The spirit of a man narrating the harrowing end of a maddening career.
April 28, 2008
"Fine day for an execution." I looked up and saw the warden gazing pensively out at the rain, puffing on a fat cigar. My own cigarette was buring apathetically between my fingers, so I sniffed it out and tried to make it seem like I cared about his presence in the office.
"What makes you say that, sir?" I asked politely, as I was at that point eligible for a promotion. Wanted to butter him up, you know?
"Well, Witherspoon, it's the rain. It's all those worms comin' outta the ground. It's easier to kill a man when the ground comes up to receive 'im." He puffed away and took a seat in a chair across from me. Why was he in this office again? Just visitting? Bored? Promoting me? No it was too early for that. I kinda didn't want him there. He made me nervous.
"Son," the warden sighed casually, "there's somethin' we gots to talk about." Oh shit, I thought, I'm fired. "It's about that pending promotion." Holy crap! Already? "I'm afraid we can't give it to you." Fuck. "Instead, we need to transfer you to the Retzky Unit." Double fuck.
"That's a Death Row unit, is it not?" I inquired, trying not to sound peeved. That rainy afternoon had gone from crummy to nasty to shitty all too quickly for my taste. I ran a shaky hand (coffee will do that to you in large amounts) through my dark hair and stared blnkly at the desk.
"I don't know what to say," I managed to spit out.
"Say 'thanks,' Witherspoon, you'll love it there!" Yep, this warden was a full-blooded, patriotic Texan, no doubt about it. He heaved himself out of the chair and extended his hand for me to shake. I accepted, and my hand ended up being crushed and shaken like a dead mouse in his grasp.
"Thanks," I muttered, nursing my traumatized hand once he had let go. The warden turned to leave, his hefty body completely blocking out the doorway, but the he stopped.
"There was just one more thing, Witherspoon."
"Yes?" I replied sweetly.
"They want you on the strap-down team. Your training starts tomorrow." And then he left.
The strap-down team. They were the ones who strapped the condemned inmate down onto the gurney in prepartion for the execution. They were the ones who made sure that the inmate could not move, could not fight for life. And I was on that team.
April 29, 2008
I woke up and went to work as usual, but when I got to my new unit, I knew that my world had changed drastically. My past as a peaceful jailguard was over, and as the tables turned and I was the one being searched upon entry to the unit office building, it was all too much for me to grab onto. Life goes on, I tried to convince myself as I followed one of the death row officials down a bleak white hallway towards the offices.
"Are you alright?" the officer asked quite suddenly as he stopped in front of a door. He peered inquisitively at me over his shoulder.
"It's my first time ever near a Death Row, man, I'm not exactly peachy," I admitted freely. The officer chuckled, though I didn't think it was all that funny.
"I'm Andrew McCourt," said the officer.
"Bill Witherspoon. Just call me Witherspoon, everyone else does."
"Nice to meet you. You're our new left leg."
"Excure me?" We entered into an office, where McCourt explained to me that each member of the strap-down team has one limb or body area to secure: left arm, right arm, left leg, right leg, shoulders, and torso.
"What happened to the old 'left leg'?" I asked, not sure why I cared, but it turned out to be an interesting story. Apparently, every person on the left leg job before me had gone crazy. Lost their minds completely. So badly, in fact. that they had all ended up dead from grotesque suicides that all involved the same method: lethal injection. After hearing this, after hearing a few of the grisly descriptions of the conditions in which the corpses of my crazed predecessors were found, I had only one thing to say: "Nice campfire story."
McCourt simply shrugged and requested that I just keep my head. Always. I, of course, agreed, and we spent the next hour going over all sorts of paperwork and legal shit. I was later sent away with a large, burly man known only as "Pasquesi" to begin my training; new restraints, should an inmate attempt to escape or fight, and then the strap-down process. After all that, we ran through a mock execution.
May 2, 2008
My first execution wasn't for a while, so in the mean time I served as a Death Row guard on the Retzky Unit. And it SUCKED being on the Row--too hot, no air, loud fan...no wonder they said people went nuts. There was something curious, however. On the tier, there was a young woman no older than twenty walking around with no uniform.
"A volunteer," McCourt later explained, "she comes and spends time with the inmates, especially those close to execution."
"Why? Isn't that a bit of a waste of time?" I asked cluelessly. McCourt shrugged and walked away. One day, I decided I would talk to that girl on the tier. But she beat me to it.
"Newbie, huh?" a snide voice behind me drawled. "Left leg?" I turned to see the volunteer girl standing there, her arms crossed and her eyebrows raised. She was wearing a pair of jean shorts and a nondescript black t-shirt. Her short black hair was clipped lazily into a little silver barret, but little fly-away strands kept falling in her face anyway. She was certainly older and more bitter than I had originally judged.
"Yes ma'am, I am," I responded, trying to keep a straight face. "What you doing down here, kiddo?"
"Kiddo?" the girl huffed.
"Don't fucking patronize her!" one of the inmates hollered from his cell. I told him to hush up, and WHACK! A burning slap upside the head told me that I'd said something distasteful. Once I'd regained my composure, I'd noticed that the girl was nursing one of her hands.
"Did you just slap me?" I gasped incredulously.
"You slapped yourself, jackass. I take care of things on this tier." From then on, I figured that it was best to treat that girl as an equal. Or else.
"You got a name, soldier?" I asked weakly, my face still stinging a bit. The girl stood there as if she was pondering whether or not I was worthy of knowing her name, and then muttered, "Kristy." The name hardly suited such a tough, bent-outta-shape kid such as herself.
"And you are?"
"Okay, Spoonie." And that was that. We'd gotten all the pleasantries out of the way. I asked her again what she was doing here.
"Seeing us through," replied a nearby inmate. I cocked an eyebrow at him but dared not say a word, for fear of another slap.
"It's true," Kristy said earnestly, "to an extent. I come and go, as do they. But what what the hell do you care? Or, what the fuck doyou even know about compassion for total degenerates, for that matter?" She nodded downwards towards her arm, which I then noticed was laced with scars from Lord-knows-what kind of behavior.
"No," I sighed, "no, I don't know. Not how you would like me to." I admitted to her that I was in favour of capital punishment, and that I believed that each murderer deserved exactly what was coming to him.
"And it's people like you who give me a reason to do what I do here on the Row, Spoonie. There's so many heartless jerks like you. But if I can help just one inmate not feel so forsaken and, God forbid, learn some compassion himself for what he caused, well..." she trailed off.
"It's not enough, is it?" grumbled an inmate further down the tier.
"No," agreed the girl, "it never is."
"Shouldn't you be in school?" I cut her off. I could see this was going nowhere. She glared at me and growled, "I'm 25, creep." Then she brushed past me and left the tier.
"Nice going, dickweed," spat an inmate, and again, that was that.
May 9, 2008
The day of my first execution had arrived. The guy's name was Jason Perry, or "Inmate #989109". He was the one who had called me a dickweed after Kristy had left the tier flustered and upset a week before. Kristy had been allowed to walk Jason to the door of the execution chamber, her hand placed firmly upon his trembling shoulder, until she was instructed to go wait in the witness room where she would watch the execution. Box seats, huh? Not bad. She sobbed quietly the whole way, as did Jason, while he sputtered out the Hail Mary through his tears. When it was time for Kristy to go, she gae him a sisterly kiss on the cheek and promised that he'd see her again some day. The door of the execution chamber opened, and in we walked.
As soon as Jason saw the lethal injection gurney, his knees gave out and I had to help walk him over and lift him onto it. From there, the rest of the Strap-Down Team and I practiced our art. Right leg. Right arm. Shoulders. Torso. Right leg. My turn. And I strapped it perfectly. We rotated the gurney into an upward "standing" position so that Jason could face the witness room. His death warrant was read for all to hear, and then it was Jason's turn.
"Do you have any last words?" the warden asked solemnly.
"Yes sir, I do," sobbed Jason. "Mr. Reilly..." Reilly was the husband of the woman raped and murdered by Jason. "Mr. Reilly...I hope my death brings you some...c-closure. And Kristy...Kristy-girl, I've never known a better comrade. Th-thank you...Warden, that's all." When he said this, my stomach turned. This was the real thing, and it was too real for me. Everything seemed like a blur. The gurney was laid back down, Jason's sobbing became hysterical, but then went silent as someone flipped a certain switch...
May 10, 2008
That night, I had a dream. In this dream, I could not move. It was as if I was --yes, that's it, I was strapped down, every part of me secured to a gurney. Something was flowing through every inch of my body, and it made me feel cold, so cold I couldn't breathe...
I woke up in a frozen sweat and found that a pillow was pressed over my face. I sat up quickly, the pillow flopping to the floor, and threw up all over myself and my bedclothes. The next day, McCourt assured me that I would get over it. I didn't.
3 months later
I'd seen it all, heard it all, and it all stayed with me, especially in my dreams. ALWAYS in my dreams. Nightmares, more like. I had secretly taken Kristy's anti-death penalty side, and I was afraid that the scary truth of what I was doing would drive me into madness. So, after ever nightmare, I would cut myself, deep red slashes where no one would see them as kind of a punishment for the pain I was causing by participating in those executions. It never occured to me to quit the job--I was too crazy by then. I knew there would always be more to come DAMN I hated that! The fear of helping kill another man nearly immobilized me during each execution. I had to stop the pain, but how.?
Every time my mind began to reel like that, I'd turn back to my blades. They were my friends. The glistened so beautifully...sometimes, I'd talk to them.
SLASH across my left kneecap, and the blood of the last inmate I helped kill (Howard Degnan) spilled out of me. "I'm home from another kill, my friend." SLASH across my belly, and more filthy blood trickled out. I felt like I was cleansing myself. Of course, no one at the "work place" would know about this, right?
August 13, 2008
"I know where you stand now." A cold voice from behind me made me jump.
"Pardon?" I said. I turned around and saw no one down the tier. Then, a hand poked out from between the bars of cell 6P and beckoned. Nervously, I stomped out my cigarette and walked over to the cell, wherein sat Craig Manning. He was a veteran on the tier, his appeals almost exhausted, just like his hope.
"You rang?" I drawled.
"Yes, I did," Craig said pleasantly. The calmness of his gaze and manner intimidated me, but I tried not to let it show. It didn't work.
"Why are you all tense, Spoonie? I want to help you." Help me. It was a bit late for that.
"Go ahead Craig, I could use a laugh." The inamte raised his eybrows curiously.
"What changed fro you, bro? Why do you not like the death penalty like you used to?" This question sent an angry chill down my spine. How did he know?
"What makes you think this?" I asked.
"Well, Spoonie," Craig began, leaning casually back on his bed, brown eyes gleaming. "I'm sure you're quite familiar with Kristy's...uniqueness by now, am I right?" To this, I nodded eagerly, knowing very well how strange that girl could be. She even scared me a little.
"Well," Craig continued nonchalantly, "she can read people. She's been through so much shit in her own life that she is able to see into people and read their shit. Hell, she knows more about me than my lawyer and I know about me! Hah! And she watches you. Each walk you take down the 'Mile,' heh, she sees that you grow weaker and weaker in your faith that what you're doing is right." I didn't like this one bit. I wanted to change the subject. I looked past Craig at a small art easel in the corner of his cell, on which there was a beautiful, in-progress drawing of a spider crawling on a rose.
"Some talent you got there," I complimented.
"Thanks, Spoonie, but that ain't really the topic at hand right now.
"Sorry. Carry on." He asked me again what had changed my mind, and I denied that my mind had been changed at all. Craig laughed, apparently quite amused.
"I suppose denial is the first stage. Right now you my be between the lines of truly believing that the death penalty is completely fucked up and hoping that it's still alright, and that must drive you crazy."
"I know it does," a familiar voice spoke up from behind me. Kristy. A harsh menthol cigarette hung from between her lips, and she terrified me.
I never thought I'd die alone. I'd always pictured myself old and on a respirator in hospice care with all my family huddled around to hear me wheeze my last words. But no, here I am at twenty-seven years old, my decision made; cutting myself is hardly a way to repent for the lives lost while I stood back and watched, and even helped. I do not deserve to live. No. I don't even want to live. Not with the ghosts and demons floating around wherever they please, taunting and gnawing at my mind and soul. Who's to say I even have a soul at this point?
It's 3:32 a.m., and it's time to stop tossing and turning. Still in my pajamas, I'm heading to the garage and starting the car, opening all the windows in it but leaving the garage door shut...but it feels like something is wrong.
"No," scolds the little blade I keep in my car, glinting at me, "if you're going to do it, you've got to do it right." I know what that means. I run back into the house and grab my work keys. That's right...I'm just headed off to work.
At 4:00 a.m., Kristy is fast asleep against the bars of the door of the tier.
"What happened to her?" asks one of the guards loudly inmate Craig Manning yelled back "I dunno, she just left and kinda curled up and stopped talking. I thought you assholes were taking care of her. Why do you ask?"
"Because something just happened that may interest her. I heard from another officer that someone just entered the death house without authorization and there are no executions scheduled for two weeks." This news hits Craig like a ton of bricks.
"Wake her up and get her over there," he commands.
"She's hardly authorized-"
"If you don't, then Officer Witherspoon is gonna die tonight. Don't ask questions." Craig's breathing hard. At this point, the guard feels he has no choice but to listen to what the inmate is saying. He lays a big hand upon Kristy's thin shoulder and shakes her lightly.
"How long was I asleep for? Fuck, I'm sorry...she barely has her eyes open before she hears a familiar voice from the tier shout, "Spoonie's doing it!" Kristy springs to her feet and glances frantically around until her eyes finally fall upon the puzzled guard.
"Find someone to take me to the death house."
I don't know how or where in my arms to insert the needles, but I figure it's no different than how I used to shoot up heroin in my high school years. When I finally get it right and lay myself out on the gurney, I realize there are no chemicals flowing...there was no one to flip the switch. I'd already prepared the chemicals, so that isn't an issue. Once I hook up the cords, I hurry back to the gurney and BAM! The heavy iron door flies open and in walks a tousled Kristy and a terrified-looking cop.
"Witherspoon, what in God's name-"
"It's all in God's name, my boy, I'm saving lives here. Would you mind hittin' that switch for me over there?" I am past insanity. I am delirious and delusional in every way.
"Spoonie, no!" yells Kristy, banging on the machine in hopes of breaking it.
"Okay," I say beaming. I get up and flip the switch myself, but Kristy flips it back.
"Spoonie, we need to talk."
"Nope. No talk. No time." I smile deceptively into her stern, tear streaked face. She is not going to let me do my duty.
"Okay, Kristy-girl," I agree, "let's have a talk. Help me unhook myself?" Kristy smiles triumphantly and helps me pull the needles from my arms. As soon as one of me arms is free, I whip a knife out of my pocket and cut my own throat. It is over.
CLASSIFIED ADS: TOMORROW'S PAPER
-Experience needed: 5-10 years
-Send resume to:
Retzky Unit TXDOC
-Call the Texas Department of corrections for details or to schedule an interview