Firing Squad Restraint Chair
Lethal Injection Gurney
A M O T H E R ‘ S S T O R Y
“I cannot wipe away your tears…I can only teach you how to make them holy”,
Anthony De Mello, Affirmation
My life changed forever the night I received the call that my beautiful daughter and her roommate had been brutally murdered on November 1, 2004. A shroud of darkness fell over me in heavy layers, suffocating me with fear and despair. It was inconceivable that the vibrant shining essence, that for twenty-six years had been Leslie Ann Mazzara, the light of my life, my flesh, my blood, my youngest child, could be gone, extinguished forever. Her beautiful and promising life was stolen in the night, in an act of terror, in a gruesome act of selfish anger and rage. I was thrust on a journey through hell seemingly without end, and began a mother’s mission to make meaning out of the meaningless.
The next eleven months were an unspeakable nightmare as the police investigation following false assumptions that Leslie was the murderer’s target failed to find the killer. I fumbled through each day in a broken-hearted daze, confused and unconvinced that anyone would want to hurt Leslie. When Eric Copple, a friend of her roommate, Adrienne, turned himself in after the police revealed that the killer smoked a rare blend of Camel cigarettes, we were all stunned. I hadn’t realized that I had been holding my breath all that time and that every muscle in my body had been braced for that moment until I received that long-awaited call in the middle of the night. I gasped for air like a victim of a near-drowning accident. We had been held in trauma space for almost a year, while this man, this murderer, married Adrienne’s best friend, and had gone about his life as if nothing had happened. Stunned by the news, I braced myself for the next steps of the journey.
The many months that followed were filled with speculation about Eric Copple and about whether the prosecution would seek the death penalty. The District Attorney assured us that it would be his decision ultimately and after they did a full review of the case and a psychological profile on Eric, they would ask the families for their views before making that decision. We were told to be patient, to wait.
Meanwhile the media rushed in to exploit and sensationalize our tragedy. The American entertainment industry has developed an unsavory taste for violence and vulgarity. When murder is turned into entertainment, the sacred gift of life is diminished and our minds and hearts become calcified, our humanity suffers.
I sought counsel with anyone who might help me preserve Leslie’s dignity and save us from the potential pain and suffering of a lengthy and very public trial. Sister Helen Prejean generously offered to speak with me, and her words of wisdom nourished me with hope. Sister Helen told me heart-wrenching stories about mothers of murderers that opened my mind and my heart to compassion. She pierced my darkness when she said, “Jesus asks us to stretch, Cathy. There are two arms of the cross; one side is for the victims and their loved ones and the other side of the cross holds in the same light of love and hope, the murderer and his family.” For the first time I felt a measure of compassion for Eric’s mother, and I could feel my heart open, suddenly aware that it had been clenched tightly like a fist. Looking back I must have been thinking that a broken heart had to be bound tightly like a tourniquet.
There has been a gradual adjustment since then as my eyes have slowly adapted to the dark. My Universalist faith teaches that ultimately all will be reconciled with God and that everyone is saved, even murderers. When I think of Eric as a child wounded by abuse, I feel sadness, a too common history shared by those who grow up to commit violent acts against each others. Remarkably, Jesus was capable of forgiving his murderers as he suffered on the cross. As a Unitarian Universalist Christian minister, I seek to follow the teachings and the exemplar of Jesus, but forgiving the murderer of my daughter and for the loss of my never-to-be-born grandchildren; babies that my arms ache to hold, still seems inconceivable to me.
But, even in the worst that life has to offer I’ve discovered that grace is present. “Grace is everywhere”. Georges Bernanos’ country priest said on his death bed, borrowing his dying words from St. Therese of Liseaux. It must be true, because I found that when I reached towards the heavens from the hollow emptiness of my sorrow, I found grace. Grace was there waiting for me, quenching my sorrow, a trusted companion on the lonely journey.
Will, a homeless friend that I met along the way, gave me his grandmother’s Benedictine cross to remind me of God’s love when I told him about Leslie’s murder. Moved by his compassion and selfless generosity, the theology of the cross took on new meaning for me, and at Sister Helen’s suggestion, I developed a relationship with Mary as a peer. After all, her son was murdered, and Mary spent the rest of her life making meaning. I carried that cross in my pocket for over two years and often found my fingers tracing the lines of the two arms as if praying in Braille. My life became a living prayer; there are two arms to the cross. Jesus asks us to stretch....
“Have you ever heard of a pinhole camera?” retired astronomer, Dr. Ed Dennison asked when I mentioned to him that Sister Helen had poked a tiny hole in my darkness. He demonstrated it to me by covering the window in his laundry room with foil and poking a tiny hole in the foil. We huddled in the darkness and waited. Impatiently, I squirmed in the dark stuffy, room as my eyes slowly adjusted. I thought five minutes was surely enough, but Ed told us that it takes a full thirty minutes for our eyes to adjust to the dark. After ten minutes, he held up a white paper to the beam of light coming in through the tiny hole and we were astounded to see the trees from outside outlined on the paper. Gradually, we could see the details of the leaves and as we waited they became more intricate and clear. I was amazed at how I was sure that I could see clearly in a few minutes and how much more clarity there was in fifteen, and even more in twenty and twenty-five minutes. The trees were upside down, and though I haven’t found a metaphor to properly explain that phenomenon, I had no problem understanding the metaphor of the pinhole camera and my journey toward forgiveness, parting my sea of despair and hopelessness one step at a time. I may never arrive, but it is the goal of forgiveness that I have set my compass. I believe it is our true north as Jesus demonstrated on the cross, the destiny of human potential that some have called becoming fully human, and perhaps this is the kingdom of God that Jesus understood so clearly. Forgiveness is not a destination, it is a journey I have come to understand.
Which brings me to my understanding of the death penalty and what I believe to be the multi-layered hidden tragedy beneath the conviction that the death penalty is “just” punishment, I don’t have time to build a case for the multitude of reasons that the death penalty is impractical economically, unjust, racist, and so on. I can best speak to my own experience and to the insights that I have gained over the past four and one half years of finding my way in the dark. I likened it to four and one half minutes in the pinhole camera experiment. I am just beginning to see. If we had been forced to endure a trial and remain defended and held in trauma, there would have been no beam of light to penetrate and relieve the oppressive darkness - nothing to illumine the path. The death penalty not only serves to keep us in a dark stagnating hope; it serves to compound the violence, and escalates the conflict, limiting our human potential to find our true north. I don’t yet have a glimpse of what forgiving the murderer of my precious child would be like, but I know that if I don’t walk towards that hope, I will be doomed to dwell in despair and pain forever. It is about choosing life, again and again, day after day.
The German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke suggests that we think of God as a direction. I hold that in my heart as I put one step in front of the other, and as I slowly move toward clarity, I begin to think about the possibility of meeting Eric Copple face to face; a stipulation written into the plea agreement for a facilitated victim/offender dialogue. If Sister Helen is right about the two arms of the cross, and I believe she is, then Eric can also find his way towards wholeness. But, it is Eric’s responsibility to take fully into his heart the reality of what he has done and let the guilt tear and rip apart his heart from the inside out, as his senseless and violent act resulting in the murders of Leslie and Adrienne have done to all who loved them and whose lives they touched. It is only then that healing will be possible for Eric. I pray it will be so.
I would say that what might be the most insidious tragedy of the death penalty is that if we wilfully murder murderers, how can we ever hope to become fully human, to complete the journey? Honestly, I’m terrified of facing the murderer of my child one day, and I don’t know if I will have the courage and the grace to ever forgive but it is my hope and prayer. All I can do is keep on walking in that direction and leave the rest up to the grace that I have come to know and trust.
Cathy Harrington is a parish minister in the Unitarian Universalist faith. Her daughter Leslie Ann Mazzara was murdered on November 1, 2004 at her home in Napa, California. Cathy negotiated a life sentence for her daughter’s murderer, who had potentially been facing the death penalty.
The Day of an Execution
I will describe what a typical execution day consisted of for me when I was the warden of the Huntsville “Walls” Unit, where all of the State’s executions have taken place. The scene described is of an inmate who was fully cooperative, which approximately 86 of the 89 that I presided over were so.
The reality of it being an execution day sometimes came to me as soon as I awoke. At other times it was with my first cup of coffee.
My morning began much like any other day for the warden, fielding phone calls, visiting with employees and inmates, and answering correspondence, until nine o’clock. At that time I made a phone call to the Attorney General’s Office in Austin. The purpose of this call was to talk with the attorney who was assigned this case. He would give me an update on how the case was going in the courts. It was rare not to have something working in the courts – the condemned inmate’s attorney making every effort to stop the execution on various grounds. Once I got off the phone with the attorney, I’d call my supervisors and relay the information I’d just learned on to them. There were several other people that I’d call, those who’d be helping with the execution that night but who did not work on the Walls Unit with me. Some of these people were not regularly employees of the prison system. The Huntsville Funeral Home was also apprised of where things were in the process.
Following these calls the day generally returned to normal. By now the warden’s secretary had brought several folders with certain bits of information for myself and some others. Another folder from the Public Information Office from across the street at the Old Administration Building would arrive also. It was basically the information that was being made available to the media. But the little manila folder held my interest more. It told me who was planning to attend the execution, including the inmate’s invited guests, the victim’s family members, and the media people who would attend the execution. Also, in this folder was the condemned man’s last meal request. This seemed to be of interest to a lot of folks on the outside, although something the Walls Unit kitchen captain and the inmate cook had known for a couple of weeks. But this was the first time I’d laid eyes on the request. There was a picture of the condemned man also, but sometimes the fellow wound up not looking much like the photo. He’d aged a lot in a short period of time or maybe hadn’t exercised much and the prison food had added pounds to his frame.
Throughout the morning there was the usual. Telephone calls coming in about routine goings on of the unit. Papers to sign. Written requests from inmates. Usually I’d have lunch in the Officers Dining Hall around eleven, something I did most every day. Afterwards was more of the normal routine until early afternoon.
The inmate arrives at the Death House and his (or her) restraints are removed once inside and the door to the building is secured. The inmate is strip-searched and then finger printed. Next he is placed in a cell and given a fresh set of clothes.
Most of them wanted to clean the ink from their hands and then I’d talk with the inmate to tell him what to expect for the afternoon and to also find out the mood of the inmate. Sometimes these conversations were short and to the point and other times I might have to cut the inmate short and tell him I’d see him later. It all was dependent on the inmate and his willingness to talk. If it was obvious that the inmate did not care to have a long conversation then I went with the basics and left him for the chaplain to deal with. At the least I told him when and what to expect for the remainder of the day. I always asked if he expected to have any visitors, which at this point was down to a spiritual advisor and/or an attorney. I was lenient with phone calls and found out if the inmate wanted to make any phone calls. Often they wanted to call family and talk one last time. Sometimes they had a relative that had not been able to make the trip to visit at Death Row during the last visiting period. Sometimes these family members, and we had one mother, was locked up in the penitentiary. One brother was even in another state. This all calls for some coordination between the prisons. I always tried to find out from the inmate about the last statement. Did he plan to make one? If so, I warned him not to go over five minutes or so, or that I’d tell him to wrap it up. Also, I wanted him to tell me how I’d know when he was through. The reason for this was so I’d not cut him off before he was through with his last statement. And one thing I did that was outside the rules, I found out if they’d like a cigarette to smoke. Some rather strange conversations took place back there. Others had hardly a thing to say.
For the remainder of the afternoon the inmate will be in the presence of the prison chaplain and two security supervisors. Throughout the afternoon there will be other people who come and go to the cell block. The major and captain of the shift will likely drop in several times just to make sure everything is going smoothly.
The inmate is allowed only two types of visits while at the Walls Unit. One from a spiritual advisor and one from his attorney. The visits begin at 3 P.M. and last for thirty minutes each. During this time the inmate will be moved to #1 cell which is the visiting cell. It is covered with a heavy black mesh wire to stop any contraband from being passed to the inmate. Once the inmate is secured in the cell, the visitor is escorted to the Death House and allowed to sit in a chair in front of the cell. During this visitation time the chaplain will go about two blocks north of the Walls to the Hospitality House where the inmate’s family will be waiting. At this time he will tell them what to expect as they witness the execution.
At about 4:30 P.M. the inmate is given his last meal. The most requested last meal since lethal injections began in 1982 has been a cheeseburger and french fries. Some of the inmates eat a hearty meal only a couple of hours before the scheduled execution.
At about five minutes before six o’clock I’d put my coat on and tell everyone in the wardens offices that it was time to head to the back (to the Death House). Myself, along with whatever supervisors of mine that were present would go to the room where the executioner was and await the phone calls. At six o’clock an official who ranks above the warden will receive two phone calls from Austin. The phone calls will be taken in what is known as the IV Room, next to the Death Chamber. One phone call is from the Attorney General’s Office and the other from the Governor’s Office. They will tell the official that we may proceed with the execution. At this point I would cross the Death Chamber and enter into the Death Row cell block. I would walk up to the front of the cell where the inmate was waiting. I called him by his last name and told him that it was time to come with me to the next room, meaning the Death Chamber. One of the officers would then unlock the locks to the cell and open the door. I would tell the inmate to follow me to the next room. The tie down team would have joined the other Death House officers shortly before six o’clock. These officers along with the chaplain would escort the inmate, unrestrained, usually, and without placing a hand on him, into the Death Chamber. Once the inmate is in the Death Chamber he is told, usually by me, to get onto the gurney and lie down with his head on the pillow. The straps to the gurney are all undone. The officers quickly strap the inmate with all of the straps (one around each ankle and arm and others over the body). When they were done with the straps I physically checked each one and asked the inmate if any were too tight. On two or three occasions the inmate stated that a certain one was tight and one of the officers loosened it a notch. I then dismissed the officers back into the cell block.
At this point I walked over and opened the door to the IV Room. The medical team would enter the room and in a matter of minutes would have the inmate hooked up with an IV in each arm. While they worked, I would talk to the inmate, if he wanted to talk. I stood opposite the medical team. They always began with the inmate’s right arm. Tubes run from the arms through a small window on the wall of the IV Room where the drugs have been mixed a short time earlier and sit on a table in the room. The medical team returns to the IV Room. The inmate is now completely hooked up on the gurney with only the chaplain and me in the room with him. During the time the medical team was hooking up the IV’s, a mike has been lowered to just above his head. The amplifier is hooked to speakers that are in the other rooms of the Death House. Another line feeds a speaker that is in the Warden’s Office. The warden’s secretary would record the inmate’s last statement for the press. She also keeps a record of what is going on and when. A person on the phone watching through a slightly opened crack in the cell block door will relay this information to her.
For a few short moments it is just the three of us in that little room, the chaplain, myself, and the inmate strapped to the gurney. The chaplain and I are usually close to the inmate’s head at this time but we will back away as the witnesses begin entering the witness rooms. I will be nearest the inmate’s head and the chaplain beside his feet. Soon the victim’s witnesses are brought into the west witness room. They are escorted by Victims Services staff and usually the major of the Walls Unit. Five witnesses are allowed unless there are multiple victims and then a sixth person is allowed. Once they are in the room other members of the staff will escort the inmate’s witnesses to the east witness room. The inmate can invite five witnesses but can have a sixth if he wishes to invite his spiritual advisor. There are also five members of the news media allowed and they are scattered in both rooms. The Huntsville Item newspaper, the Huntsville radio station, a member of the Associated Press, and two others, usually from the area of the crime scene, are the normal makeup. There is also a captain in the east room along with a Texas Ranger. Our own Public Relations Office will have at least one person in a witness room.
Once the witnesses are in place, I would tell the inmate that he may make a last statement. Most of them made a statement. Most lasted three minutes or less. When the inmate completes his statement I would give a signal to the executioner to begin the execution process. The executioner is, of course, in the IV Room behind a one way glass window. He can see through to the Chamber but no one can see into the IV Room through the glass.
About 30 seconds after I gave the signal, the inmate would take his last breath. About two and a half minutes from the time of the signal, the executioner would signal me that all the drugs have been put into the inmate. I waited three minutes before bringing in the doctor. The reason I did this is simply that the warden before me advised me to wait to make sure all the fluids had taken effect. It worked for me the first time and I chose not to mess with changing something that worked. I can tell you that the first time was the longest three minutes of my life. I would then get the doctor who is waiting in the cell block. The doctor would examine the inmate, doing all those things that doctors do to make sure a body is dead, checking for pulse, checking the eyes with a small flashlight, etc., and then he would pronounce the inmate dead, giving a time of death in doing so. The doctor then goes through the door back into the cell block. The process, from the time of the two phone calls until the doctor pronounces death, usually took in the neighborhood of 25 minutes.
The witnesses were taken from the witness rooms one group at a time beginning with the victim’s witnesses. Once the rooms were cleared the medical team would remove the medical devices and retreat back into the IV Room. The officers would then remove the leather straps. The funeral home immediately came in and took the body.
The legal papers are then signed in the warden’s secretary office by the doctor and the top ranking official.
Everyone then goes home.
Jim Willett, 2009
’No Human Way to Kill’ project