Senator seeks to end written last words
A state senator is demanding a change to the Texas prison system’s execution-day procedures, arguing that allowing a spokesman to read aloud a condemned killer’s written statement after his or her death is “disrespectful” to victims’ families.
Prompted by last week’s execution of white supremacist John William King — one of the men sentenced to die for the notorious hate crime slaying of James Byrd Jr. in 1998 — state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, on Monday called on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to stop allowing prisoners to leave behind written statements after they are put to death.
“Once they’re executed that should be the end,” Whitmire said in an interview. “If they want to write something, I would suggest that TDCJ throw it in the trash with all his other belongings.”
Traditionally, death row prisoners are permitted to say their last words into a microphone inside the death chamber, and also provide a written statement that a department spokesman may read aloud to the media at a press conference afterward. Whitmire isn’t seeking to ban final utterances, but instead demanding an end to written last statements.
Prison officials declined to comment, but King’s attorney, Richard Ellis, pushed back on the idea of retooling the current procedure
“An inmate’s last statement is virtually the only time in that person’s life when anyone pays attention to what they have to say,” Ellis said, “and I fail to see why the manner or form of that statement, whether written or oral, should be of any concern to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice or to Senator Whitmire.”
READ MORE: Last-meal requests come to an end on Texas death row
Whitmire’s letter marks the second time the Houston lawmaker has demanded a policy change following the execution of one of Byrd’s killers; eight years ago, the senator urged the prison system to end the practice of allowing condemned prisoners to order last meals after Lawrence Brewer put in a massive final request and ate none of it.
Likewise, on the gurney Wednesday, King had nothing to say and showed no remorse. But what irked Whitmire was the “flippant” final statement the 44-year-old left behind in writing: “Capital punishment: Them without the capital get the punishment.”
Afterward, spokesman Jeremy Desel read the statement aloud to the press gathered in Huntsville, as per usual procedure in the few cases when a prisoner leaves a written statement. In some cases — such as Napoleon Beazley’s rambling 2002 examination of capital punishment — prisoners have expressed last-minute regret through their written statements, but often inmates simply speak on the gurney, or leave no final public thoughts at all.
“If a death row inmate has something to say to the public or victims, let him or her say it while they are strapped to the gurney,” Whitmire wrote, adding that he was “shocked” to see King’s written statement quoted in the media. “I believe this action was totally improper and should never be repeated.”
On top of that, Whitmire asked for an examination of the death penalty appeals process and a look into how King was able to linger on death row for two decades before his execution.
“I intend to ask Lt. Gov. (Dan) Patrick to authorize an interim study of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee to review how someone like Mr. King could be on death row for 20 years,” Whitmire wrote. “It is entirely too long and not fair to the Byrd family and to the State of Texas.”
READ MORE: John William King put to death for 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr.
The Jasper killer was sentenced to die as one of three white men involved in the gruesome modern-day lynching, when Byrd was chained to a pickup and dragged to death on a country road, then left in front of a black church. The murder helped fuel the passage of federal hate crime legislation named for the slain black man, but it also eventually led to a change in execution-day protocols.
Before Lawrence Brewer, one of the other convicted killers, was put to death he ordered two steaks, a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger, a cheese omelet,fried okra, a pound of BBQ, white bread, fajitas, pizza, Blue Bell Ice Cream, fudge, and and three root beers.
It was, at the time, standard for prisoners to request a special meal before their execution — and some states still allow it. But when Brewer refused to eat any of the vast order, Whitmire penned a letter to then-prisons chief Brad Livingston calling the practice of special last meals “ridiculous” and demanding an end to it. Texas prison officials complied, and since then condemned men can only eat what’s on the mess hall menu for the day.