo was convicted as a pimply-faced kid of 20. Nearly 15 years later he was still claiming that his friend did it, but the courts decided he was the one who stabbed a liquor store clerk numerous times in the chest and abdomen, and slashed him across the face in a July 14, 1983, holdup in Mercedes, Texas.

Did he expect to go to heaven? "Yes, I honestly do," he said. His stated reason was not faith in Christ, but his Catholic baptism some months after he was arrested.

Few people apart from the families of these two men were paying attention as their scheduled dates for execution approached. There were no calls from Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or the pope, and no frenzied media specials. But these planned executions, like all others, were significant because they would reaffirm the principle that there are some crimes for which the only just punishment is death.

That principle was ignored for a while. The Supreme Court banned executions in 1972, ruling that, in practice, the system was capricious and unfair. States were allowed to resume again in 1976 after they revised their procedures. According to the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the number of executions in the United States hit a high of 199 in 1935, fell to just a handful by the late 1960s, and hit zero between 1968 and 1976. The number is now rising again: one execution in 1977, five in 1983, 23 in 1990, 37 in 1993, 45 in 1996, and 73 in 1997.


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