Every final statement uttered by a doomed inmate in Texas performs a perpetual labor for the state
IT took the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) 34 years to execute 538 death row inmates. It took me just a few hours to read all 538 of their last statements recorded and published on the TDCJ’s website. In 1982, the state was the first to begin executing by lethal injection, and Old Sparky–its electric chair –was retired and put on display in the Texas Prison Museum. Texas is one of two death penalty states that self-publish the last statements of the people they execute. Since I first encountered the archive, I’ve been trying to understand the way the state uses inmate statements as ideological signifiers.
Former governor and Dancing With the Stars contestant Rick Perry famously affirmed Texan pride in the state’s decision to uphold the death penalty. Perry, who executed more people during his time in office than any other governor in modern history, said: “In the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.” Texas has long carried out this “ultimate justice” with particular zeal. In Texan mythos, the rights to land and to rule are ordained by God–and so is the responsibility to dole out punishment to the law’s transgressors.
Death penalty executions in the United States have reached an all-time low, but it isn’t for lack of support. Although only 13 states still practice the death penalty, 61 percent of Americans hold a favorable opinion of the practice, according to a Gallup poll taken last year. (The all-time high was 80 percent in 1996.) States with the highest execution numbers–Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Florida, in descending order–continue to actively pursue new methods of killing, even as many death row inmates challenge the practice on legal grounds.
In 1985, Henry Porter, a 43-year-old Mexican-American man found guilty of killing a police officer, was the ninth person executed by Texas since 1982. He was killed by lethal injection. I found his records by accident nearly three years ago in an archive entitled “Executed Offenders” on the TDCJ website. In addition to last statements, the archive includes the execution number, name, inmate number, age, date of execution, race, and county of residence for each executed person. I might have forgotten the archive entirely had there not been an enclosed link to Porter’s final statement. In his final minutes alive, he mocked the authority with which the state executes people:
I want to thank Father Walsh for his spiritual help. I want to thank Bob Ray [Sanders] and Steve Blow for their friendship. What I want people to know is that they call me a cold-blooded killer when I shot a man that shot me first. The only thing that convicted me was that I am Mexican and that he was a police officer. People hollered for my life, and they are to have my life tonight. The people never hollered for the life of the policeman that killed a 13-year-old boy who was handcuffed in the back seat of a police car. The people never hollered for the life of a Houston police officer who beat up and drowned Jose Campo Torres and threw his body in the river. You call that equal justice. This is your equal justice. This is America’s equal justice. A Mexican’s life is worth nothing. When a policeman kills someone he gets a suspended sentence or probation. When a Mexican kills a police officer this is what you get. From there you call me a cold-blooded murderer. I didn’t tie anyone to a stretcher. I didn’t pump any poison into anybody’s veins from behind a locked door. You call this justice. I call this and your society a bunch of cold-blooded murderers. I don’t say this with any bitterness or anger. I just say this with truthfulness. I hope God forgives me for all my sins. I hope God will be as merciful to society as he has been to me. I’m ready, Warden.
After Porter’s, I went on to read hundreds of other last statements. Porter was not the only person executed for killing a police officer–a crime for which Perry said assailants were guaranteed “ultimate justice”–and certainly not the only person to use their final statements to criticize the state that demanded their heads. Jeffrey Williams, a 37-year-old black man who was also executed for killing a police officer, shared nearly identical sentiments:
You clown police. You gonna stop with all that killing all these kids. You’re gonna stop killing innocent kids, murdering young kids. When I kill one or pop one, ya’ll want to kill me. God has a plan for everything. You hear? I love everyone that loves me. I ain’t got no love for anyone that don’t love me.
Both men’s indictments of the Texas justice system, including its police and prison executioners, are easily lost inside the “Executed Offenders” database. Other final statements are brief and apologetic. Some are absent from the list altogether because the inmate refused to make one. For a state heavily criticized for the quantity and practice of its executions, the publication of final statements may serve as a way to perpetually justify the killings after they occur. The archive is a concealment and a choreographed spectacle that sterilizes the execution chamber and erases the executioner altogether. The TDCJ succeeds in displaying its “ultimate justice” and power to kill, while using the last statements of the executed to perform–for the archive’s readers–the labor of re-confirming their criminality. Their words are immortalized in the database, where they indefinitely generate an appearance of government transparency as well as deliver a warning to would-be transgressors.
Texas sat on last statement records for nearly twenty years before publishing them online in 2011. In the decades encompassed by the archive, there seems to be little attempt to adhere to any common standards of record-keeping. In some instances, a curse word is redacted. In others, “(crying)” or “(began singing)” will interrupt the flow; statements, by and large, give as little context as possible to the scene of death beyond the words uttered. James Russell’s last statement, reads: “His final statement lasted 3 minutes. He thanked everybody that fought against his sentence. He spoke to his family and said he would carry their love with him.” Robert Black’s page just says “High Flight (aviation poem).” In these instances, a monumental experience for both the executed and the witness is reduced to a second-hand description. Russell and Black were executed in the early 90s; from that time period there are an inordinate amount of pages stating “The offender declined to make a last statement,” sometimes ten in a row. I found that those pages were generally infrequent for other time periods. Unless performed as an act of solidarity between death row prisoners, it’s not unlikely that the statements were either mistakenly or intentionally removed from the record. Among all of the statements, one constant aspect stood out: none describe the scene of the execution itself.
As Michel Foucault explains in his seminal work on incarceration, Discipline and Punish, final statements are something to be read as a lesson for all citizens. Many inmates deliver this moral education out of their own volition. Arturo Diaz, executed in September 2013, said: “I hope that this serves as an example for the youngsters. Think about it before you make a bad decision.” Many apologize to their families, but it is often unclear if they are apologizing for their crimes or for their deaths–in which case, they are made to apologize for their dying, as if it were occurring by natural consequence.
By way of the database, the execution is emptied of its historic significance, and the account of the execution is sanitized. When formal state executions were a public affair in the West, witnesses provided a crucial counterweight to the executioner and the sovereign state’s authority. Executions were a scene of confrontation between the public spectators and the authority that sanctioned them. There was always the potential for a public rejection of the execution and always the salient threat that the strength of the crowd could overpower the executioner if they agreed with the death sentence. The reader of the TDCJ database is removed from the scene of the execution, losing the recognition of how tenuous the state’s authority can be.
The sovereign state, an audience, and the contention between them, all disappear in place of a soon-to-be executed person and their oration of a final statement. The prisoners make themselves a subject of the state when they speak; their words are the immediate property of the executioner, regardless of their content. No matter the message, the state retains the right to silence or amplify it. And Texas, full of contradictions, manages to accomplish both at the same time. Inmates become active agents in their execution when they say, as they usually do, some iteration of “I’m ready, Warden.” The database establishes an imagined intimacy with the prisoner that removes the physical reality of the execution, and by extension, any understanding of what an execution means, looks, or sounds like. This process of obfuscation has precedent: just as the lethal injection was marketed as an alternative to the electric chair, a more humane process producing “no pain, no spasms, no smells or sounds–just sleep, then death,” Porter’s and Williams’ indictments are made to stand in for the scene of the execution, reducing the act of witnessing to scrolling through a website.
People killed in Texas’s death chambers tried communicating something to us in their last moments. When we do receive their messages, we must consider what it means to receive them from their executioner, the final owner of their words. If we consider the ever-evolving mechanisms of state power and the ways in which bodies are constantly transformed by its injunctions, then the corpse of an executed prisoner might represent the state’s ideal resting form for deviant subjects: an immobile body that reproduces its own death and culpability continuously through a final statement.