This transcript is taken from a two-hour interview with Fred Allen, former Texas Department of Criminal Justice tie-down officer. Excerpts of this interview, conducted at Allen’s home by Sound Portraits producers Abramson and Isay, were used in Witness to an Execution, a Peabody-Award winning radio documentary about the men and women who witness and carry out executions in Huntsville. The transcript was published in Machinery of Death: The Reality of America’s Death Penalty Regime (Routledge), edited by David R. Dow and Mark Dow.
The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from Routledge.
Can you tell us a little bit about what your role in executions was?
I started out really early in my career, so I had different job responsibilities. When I was just a correctional officer, I would stay back in the death house with the condemned inmate. They would bring him over … and we’d make sure that everything was secure. …If the inmate was curious about the process, we would tell ’em. We didn’t want any secrets back there. We wanted that individual to know that everything would be done professionally, with integrity. Whatever he would ask–within reason–we would accommodate him.
Later on, after you were promoted, you were on the tie-down squad. Can you tell us what that entailed?
The majority of the time I stood on the right side of the cell door. The warden would walk in and tell the individual, “It’s time.” Another guard would unlock the door and I would tell the individual, “Just follow me.” We would walk into the death house. I’d tell him, “Sit right down here. Put your head down. Put your feet over here.” Then just as soon as he’d sit down we would start strapping him down. I would make sure that all the straps and everything was taken care of, make sure that none of the straps were too loose or too tight. That wouldn’t be right. I would take care of those adjustments then exit the death house. I would be one of the last individuals to leave. Lots of times I would exit and go into the witness chamber, on the inmate’s family side … seeing an individual that’s being executed in front of you, as a family member–there’s lots of individuals that would break down, would fight. And I would be there just to make sure that we could get them out, that we could get some medical attention if we needed to.
How many executions did you witness?
Over 120. It could be 130. I didn’t care to count. I didn’t care to keep track of people’s names or what they did. All I knew was that I had the final part of the law to carry out. And I wanted to be the person to make sure that everything was being down right. That was my main reason, and then I quit.
Why did you quit?
It was two days after Karla Faye [Tucker] and something triggered within me…. I was just working in my shop. It was right around six o’clock that all of a sudden I started crying, shaking uncontrollably. I walked back in the house and my wife asked, “What’s the matter?” I said, “I don’t feel good.” I was shaking and tears, uncontrollable tears, were coming out of my eyes. I told her I just thought about that execution that I did two days ago and everybody else’s that I was involved with. I said, “I need to call Chaplain Pickett.” I got him on the phone and he talked to me. It was good, just for him to talk to me. Thirty minutes later I felt anxiety again. I called Chaplain Brazzil. He was real good to talk to also. He even volunteered to come over then and it was already getting late in the evening–eight, nine o’clock. I told him no, I’ll be okay. And we talked a good 45 minutes, maybe closer to an hour, until I called Chaplain Pickett back and asked if he would have some time tomorrow.
He was there as soon as I got off work. We sat on my back porch swing, listened to the roosters and the doves, and we just kind of talked about it. He explained it to the point of–you take a vase and you put a drop of water in it. Every time you put a drop of water in it fills up. One last drop of water, it overfills. He said that’s how you might want to look at the way you did the executions: You did so much your vase is full now and you’re done. You’re spilling over and it’s over with.
I don’t know if it was a mental breakdown. I don’t know if it would be classified as more of a traumatic stress, similar to what individuals in war had. When they come back from war it might be two months, it might be two years, it might be five years, and then all of a sudden one day they’re reliving it. All that has to come out…. For the longest time I didn’t want to talk about it. I would still rather just leave it behind me. Even if I do get it all out, I don’t know if it would ever be over with. Some of it is always going to be within me. My main concern right now is these other individuals, the ones who do this procedure now. I hope this doesn’t happen to them. And I believe very sincerely that somewhere down the line something will.
How are you feeling right now?
Now I am starting to get–I apologize–now I’m really starting to think of more and more stuff I’d rather keep behind me–I’d rather keep it buried. It’s too much to try to bring it back up. There is a certain line that I can express myself with this, and then when I see myself get deeper I see myself withdrawing faster from it. [Long pause.] My heart is racing because I’m thinking more and more of it. I really just want to withdraw from it at this point.
Are there other executions that stick in your mind?
I remember some telling jokes all day. I remember one walking the floor–asking him if he needed anything, a cup of coffee, punch, if he wanted a cinnamon roll. Remembering individuals that all they wanted to talk about was Dallas Cowboy football, you know, and he’s glad he’s going beyond and he’s glad that the Dallas stadium has an open roof so that he can still watch ’em. There are so many of them. It’s like you take a projector and you got those little slides and you sit there and you just keep hitting a button. Every once in a while you could stop and I can see a picture. But there’s just so many of ’em, I just choose to keep my projector unplugged. Everybody says that you can bury it within your mind, but you always have memory. And once it happened it’s just like pushing a button and watching it over and over: him, him, him, him.
When you had your breakdown, what was going on? Was it that slide projector going around?
I was seeing pictures of what would happen after the execution. After it was over, we had to go back inside to take the individual off the gurney, and there were a lot of times when you’d go back in there and the individual’s eyes are still half open. After you remove 100 or so individuals that you stay back there with a certain length of time in the death house and they’re executed, and then you remove them–that’s what all came out.
And before Karla Faye Tucker you never had any problems?
No. I was pro-death penalty. I knew that what I was doing was according to the law. I did it sincerely, professionally, with integrity. But my wife would tell you that she could definitely tell afterwards because I would toss and turn at night. She’s caught me sleepwalking before.
What do you think it would feel like to go back there?
Oh, just asking that question…I can barely even talk… I can feel my heart beating a little faster–the anxiety growing up. The thought of it–no. As soon as I say “no” I can retreat. And when I can retreat, I’m better off. I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me or anything like that. I went through this. It’s over with now. I am just going to adjust. I was messed up and I’m still going to be messed up. Every time I talk about it, it’s going to mess with me. But I’m going to get over it. What kind of help can they give me? If I talk to a psychologist, he’s going to tell me that I had a mental relapse. I know this already. Are you going to give me some kind of anti-depressive drugs? I’m not a depressed person. I don’t need medication. I need life.
Are you aware that there are executions tomorrow, Wednesday, and Thursday?
I hear about ’em, just like you tell me now, but like I said before I don’t want any part of it. I want to say I don’t care, but if you push my buttons, I’m going to tell you yeah, I do care. But I am not going to go out and proclaim that it’s wrong. I am just a 38-year-old man that has a family. It’s just me and my family. …What right do I have to give a message to anybody?
The main reason I am doing an interview is that it’s very easy for the law–for the judge, for the jury–to convict an individual. It’s very easy to sentence him and put him over on death row and keep track of him until his date comes. But then you have to carry out that execution. There are individuals that I know of personally who have had trouble with it after so many of ’em, and they choose not to say anything. I don’t know if it’s because they’re still within the system. Somewhere down the line something is going to trigger. Everybody has a stopping point. Everyone has a certain level. That’s all there is to it.
Stacy Abramson is Executive Producer at Large with WNYC radio in New York. David Isay has won numerous broadcasting awards and was a 2000 MacArthur Fellow.