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.
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.
Nationwide, there have been about 4,300 executions since 1930 and 439 since 1977. The number of inmates on Death Rows across the country shot from several hundred in the late 1970s to over 3,200 as of last year.
The average stay on the Row is about 10 years, so the number of executions is expected to continue rising as cases of those sentenced to death after 1977 run out of appeals. About 40 percent of Death Row inmates in the United States leave through resentencing, retrial, commutation, or death other than official execution.
The increase in capital punishment is generating increased opposition for a variety of reasons. One common argument from the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center: Racial minorities are being prosecuted at rates far beyond their proportion of the general population. Almost 40 percent of those executed since 1976 have been black, even though blacks make up only about 12 percent of the general population.
A closer examination of BJS statistics brings forth a different story. Since 1980 blacks have committed more murders than whites (47 percent of murders have been done by blacks, 38 percent by whites), yet blacks were executed less often than whites (blacks made up 38 percent of all inmates executed, whites 57 percent). The percentage of inmates sent to Death Row who were black (41 percent) was roughly proportionate to the number executed.
Further, the BJS reports that from 1976 through 1996 the average stay on Death Row before execution was nine years and nine months for blacks and eight years and four months for whites, suggesting that racism is not railroading blacks through the system. Dudley Sharp of Justice For All, a Houston-based group that supports capital punishment, also cites several reports, such as a 1991 study funded by the Rand Corporation, that found factors such as the offender's criminal record and the nature of the crime correlating with death sentencing-not race.
Death penalty opponents also argue that the system is rife with mistakes and malicious prosecution, in part because district attorneys and politicians with an eye on the next election are anxious to appease a crime-sickened public. Opponents also question the quality of the public defenders assigned to Death Row cases. Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, states that 69 people have been released from Death Row since 1973, and 21 since 1993, "after evidence of their innocence emerged."
The list of cases he cites is sobering. It includes accounts of prosecutors who withheld evidence and of convictions based on the testimony of witnesses with poor credibility. In one 1985 Illinois case the sentence of a woman with an IQ of 57 was reduced from 50 years to two months' probation after she fingered a police suspect in a seven-year-old crime. In dozens of cases convicted murderers have been set free because new evidence or evidence analyzed by new technologies (like DNA comparisons) established their innocence. Mr. Dieter also contends that at least four men have been wrongly executed since 1976.
But Morgan Reynolds, criminal justice director for the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis, claims that overturned convictions and reduced sentences show not that the appeals process is failing, but that it works. He concedes that studies have found 23 possibly innocent men who were convicted this century, but all were before 1950. While there may have been procedural problems with a handful of cases since 1976, no inmate executed since then has later been proven innocent: "We have the most expensive and elaborate procedures in the world to select the worst of the worst."
Opponents of capital punishment also argue that the cost of executing an inmate can exceed $3 million because of the various appeals; it would cost only a third of that to warehouse a prisoner for 40 years. Proponents point out that those serving life sentences also have extensive and costly rights to appeal.
Although deterrence is often cited as a justification, studies have failed to prove the issue one way or the other.
The possibility of mistakes, cost, deterrence, and other issues all deserve consideration, says James Wootton, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Safe Streets Alliance, and may indicate the need for more reform. "But ultimately," he says, "the only question is whether it is just."
The Old Testament support for capital punishment is clear: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man" (Genesis 9:6). The Mosaic law calls for the death penalty for sins including murder (Exodus 21:12), sorcery (Exodus 22:18), idolatry (Deuteronomy 17:2-7), and adultery (Leviticus 20:10-12).
Some Christians believe that capital punishment is inconsistent with the New Testament teachings of grace and forgiveness. "With the coming of Christ, certain things changed," says death penalty opponent John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a Christian legal advocacy group based in Charlottesville, Va. "I see Christianity as a redemptive religion."
Mr. Whitehead contends that a consistent pro-life position requires Christians to regard even the lives of murderers as sacred. Punishment should be remedial and "characterized by true love. You do not cure a human being by killing him." Christ's sacrifice requires the state, like individuals, to forgive and seek the good of the prisoner, says Mr. Whitehead, because "the state is run by people."
Does this position confuse the obligations of individuals with those of government? When Pilate asked Jesus, "Don't you realize that I have the power to either free you or crucify you?" Christ responded that such power was "given to you from above" (John 19:10-11). The Apostle Paul also affirmed the state's right to execute in Romans 13:4: "But if you do wrong, be afraid, for [the civil authority] does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer."
Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, states that "mercy extended to offenders whose guilt is certain creates a moral travesty which over time helps pave the way for the collapse of the entire social order." Mr. Colson opposed the death penalty until he interviewed mass-murderer John Wayne Gacy several years ago. Mr. Gacy was a homosexual predator who in the 1970s lured his young male victims into his Chicago home, then tortured and murdered them.
Investigators found 28 bodies in the crawlspace under his house and five more in a nearby river.
After that interview, in which Gacy showed no remorse, Mr. Colson realized that "justice in God's eyes requires that the response to an offense (whether against God or humanity) be proportionate." He says, "I now favor capital punishment, but only in extreme cases when no other punishment can satisfy the demands of justice [and] where there is no doubt about the offender's guilt. [Premeditated murder] is, after all, the one crime in the Bible for which no restitution was possible (Numbers 35:31, 33)."
And what about Death Row inmates who become Christians, like Karla Faye Tucker? "Most of the people I work with have had a faith change while they were in county jail or in prison," recalled Jim Brazzil, a Southern Baptist chaplain at the Huntsville prison. He believes that 40 of the 49 inmates he has been with in their final hours were Christians, some converting after arriving from Ellis One, one who was already strapped to the gurney. "That is cutting it awfully close, but I believe it was real."
Chaplain Brazzil counsels the families of victims and inmates; family members are allowed to witness executions. He tells them to expect to see, from the viewing room, the inmate buckled to the gurney with IVs in both arms and a microphone over his head. They will be able to hear everything in the room and he will be able to see them. After the chemicals hit him (a succession of drugs to knock him out, stop his lungs, and then shut down his heart), he will gasp once or twice, the chaplain says: "Then you'll see the breath go out of his body." About 90 seconds later the inmate will be dead. "Most of the time his eyes will be open. That's a big trauma for the family."
Chaplain Brazzil also recalls some special deaths. He reflected on Steven Renfro, who was convicted in 1996 and became a Christian shortly after arriving at Ellis One. Mr. Renfro confessed his guilt, waived all right of appeal, and was strapped to the gurney on Feb. 6 after less than two years on the Row. He died praising the Lord, says Chaplain Brazzil. "His faith was just as real and just as powerful, and his joy was just as real as Karla Faye Tucker's."
Some families of murder victims oppose capital punishment. In 1990, Robert Knighton, 38, and two teens ran away from a halfway house in Kansas City, Mo., and ended up at a farmhouse near Tonkawa, Okla. There they robbed and shot to death Richard and Virginia Denney, Sue Norton's father and stepmother. After they were caught, the two younger convicts turned state's evidence and pegged Mr. Knighton as the shooter. He received the sentence of death in 1991 and is on Oklahoma's Death Row.
"Listening to the trial, I began to realize that there was a lot more to this story than met the eye," says Mrs. Norton, a member of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation. She began making the three-hour drive to visit him every few months and calling every week. She gave him a Bible, shared the gospel with him, and nine months later he accepted Christ. Now she calls him "B.K." and wants his sentence commuted. She expects he will exhaust his appeals in a year or two. "God sent Jesus to show us specifically that we're supposed to forgive," she says.
But Harriet Semander of Houston, whose 20-year-old daughter Elena was strangled to death in 1982 and stuffed into a dumpster by serial killer Charlie Watts, says she just wants justice. Because of a deal that Mr. Watts cut with prosecutors, he will be eligible for parole in 2004. The prospect appalls Mrs. Semander, who expresses faith in Christ and believes the death penalty would be appropriate for Mr. Watts. "If this is what it would take for him to accept salvation," she says, "so be it."
Mrs. Semander is a board member of the advisory council of Texas' Victims Services. "When a person accepts Christ," she says, "that doesn't do away with the [earthly]consequences of what he's done."
Cameron Willingham was to face his consequences on March 4, but part-way through his interview with WORLD on Feb. 18 he was informed by a guard that a Fifth Circuit court granted him an evidentiary hearing and a temporary stay of execution. When asked for his reaction, he replied that he went through all this in 1994 after he got his first execution date. "The only thing they can do is kill this shell that I'm living in," he said.
David Castillo also received a stay a few days before his execution. New dates have not been set for either prisoner.