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Witness to An Execution Imust confess that I wanted to see the execution of Johnny Frank Garrett. It took a bit of journalistic hustle to secure a place on the five-member press pool. My friends told me that I should examine my motives before I went. I didn’t. I marched toward the Death House at midnight to satisfy insatiable journalistic curiosity. I just”wanted to get inside. The Death House is a brick bunker tucked inside The Walls prison unit in downtown Huntsville. Inside it’s painted milky blue. It must be the most brightly lighted place in the entire Texas prison system. The room is small; only a few feet and silver, metal prison bars separated Garrett from his family. I stood directly behind Garrett’s mother. The executioner stood in a separate room behind a pane of mirrored glass. Thin intravenous tubes run through a small opening in the wall, into both arms of the prisoner. Garrett was strapped to a gurney, with white leather belts across his chest, belly, thighs, knees, and ankles. His hands were concealed by tape. His arms were strapped outward at right angles. From above, it must have looked like he was on a crucifix. Garrett was in a defiant mood and was clearly agitated. He was already on the gurney when the press contingent entered a few minutes past midnight. I’d seen Garrett many times before, in courtrooms, in jails, in those undignified hallway shuffles past the packs of reporters and cameras. He had always seemed calm, a bit detached. Back then, his prison haircuts, long sideburns, and thick eyebrows made him look like a Neanderthal. But here in the Death House, Garrett was clean shaven with his hair neatly combed back. He was very thin, clothed in pressed prison blues and new, white canvas shoes. His last meal had been chocolate ice cream. He had the look of panic: wide eyes, short breaths, tense movements of the head. Despite the psychiatrist’s assessment that Garrett didn’t believe a lethal injection would kill him, it seemed to me that Johnny Frank Garrett knew he was about to die. His family was tightly huddled when I entered. His mother, two sisters, stepfather, and brother-in-law clutched the prison bars as Garrett strained to turn his head to the right to speak his final words. “I’d like to thank my friends who tried to pull me through all this. My guru for helping me go through this. I’d like to thank my family for loving me. And the rest of the world can kiss my ass.” Garrett looked at the warden as he spoke that last part. Then he jerked his head toward the white ceiling to show he was ready. Garrett began to recite some kind of prayer or mantra to himself and the warden made a barely perceptible signal to the anonymous executioner behind the mirrored glass. It was over in an instant: Garrett’s mouth caught open in mid-speech, his eyes open frozen with a small squint of recognition that poison was racing through his veins. His mother kept saying “I love you son, it’s okay. Go to sleep,” as if it were a lullaby. Garrett’s sisters were angry. “They’re gonna’ pay,” one sister said. With that, Garrett’s mother tried to console her daughters. “God forgives those who forgive his brothers,” she said. “He’s at peace. He paid his debt. We all have to do that.” “He’s in a better place than we are,” the sister replied. “There aren’t any assholes to tell him what to do.” The family sang Amazing Grace in broken tearful voices. Texas uses three drugs in executions: sodium thiopental to relax the prisoner and induce sleep, pancuronium bromide to paralyze the muscles and prevent breathing, and potassium chloride to stop the heart. The dose is large enough to kill 10 people. The injection lasted four minutes, though life had slipped from Garrett’s body just seconds after it began. The executioner placed a roll of white adhesive tape in the small opening in the wall, beside the clear intravenous tubes, to indicate the injection was over. A prison doctor ambled in and searched perfunctorily for a pulse on Garrett’s neck and arm, and then listened to Garrett’s chest through a stethoscope for just an instant. He turned to the warden and compared the time on their watches. “I figure 12:18.” With that the heavy metal doors swung open with a startling thud. We filed out of the Death House behind the family. Nobody said a word. Officials looked at the floor as they walked. And Garrett lay there still. There were no gestures of respect for his corpse. Nobody covered him with a sheet, or closed his lifeless eyes. There was no dignity in this death. We stepped outside the prison into the glare of television lights. A crowd of students from the nearby university broke out in cheers and applause, singing “na-na-na-na, hey-heyhey, good bye.” I feld ashamed as I walked with Garrett’s family to the prison administration building across the street. The students weren’t jeering at just the family, they were jeering at me. I felt my privileged press-pool access made me a participant in the execution as well as an observer. As a citizen of Texas, I realized that Johnny Frank Garrett had been executed in my name. T.F more right or wrong than I am. I believe in the death penalty and the Pope doesn’t,” Hill said. “But the fact is that we do have the death penalty and the fact is that Johnny Frank Garrett is the kind of person the death penalty was made for specifically. It doesn’t make any difference where you put Johnny Frank Garrett. He’s still violent. He stabbed another inmate on Death Row, which is the most secure part of the prison. So what are we going to do, dig a hole and throw him in it?” Sheriff Boydston said the case was just about the only thing people were talking about in Amarillo. He said many Catholics were telling him they did not support their Bishop, and that Garrett ought to be executed. At the Board of Pardons and Paroles hearing, even a former nun from the St. Francis convent testified that Garrett should die. “Why should mercy be shown to him? He showed no mercy to Sister Tadea,” said Juanita Cruz, who left the convent to become a probation officer. “He knew what he was doing. Sister Tadea 10 FEBRUARY 28, 1992 was an innocent and holy person who did wrong to no one.” Ross told the board that society had “bilked” Garrett throughout his life, by failing to treat his psychological disorders or provide social services that would rescued him from an abusive home. “If there had been an effective diagnosis of Johnny Frank Garrett before he was 10, that would have not only saved the life of the nun but the state millions and millions of dollars,” Ross said. Outside the hearing room several women from a group called “Parents of Murdered Children” displayed a quilt with pictures of their slain children sewn to the fabric. Bishop Matthiesen saw the quilt and knew his plea for clemency was lost. “We don’t really have right now a way of dealing with people like Johnny Frank Garrett,” Matthiesen said. “We seem to be in a situation where it’s either execution or the possibility of parole. We ought to have some other way.” The Bishop told the board that he would be the first to oppose parole for Garrett in the future, but the the death sentence. Four days later, on the night of Garrett’s execution, there were no priests or nuns standing outside the prison. The crowd was mostly college students. “We’re here to bear witness that the State of Texas is one of the few places in the world that executes juveniles,” said Michael Heath, a coordinator for Amnesty International in Houston. He said Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Barbados execute murderers who commit crimes while younger than 18 years old. “Why are we in this league with people that kill children?” he asked. The execution attracted a much larger group of students from Sam Houston State University. After Garrett was dead and his family was leaving the prison, the students cheered. One of them, James Best, is a senior studying criminal justice. He held up a sign with a picture of a syringe. It said: If there’s mercy for nun killers, let the Lord, not the courts, show it.” _,