The Autobiography of an Execution: One Lawyer's Fight to Save Death Row Inmates in Texas

Human Rights

The following has been adapted from the book The Autobiography of an Execution Copyright (c) 2010 by David R. Dow. Reprinted by permission of Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

If you knew at precisely what time on exactly what day you were going to die, and that date arrived, and the hour and minute came and went, and you were not dead, would you be able to enjoy each additional second of your life, or would you be filled with dreadful anticipation that would turn relief into torture? That is the question I asked myself at twenty minutes past eight o'clock on Halloween night. Jeremy Winston was still alive. He was in the holding cell, eight steps away from the execution chamber at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas. He was supposed to have been dead for two hours.

Winston was my client. I was sitting in my office in Houston with three other lawyers, waiting for the clerk's office at the United States Supreme Court to call. The warden at the Walls was holding a judicial order instructing him to execute Winston after 6:00 p.m. He would carry it out unless the Supreme Court intervened. Winston had been pacing for two hours in the tiny holding cell, three steps one way, three steps back. He had requested a cigarette in lieu of a final meal. Prison officials informed him that tobacco products were not permitted on prison grounds. But the three guards who would escort Winston to the gurney gave him a pack of cigarettes and one match. He lit each new cigarette with the dregs of the old one.

Our phone rang. The clerk at the Supreme Court wanted to know what time we would be filing additional papers. I hadn't planned to file anything else. The four of us working on the case had already written our best argument and sent it to the Court. It had been there since five o'clock. In nearly twenty years of representing death-row inmates, this had never happened to me before. Was the clerk telling us to file something? I told him I'd call right back.

Had a law clerk or even a Supreme Court justice seen some argument that we had missed and decided to hold the case a little bit longer, giving us more time for the lightbulb to click on? That's what the justices do sometimes, they toy with you. Jerome, Gary, Kassie, and I were sitting in the conference room. We frantically deconstructed and reassembled our arguments, looking for something we might have missed. I was bouncing a Super Ball off the wall, tossing it with my left hand and catching the rebound with my right. Gary was juggling three beanbags. Jerome and Kassie were sitting still, pens in their hands, waiting to write something down, if we could think of something to write. Jeremy Winston was wondering why he was still alive. Suddenly I saw him, peering into the conference room, watching his lawyers juggle and play catch and sit there doing nothing. He shook his head, a gesture just short of disgust, realizing the sand was about to run out.

Maybe, I said, we had called something by the wrong name. You might think that when a life is at stake, formal legal rules would not matter so much, but you would be wrong. People die when their lawyers neglect to dot the i's or cross the t's. I decided we would refile what we had already filed, and just call it something different. Because I couldn't think of any other explanation, I convinced myself the problem was with the title. Necessity's eldest child is invention; her second-born is rationalization. Gary's the fastest typist. I asked him to get started working on it.

Two minutes later the phone rang again. Kassie answered. The clerk was calling to tell us never mind, that we had lost. I went into my office, closed the door, and called Winston to let him know. He was declared dead at twenty-seven minutes past nine.

I walked in the door from the garage at nine fifty-five. I was sucking on a peppermint to hide that I had been smoking. A dried-out roasted chicken was sitting on the counter. A fly was on the drumstick. I shooed it away. An open bottle of red wine was next to the chicken. I called to my wife, Katya. There was no answer. I figured Lincoln had had a nightmare and she was upstairs with him. I started to climb the stairs. Katya called to me from the library. She was sitting on the sofa, her feet on the coffee table, holding a wineglass on her stomach. Her eyes were red. She had been crying.

What's the matter? I said.

Where were you?

At my office. The Supreme Court didn't call until after eight. Winston didn't get executed until after nine. What's the matter?

You were supposed to take Lincoln to the haunted house. He waited up until nearly eight.

Oh shit. I completely forgot.

Lincoln was six. I had expected to be home by 7:00 at the latest. I told him I would take him to the haunted house after he collected enough candy. He had made me a costume to wear. I said, Why didn't you call to remind me?

I did call you. I left three messages on your cell phone.

I told her I had left my cell phone in my car. I asked, Why didn't you call the office?

Because I didn't think you would still be there. You always call when something happens. The execution was supposed to be at six, right?

Yes, it was supposed to be, I said. Did you go without me?

No. He said he wanted to wait for you. I told him I didn't know when you were going to be home. He said that he would just wait. He kept his Thomas the Tank Engine outfit on and sat on the stairs. At seven thirty I told him the haunted house was going to close in a few minutes, but he said he'd keep waiting. He came and sat outside with Winona and me to hand out candy to the trick-or-treaters. At eight I told him it was time to go to bed. On the way upstairs he said that he was feeling a little sad. I told him that it was okay to be sad. I said that you had probably gotten busy at work. He said, I know, but I'm still disappointed.

I said, Crap. I can't believe I forgot this. I'm going upstairs to check on him. I'll be right down.

I peeked in his room. Winona, our seventy-five-pound red Doberman, was lying on the bed, her head resting on Lincoln's ankles. He said, Hi, Dada. You missed the haunted house.

I said, I know I did, amigo. I'm really sorry. I forgot all about it. Can you forgive me?

He said, Yes. Why are you home so late anyway?

I had a lot of work to do.

He said, Did you help the person you were trying to help?

I'm afraid not, amigo. I tried, though.

He said, Dada, I'm a little sad.

Me too, amigo.

Will you sleep with me for five minutes?

Sure I will. Scoot over.

Twenty minutes later I walked downstairs. Katya said, I'm sorry about Winston.

Thank you.

I sat down next to her on the sofa. The TV was muted. She said, Your clients are not the only people who need you.

I said, I know.


Stories of executions are not about the attorneys. They're about the victims of murder, and sometimes their killers. I know death-penalty lawyers who are at the movies when their clients get executed. I know one who found out on Thursday that his client had been executed on Monday. He'd been scuba diving in Aruba. I understand that. It's possible to care without seeming to. It's also possible to care too much. You can think of yourself as the last person between your client and the lethal injection, or you can see your client as the person who put himself on the rail to that inevitability. One is healthier than the other.

My first client was executed in 1989. Derrick Raymond was an average bad guy who did one very bad thing. He dropped out of high school in tenth grade. Two years later he enlisted in the army to learn a skill. He wound up in Vietnam. He did not talk much to me about the war. I learned about his service record ten years after he was executed, when one of his army buddies tried to track him down but got in touch with me instead. Derrick returned to Houston with a purple heart and a heroin habit that cost him five hundred dollars a week, but still without any job skills. He pumped gas until he got fired for missing too many days. Drug addiction has many consequences. He started robbing convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. After one stickup, which netted him $73 and change, he was running down the street when the security guard gave chase, shooting. One shot hit Derrick in the leg. He fell to the pavement, turned around, and fired five shots at the security guard. The guard took cover, but one shot hit a seven-year-old boy who had just finished having lunch with his mother. There might be nothing sadder than dead children. On top of that, Derrick was black and the boy was white. That's a bad combination. The jury took less than two hours to sentence him to death.

Derrick's lawyer fell asleep during the trial -- not just once, but repeatedly. The prosecutor was appalled, but the trial judge just sat there. When a new lawyer requested a new trial, the court of appeals said no, because the judges believed Derrick would have been convicted even if his lawyer had been awake. Another court-appointed lawyer represented him for his habeas corpus appeals in state court. That lawyer missed the filing deadline. If you miss a deadline, the court will not consider your arguments. That's when I got appointed to represent Derrick in federal court. But the federal courts have a rule: They refuse to consider any issues that the state courts have not addressed first. The state court had said that Derrick's lawyer was too late and had therefore dismissed his arguments. So the federal court would not hear our appeal either.

My job as a lawyer, therefore, consisted mostly of planning the disposition of Derrick's estate. Of course, he didn't have an estate, meaning that my job was to arrange for the disposal of his body. (He did not want to be buried in a pauper's grave right outside the prison gates in Huntsville, Texas.) Making funeral arrangements didn't take very long either, so my job was really just to be his counselor, to listen to him, to send him books or magazines, to be sure he would not have to face death alone. My goal is to save my clients, but that objective is beyond my control. All I can control is whether I abandon them.

I would visit Derrick once a week and talk to him by phone another day. He had a son, Dwayne, who was twelve when his dad arrived on death row and nineteen when Derrick was executed. I sat next to them as they struggled to connect. The Internet is ruining society because human relationships are inherently tactile. It's hard to become close to a man you can't touch, even (maybe especially) if he's your dad. I told them I was hopeful that the Board of Pardons and Paroles and the governor would commute Derrick's sentence, and I was. I am always hopeful. Nothing ever works out, but I always think that it's going to. How else could you keep doing this work? I watched his execution because he asked me to.

At 12:37 a.m. on Thursday, March 9, 1989, Derrick was put to death in front of me, Dwayne, and two local reporters. Afterward, I hugged Dwayne, got in my truck, and drove with my dog and a case of Jack Daniel's to my cabin on Galveston Island. I sat on the deck watching the Gulf of Mexico and drinking. The moon was bright. The mullet were jumping in schools and I could see trout in wave curls feeding. I smelled the rain. I left the front door open so the dog could go outside when she needed to and dumped a week's worth of food in her bowl. At dawn the sky blackened and the storm rolled in. I made sure my lounge chair was under the eave then closed my eyes and slept. When I'd wake up to use the toilet, I'd drink a shot of whiskey and chase it with a pint of water. I intended not to get dehydrated. Other than the birds and the surf, the only sound I heard was the thump of newspapers landing on driveways every morning. On Monday, I opened four papers, to figure out what day it was. I ran for an hour on the beach with the dog and swam for thirty minutes in the surf while the dog watched. Walking back to the cabin for a shower I said to her, Sorry for being a terrible master. She picked up a piece of driftwood and whipped her head back and forth.

We had lunch sitting on the deck at Cafe Max-a-Burger. I ordered four hamburgers, a basket of onion rings, and a lemonade. The dog ate her two burgers so fast that I gave her one of mine. When I paid the bill the cashier said, That's one lucky dog.

I said, Thanks for saying so, but you have it backwards. That dog is by far my best quality.


I headed back to Houston. My original interest in the death penalty was entirely academic, not political or ideological, and at the time Derrick got executed, I was working on a project examining the comparative competency of lawyers appointed to represent death-row inmates in Texas, Florida, Virginia, and Kentucky. I was scheduled to meet with an assistant who was helping me collect data. Traffic on the Gulf Freeway was going to make me late. Driving recklessly, I sideswiped an elderly woman near the NASA exit. I jumped out of my truck and was apologizing before my feet hit the pavement. She screwed up her face like she'd just swallowed sour milk. She said she was going to call the police. I told her I wasn't drunk, I just smelled like it. She smiled and said, I believe you, young man.

The law school has blind grading. Students identify themselves on their final exam with a four-digit number. Every year I hire as research assistants the three numbers who write the best answers. When I asked Katya to work for me, I didn't even know her name.

An unwritten rule forbids teachers from dating students. I think violations of that rule can be forgiven if you ultimately marry them. A week after Derrick's execution, I finally got up the nerve to ask Katya out.

We ate dinner at Ninfa's on the east side. It was back in the days when the east side was iffy at night. We sat in the back. She said, You have sad eyes.

I think you're most alive when you're sad.

That's bullshit.

My favorite moment in the old Mary Tyler Moore Show is when Mary interviews for the job in the WJM newsroom. Lou Grant says to her, You've got spunk. She beams with pride and says, Well, yes. He says, I hate spunk.

I told her about Derrick. She asked whether I would represent anyone else. I told her I thought I would.

I said, It seems like important work. I guess I don't think people should have to die alone, no matter what bad thing they did. She asked whether I thought it would make a difference. I said, Probably not.

She said, I think there's a word for trying to get in the way of something that's preordained.

Preordained is a little strong.

I thought, Besides, whether something is inevitable isn't the same as whether it's right, but I was feeling too old to say something so naive on a first date.

She smiled, which I interpreted as agreement. The server brought our food. I had ordered for both of us: tacos al carbon and ratones. She said, What are these?

I said, Rats.


Seriously. That's what they're called.

They were large jalapeño peppers, split open, stuffed with shrimp and Mexican cheese, dipped in batter, and deep-fried. She took a bite, and her face broke out in a sweat. She said, These are delicious.

Here, I said, and I slid her my mug of beer.

She said, I think that if you're going to keep doing this, and it isn't going to matter, then you need a better coping strategy than a case of bourbon.

I said, That's probably true.


When Jeremy Winston got executed, I had known him for only two months. I met him and Ezekiel Green, another death-row inmate, the same day, the date of Katya's and my tenth anniversary. Winston's lawyer had called me and said he wasn't going to do any more work on the case because he didn't have time. To his credit, at least he felt guilty about the fact that he was abandoning his client. You meet many crappy or lazy lawyers, but not very many who admit to others that they're crappy or lazy. He wondered whether my office would throw the Hail Mary pass. We're a nonprofit legal-aid corporation that does nothing but represent death-row inmates. I told him I'd talk to Winston the next time I was at the prison.

Winston was so fat he had to sit sideways in the cage where inmates visit with their lawyers. His arms were green, one solid tattoo from wrist to shoulder. In between each knuckle on each hand were tiny crosses. I introduced myself. He saw me staring at his hands. He said, Are you a religious man?

I'm afraid not.

He said, Not a problem. I didn't mean nothing by the question. Just asking.

I told Winston there was nothing left to do in his case. We could file a challenge to the method the state intended to use to execute him, but it was not likely to succeed.

He said, Yeah, I heard they're gonna kill me with some drug that they ain't allowed to use to kill animals, is that right?

One of the drugs that is part of the lethal injection combination has in fact been banned by veterinarians. Lawyers representing death-row inmates in some states had raised successful challenges to the lethal-injection cocktail protocol. So far, the legal maneuvering had not worked in Texas. But the lawyers in my office and I had a new idea, and we thought it might work in Winston's case. I was not going to tell him that.

I said, That is true, but it doesn't matter. Most of the judges don't really believe that you're going to suffer when you're executed, and even if they did, they probably wouldn't care, and even if they cared, they couldn't do anything about it. He nodded. I said, We can file a suit for you, but you will not win. If you want me to file it, though, I will. I just want you to know what's going to happen. I'll file it and we will lose.

I paused to let him ask a question. He didn't, so I continued, Not only will you not win, but besides that, you probably won't know for sure that you have lost until twenty minutes before the execution. That's when the Supreme Court clerk will call me. They like to wait as long as they can so that we don't have any time to file anything else. They'll call me and then I'll call you. Are you following me? He nodded. I said, What I'm telling you is that I think you are going to lose, and that after I call to tell you that we have lost, you're not going to have much time to prepare. Knowing all that, do you still want me to file it?

I knew as I was talking that I sounded almost cruel. That's not what I was aiming for. I was trying to sound completely without hope. I needed him to be hopeless. I didn't want him to be thinking he was going to win up until the time I called him. I didn't want there to be even the faintest glimmer of hope. I don't mind admitting that I know exactly whose interests I had at heart. I've called people who still had hope. It's easier to tell someone who is prepared to die that he is about to die. Winston said, That will be tough on Marie.

Who's Marie?

My wife. We got married last year. You didn't know that? I told him I didn't. She's sweet, from Louisiana. I nodded. Winston drummed his fingers against the glass that separated us. The Randy Newman song "Marie" started playing in my head: You looked like a princess the night we met. I listened, lost, while Winston thought. Finally he said, Yeah, go on ahead. You're the first dude that's been straight with me. Everybody's always sugarcoating everything. I'm tired, man, tired of being lied to. Do what you can do.

I told him I would and asked if he had any questions. He said, Yeah I do. Do you have any good news for me? He smiled.

I said, I'm seeing a guy named Ezekiel Green when I finish talking to you. Do you know him?

Winston said, Bald-headed skinny dude with a tattoo on his face?

I said, I don't know. I've never seen him.

He said, I think that's the guy. Something ain't right with him. They gassed him once and he didn't cough or choke or nothing. Just laughed. Talks to himself a lot. Dude showers with his boots on.

I said, Thanks. I'll send you what we file. I probably won't see you again. Take care, though, and I'll talk to you. He touched his hand to the glass between us. I touched it back.

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