SILICON LOUNGE: Texas Web Site Chronicles Horrors of Death Row
One of the latest victims of the Texas execution machine didn't request a last meal. But Gary Graham went to his death proclaiming his innocence and denouncing the United States for legally killing its citizens. "We must continue to move forward and do everything we can to outlaw legal lynching in America. We must continue to stay strong all around the world, and people must come together to stop the systematic killing of poor and innocent black people," typed Graham. Prisoner #696 typed those words even as death-penalty opponents and civil-rights leader around the country tried to save his life.
Graham's last statement is one of dozens linked on perhaps the most macabre, and best organized, sites on the Web: the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's chronicle of death-row trivia www.tdcj.state.tx.us/statistics/stats-home.htm. The site coldly lists details about those slated for lethal injection: their crimes, gender, race, age, who watched them die, their pictures and other gory and personal details. (Average time on death row prior to execution is 10.39 years; average age 39; youngest 24; oldest 62.) You even get a how-to: They're strapped down and injected with sodium thiopental to sedate them, then pancuronium bromide to collapse the diaphragm and lungs, and potassium chloride to stop the heart. The lethal cocktail costs $86.08 per elimination and takes about seven minutes to work.
"There is a fascination, as morbid as that might be, about executions in Texas ... They ask us how tall, how long it took him to die ... As soon as we lay down the phone, it rings again," Larry Todd, spokesman of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, told me in February. Thus, the Web site exists to satisfy the public curiosity. "Yes, it's a PR tool," he added, "but it's a public-information tool. We don't do a lot of patting ourselves on the back; we try to tell it like it is."
It's hard to imagine a civilized reason Texas would be patting itself on the back. It leads the country in executions, especially since George W. Bush has taken office (135 and climbing), and the meticulous site seems to capture the vengeful pride of a state that manages to violate the moral commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill" with the frequency of a brutal, totalitarian nation. It would be comical if it weren't such a sickeningly honest chronicle of government-sanctioned lynchings, to use Graham's word, of mostly minority and poor people. The man killed before Graham, confessed murderer Paul Nuncio, had "enchiladas, burritos, chocolate ice cream, cantalope (whole, split in half) (sic)."
Yet we all need to study this site, to look at these faces, to read their last words. The ignorant bloodthirsty among us might be aroused by all the sick minutiae, but many who have managed to turn their heads, often out of political expediency -- that means you, too, Gores and Clintons -- might be given pause. These are human beings -- undoubtedly some innocent -- being judged and sent to freak-show deaths by other human beings (see the executioners' handwriting online, too). It's time humane Americans stand up and reject the barbaric argument that death is the only fit punishment for certain murderers. We can and should punish killers without killing them -- all the while giving them a lifetime to prove their innocence, should they be innocent. It's not an either-or choice: There is no evidence that the death penalty deters murder. We know that. If condemning means being called a "bleeding heart," so be it; that beats being a bloodthirsty savage any day.
I believe, like attorney Barry Scheck's amazing DNA work that is freeing innocent prisoners (perhaps his penance for helping spring rich man O.J. Simpson) and Illinois Gov. George Ryan's death-penalty moratorium (somebody give that Republican a Nobel Prize), this Texas Web site is there for a reason. It's an omen, of sorts, to show how far is too far. And, in recent weeks, it's even become a pulpit for the condemned to ask the U.S. to save itself from its own vengeful horrors.
On March 1, Odell Barnes Jr. -- also questionably convicted -- requested "justice, equality and world peace," probably knowing that Web gawkers would see his words online. His last statement addressed his family, supporters and attorneys: "I thank you for proving my innocence, although it has not been acknowledged by the courts. May you continue in the struggle and may you change all that's being done here today and in the past."
My mother liked to say, "Two wrongs don't make a right." That tired phrase, indeed, forms a bedrock of a moral society. We must heed it. In the final words of Graham: "So my brothers, all of y'all stay strong, continue to move forward." Amen.
Donna Ladd can be reached at email@example.com.