Matthew Busch

Exploring the Rise, Fall, and Lingering Trauma of the Death Penalty in Texas

In his new book, journalist Maurice Chammah ties Texas' embrace of capital punishment to the state's frontier mythos.

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A version of this story ran in the January / February 2021 issue.

From the January/February 2021 issue.

Dalton Coble didn’t know his grandfather particularly well, but stories of Billie Wayne Coble have cast a shadow over his family since before he was born. In August 1989, Billie murdered his estranged wife’s parents and brother. The slayings shocked Waco, and the Coble name continued to raise eyebrows as it surfaced in headlines about appeals in the case over the following three decades. Billie’s son from a previous marriage, Gordon Coble, was only a teenager when his father was sentenced to death. In an attempt to shake the stigma, Gordon moved his family to outside Austin when Dalton was a child. He grew up meeting his grandfather through birthday cards and the occasional trip to visit him across from a cage walled off with plexiglass. 

Sometimes the phone rang with news about Billie that sent Gordon into an emotional tailspin. Dalton, now 23, remembers when he was young, standing in the kitchen with his father when Gordon hung up the handset. Gordon wrapped his arms around his son and began to weep. “He kept telling me, ‘It’s going to be OK, son, it’s going to be OK,’” Dalton says. “I later found out that’s when they set an execution date.”

Last year, as the appeals ran out and Billie’s execution date grew closer, Dalton says his father started to look ill. The day of the execution, February 28, 2019, as they visited Billie for the last time, Dalton says Gordon seemed “more emotionally and physically stressed than I’d ever seen him before.” Gordon struggled to compose himself in the family waiting area outside the Walls Unit in Huntsville, which houses the state’s only death chamber. Others who were escorted with the family into the prison’s closet-like witness room say Gordon started to lose it almost as soon as he saw his father lying there, strapped to the gurney. 

Standing behind Gordon, Dalton braced for his father’s reaction as Billie delivered his final words into a small microphone hanging above his mouth, telling his family he loved them. Depending on whom you ask, Gordon was somewhere between shouting and sobbing when his hands hit the window separating him from his father as the lethal injection drugs flowed. Dalton says he wrapped his arms around his dad to keep him from collapsing. 

Gordon remembers he was starting to fall into his son’s arms when he heard people, presumably prison officers, rushing toward the front of the witness room saying, “Get him.” He says he couldn’t see much after that because one of them pulled his coat over his head while dragging him outside. “I’m being dragged and flipped and my son’s going, ‘Dad, they just kicked me in the head,’ and I’m hollering, ‘Who? Who? What’s going on?’” he says. “I never even tried to fight them. I just went limp. They were fighting themselves, one pulling one arm this way and another one pulling the other way.” Gordon says he ultimately wound up facedown in the dirt outside the witness room with an officer’s knee on the back of his neck, struggling to breathe. 

The arrest was so forceful that officials took Gordon to a local hospital to treat an injury to his shoulder before booking him into the Walker County jail on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Dalton, who faced the same charges, was already in the county holding cell when his dad was brought in from the hospital hours later. Dalton says his father cried and remained upset throughout the night that he couldn’t view the body after the execution. “He just kept saying, ‘They took that away from me.’” 

*

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional on the grounds that it was cruel and unusual punishment, leading to a nationwide lull in executions—that is, until Texas pioneered a new, less-dramatic method with the veneer of a medical procedure that the courts could stomach: lethal injection. Since 1976, the year the Supreme Court approved new sentencing guidelines for judges and juries considering death sentences, Texas has been at the center of the revival of the death penalty in the United States, responsible for more than 500 of the roughly 1,500 executions here. Even with death sentences across the country now at historic lows, thanks in large part to states giving juries the option to sentence someone to life in prison without the possibility of parole, most years Texas continues to execute and send more people to death row than any other state. 

Sanitizing the death penalty has been key to this modern resurgence, masking the violence of state executions and the emotional toll they leave behind. Before 1924, individual counties carried out death sentences, usually by hanging. Since then, every Texas execution has occurred behind closed doors at the Walls Unit, the state’s oldest prison. Until 1964, an electric chair nicknamed “Old Sparky” dispatched 361 condemned prisoners. In 1982, Texas killed Charlie Brooks with a three-drug cocktail designed to numb and paralyze him before stopping his heart, the country’s first lethal injection.  

Gordon Coble and his wife Nelley Coble photographed at their home in Marble Falls, Texas, on Sunday, November 16, 2020.  Matthew Busch

In a book published this month, Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty, journalist Maurice Chammah ties Texas’ embrace of capital punishment to the state’s frontier mythos, citing politicians, prosecutors, and judges in Texas who pushed for bringing back the ultimate punishment and framed it as a regrettable necessity. Some death penalty supporters warned that Texans might take the law into their own hands without it. 

Sanitizing executions has also meant divorcing capital punishment from its history in slavery, lynchings, and racial violence. “Before executions looked like quiet medical procedures, they looked like charred and dismembered corpses, usually of Black men, surrounded by throngs of smiling white faces in the courthouse square,” Chammah writes. Texas’ taste for swift and harsh retribution, he says, has been tied to a whitewashed tale of settling the wild frontier rather than the atrocities of plantations and the Jim Crow South. “We cleanse a punishment of its roots in our darkest moments by tying it to our proudest.” 

Secrecy was also increasingly necessary for upholding capital punishment as it grew more controversial due to a greater acknowledgement of the racist and arbitrary way the sentence was often applied, sometimes to innocent people. Texas and other death penalty states began hiding the identity of lethal injection drug suppliers as more manufacturers started distancing themselves from state-sanctioned killing. 

Today, a shroud of secrecy covers the execution process even in the final moments. Witnesses are allowed into viewing rooms that peer into the pastel-green execution chamber only after a so-called tie-down team of officers straps the condemned to the gurney. A team of anonymous medically trained volunteers start an IV before disappearing behind a one-way mirror, standing by to start the flow of lethal drugs whenever the warden gives the signal. 

Despite all efforts to make executions a somber, quiet, and orderly affair, emotions still come screaming to the surface. Chammah’s book details the 2001 execution of Gary Graham, whose professed innocence turned him into a cause célèbre in the anti-death penalty movement. Graham, who had vowed to fight his execution, had to be ripped from his cell when the time came. The tie-down team strapped Graham’s head to the gurney to keep him still. In his final moments, Graham called his death an “outrage” and a “lynching,” speaking for more than six minutes before the warden let out a sigh and lifted his glasses, a sign for volunteers behind the glass to start the drugs. 

Outbursts in the witness room aren’t uncommon. In her 2018 book Death Row: The Final Minutes, Michelle Lyons recounts witnessing nearly 300 executions in Texas, first as a reporter and then as a spokesperson for the state prison system. While executions are carefully choreographed to ensure victim and inmate families never see one another while being ushered into separate witness areas, Lyons writes that she could often hear what was happening in the other room. “Because the walls were so thin, the victim’s family could hear everything,” she writes. “I always thought that was cruel and it troubled me: You’re someone’s mom watching the person who killed your child being executed, and you’ve got the added stress of being forced to listen to that person’s mom wailing in pain, because the thing that is supposed to bring you justice and peace is the most horrendous thing to ever happen to her.” 

Lyons writes that she sometimes heard women in the inmate’s witness room sobbing and pounding the glass or kicking the wall. Some mothers pleaded, some prayed, and some insisted their sons were innocent. Others fainted. Not surprisingly, some condemned inmates told their mothers to stay home when the time came. 

Executions leave a mark on everyone involved. In his book, Chammah writes about prison officials grappling with their own participation, like the chaplain who remains troubled by the way a warden once described his role to soothe the anxieties of a man moments away from execution: “Your job will be to seduce his emotions.” One retired corrections officer who served on more than 100 tie-down teams recounted being flooded with visions of all the people he helped strap to the gurney upon hearing news of an execution over the radio years later. 

Lyons similarly explores the personal impact of such close proximity to death. She recounts how during one execution, an inmate’s family member turned and chastised her and other reporters in the witness area for taking part in “this killing machine.” During the media circus surrounding Graham’s execution, an Italian TV journalist ran up to Larry Fitzgerald, then the spokesperson for the Texas prison system and Lyons’ mentor, screaming, “Culture of death.” After Graham’s execution, Fitzgerald wrote that he cried all the way home “before crawling into a bottle of Scotch … People calling you a murderer will do that to you.” 

*

Gordon remembers the years following his father’s sentencing being a whirlwind of pain and confusion. Still, he kept in contact, visiting death row as often as he could and introducing Billie to grandchildren, including Dalton, that he’d never meet on the outside. 

Billie’s case dragged on for decades, in part because an appeals court granted him a new sentencing in 2008 due to an error in his initial trial. Billie’s attorneys argued that his behavior on death row proved that he would not be, as required for a death sentence in Texas, a continuing danger to prison staff and other prisoners if handed life without parole. Billie didn’t have a single disciplinary report in 18 years, and others testified that he’d become known for helping staff and fellow prisoners. Regardless, a jury sentenced Billie to death, again. He refused to attend the court hearing in October 2018 when a Waco judge set the final execution date. 

Some families of murder victims say that executing the person responsible provided them a semblance of closure, marking the end of a painful chapter. For death row families, however, executions are the traumatic start to a long grieving process, one they often navigate without help. In a 2019 report, the Texas After Violence Project found that people with family members on death row or those with loved ones who have already been executed by the state struggle to access much-needed mental health treatment. Many fear stigma and judgment and face a dearth of mental health professionals who are qualified to help people touched by the death penalty. 

“Death row family members want the traumatic aspects of their experience to be recognized as such, so that they can be counted among the larger group of trauma survivors,” the report concludes. “Death row families also want the distinct characteristics of their experience to be taken into account, and that includes the impact of seeing others actively seek and celebrate their loss.”

Joseph Brown, editor of the Huntsville Item, says it was obvious that Gordon was struggling before officials ushered him into the witness room to view the execution last year. “We were sitting in this little waiting area, and I could just tell he was going to react,” Brown says. “I remember he was crying and acting pretty upset already. I can see why he’d be so upset.” 

Gordon says he felt as if he were floating in a daze in the final hours before the execution. Once inside the witness room, he locked eyes with his father on the gurney. Gordon says he remembers reaching out toward the window separating them once his father began struggling to breathe. “It looked like his soul leaving his body,” Gordon says. “I reached my hand out and said, ‘No, Dad, don’t go, don’t leave me.”

Jasmin Caldwell, a Waco TV reporter who was standing near Gordon and his family, says Gordon started pounding on the window with his fists before officers rushed in to stop him. Caldwell says she and another reporter in the room were both kicked as officers struggled to drag Gordon and Dalton outside. 

Photos following the arrest show bruises on both Gordon’s and Dalton’s faces; Dalton’s shirt and pants were also ripped. Walker County officials resolved the disorderly conduct charges after the father and son spent a night in jail but insisted on prosecuting them for resisting arrest for nearly a year. Dalton claims prosecutors once asked him to write a letter apologizing to the Texas prison system in exchange for dropping the charge. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice declined to comment on the matter, while prosecutors defended the arrests. 

“The conduct of Gordon and Dalton Coble was disruptive to the process and could have escalated into something more combative,” Walker County District Attorney Will Durham said in a statement. “Our office had no concern with the lawfulness of the arrests that were made that day.” He said the remaining charges were dismissed in January 2020 “after receiving input from those involved and after considering the totality of the circumstances.” After the arrests, J.R. Vicha, whose father and grandparents Billie killed in 1989, told reporters that he felt for Gordon’s family and hoped that prosecutors would drop the charges. When contacted by the Observer, Vicha declined to elaborate. 

Dalton, who says he recently finished paying off legal expenses he accrued fighting the charges against him, still has flashbacks from the execution. He’s thought about seeking mental health care but never followed through, worried about costs and also whether he’d even find a therapist who understood his situation. Gordon is still paying off medical bills from his hospital trip following the arrest. He’s had trouble eating, sleeping, and holding down work since the execution, which he says threw him into a deep depression he’s struggling to climb out of. 

Gordon still sounds confused when he talks about the arrest. “I wasn’t there out of anger. It’s just that my heart was being ripped in two watching my dad pass away before my eyes,” he says. “It was a family going through something traumatic. And if I can’t cry and holler and say, ‘No, Dad, no,’ during the middle of that, then what kind of world am I living in?”  

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