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Just another night on Texas’ death row

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Huntsville, Texas

Just before 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 21, Ken and Lois Robison stood less than a block from the death house where their son, Larry, 42, was just minutes away from being executed. The crowd of 100 or so persons gathered around them was larger than that which had turned out for David Hick’s execution the night before or Spencer Goodman’s on Jan. 18 or Earl Heiselbetz’s on Jan. 12.

The new century has accelerated the rate of state killings in Texas, already the country’s death penalty capital, where death row holds 460 men and nine women awaiting the executioner’s needle. Since the 1976 Supreme Court’s reinstatement of the death penalty, 602 prisoners have been poisoned, electrocuted, gassed, hanged or faced a firing squad at points across the nation. Texas has claimed a full third of these killings, just over 200 to date.

The first month of the new century promised to be the busiest for state killings -- seven in 15 days -- since eight were executed in June 1997. Texas stands as the symbol of the new national urge to execute. It embodies all the rationale for and against use of the death penalty, which is escalating in the United States while much of the rest of the world abandons the practice. According to the human rights group Amnesty International, more than half the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Many have abolished it since 1976. In recent years, according to Amnesty, an average of two countries a year has abolished the death penalty.

This night, when the fourth of the seven executions would occur, all the clarity and ambiguity accompanying the death penalty was in full view: the taking of a life for lives taken; cries for justice mixed with pleas for forgiveness; the claim that the justice of execution is not justice but vengeance; the unending anguish over victims twinned with concern about condemned killers.

Robison did not want his parents to witness his execution. For years before he got into trouble they had sought to have him treated for his paranoid schizophrenia, fearing he could harm someone. But clinic after clinic turned him away, because he had not acted violently.

All that changed Aug. 9, 1982, when the Air Force veteran shot, decapitated, mutilated and stabbed his roommate and lover, Rickey Lee Bryant, and then went next door and brutally murdered and mutilated four more victims, aged 11 to 55. Robison never denied his crimes. He said he committed the murders to “find God.”

Up to a half hour before Robison would be strapped to the gurney and injected with lethal drugs, his parents hoped for clemency. They wanted to believe that the state of Texas would not take the life of a mentally ill man, a man -- Larry’s brother Allen told NCR -- who didn’t understand that he was going to die, but “believed he was leaving this place and going on a spiritual journey that would take him to another place.”

Robison’s parents and several of their eight children waited as lawyer Melodee Smith made a last call to the lieutenant governor’s office. Texas Gov. George W. Bush was away in Iowa campaigning for the presidency. In Bush’s five years in office he has presided over 113 executions and commuted only one death sentence.

Still they held out for a miracle. Only last August the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed Robison’s execution less than five hours before he was to die. They wanted to take a second look at his competency to face the death penalty. A few weeks later the court found Robison fit for execution and rescheduled his date. A seemingly deranged Robison offered to give up all his appeals if he could be executed on the night of a full moon. The appeals court agreed to the night of Jan. 21.

No clemency tonight

Attorney Smith turned off her cell phone. No clemency was forthcoming from Austin.

The crowd came closer to the Robisons, surrounding them with a hug and huddle as news crews poked cameras and microphones into the circle of tears, prayers and memories of the man who, at that moment, was being injected with sodium pentothal to put him to sleep, pancuronium to stop his breathing and potassium chloride to stop his heart. As Robison was surely dying, his sobbing mother held up a large photo of her son: “As long as I can breathe, as long as I can talk, I will never give up fighting against the death penalty.” For the 17 years their son was in prison, the Robisons have worked for the families of inmates on death row through their organization HOPE (Help Our Prisoners Exist). Their work has taken them across Texas, the nation and more recently to the Vatican, the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva and across Europe calling for an end to capital punishment.

At their side attending the vigil outside the Walls prison was a handful of African- American and Latino opponents of execution from Houston, Miami, Atlanta and from Huntsville, a town of 28,000 whose major industry since 1848 has been prisons, inmates and executions. Stretching behind the crowd was a huge banner displaying bloodstained handprints and the message “128 acts of compassionate conservatism.” No one was sure what the number128 represented, but one protester said it stood for the number executed on Bush’s watch plus those who have received their execution date.

Ajama Baraka, Southern regional director of Amnesty International, based in Atlanta, said he was weary of attending vigils, tired of tears and of parents burying sons whose lives the state had taken. But he said he was also “inspired” by the efforts of those in the crowd, especially the Robisons. “We might have to be the sacrificial generation. When future generations read of this period of madness, we can say that we were the voices in the wilderness, that we stood up,” he said.

A uniformed internal affairs officer, on crowd control duty, told NCR that the crowd was large. “Normally we get six to eight at a vigil,” he said.

Standing nearby, Njeri Shakur of Houston countered: “They want to play down the numbers.” She pointed to the 40 percent on the row who are black, the 20 percent who are Latino, the many who are mentally ill and/or retarded and nearly all who are too indigent to retain legal counsel.

Jesus was a victim

“We are infuriated in Texas. The death penalty is targeting; it’s an assault on a class of people. … Bush is not a conservative. He’s quite liberal in his pursuit to build his political career on the bodies of these people,” Shakur said. At her side, but silent, was Lynn Miller of Huntsville, holding a poster of “The Pieta,” depicting Mary holding the dead body of her son. The poster’s message: “Jesus was a victim of the death penalty.”

Those keeping vigil prayed aloud for the victims of Robison’s murderous rampage. Lois Robison prayed that Texas would care for its mentally ill so that “no mother will ever again have to wake up to the news that her son is a murderer and no mother will ever again have to learn that her child has been murdered.”

At a memorial service held at the University Hotel shortly after Robison’s execution, mourners listened to a statement issued by the relatives of the victims: “Larry Robison has paid with his life for the 17-year nightmare of trauma and heartache he caused for the families of his victims. The laws of God and man were broken. Justice has been done. May they all rest in peace.”

Archbishop Patrick Flores of San Antonio said that forgiveness is absent from the hearts of most victims’ families. “Many victims’ families say they won’t feel at peace until the criminal is executed. I tell them: ‘Even if he’s executed, it won’t bring back your loved one. We don’t cure one evil by doing another,’ ” Flores said in a telephone interview with NCR on the eve of Robison’s execution.

The 70-year-old archbishop, who’s been going to Huntsville for more than 43 years and who has said Mass on death row, is pessimistic that the death penalty will be overturned in his lifetime, though he has written to every member of the State Legislature, the governor and numerous prison officials. “When I came to San Antonio 30 years ago there were no penitentiaries.” Today there are 14 within the span of his see and four more being built. “We are constructing more prisons than colleges,” said Flores, adding that 30,000 of Texas’ 150,000 inmates are Catholic.

Flores hired a van for the 250-mile trip to Huntsville to allow visits to death row inmates by families who lack transportation or who fear that victims’ families or criminal friends of their jailed relative “will come after them,” he said. He’s also done “begging and fundraising” to provide Bibles and religious supplies to prisoners.

Since the escape and subsequent drowning of a death row prisoner late in 1998, all death row inmates have been put on 23-hour lockdown with a single hour out of their cells for segregated recreation. Hobbies, crafts, all forms of socializing and attendance at worship services are now forbidden on the row. More than 100 row inmates have been transferred to Terrell Unit in Livingston, some 40 miles from Huntsville. Days before their execution, inmates are taken back to the Walls Unit to await death.

‘Never hurt another’

Four of the six witnesses to Robison’s execution described the event at the memorial service. For Salvation Army Major Kathryn Cox of Dallas, who served as his spiritual adviser and friend for 17 years, Robison’s death was the 20th time she has seen the effects of lethal injection. “God created man. He breathed into his nostrils a living spirit. You can almost see the institution taking that breath away,” she said.

Cox described Robison as an eternal spirit. His was the spirit of humility, she said. He did not see himself as better than anyone. He also displayed a spirit of reconciliation, of healing and of strength, Cox said. “I’ll never hurt another individual,” he said.

Three women friends said he had gotten onto the gurney just before 6 p.m. Seven minutes after the lethal drugs began to flow, he was pronounced dead. “He went so very peacefully and very quickly,” said Kim Robison-Derby, his minister and former sister-in-law.

But the description of legal poisoning as “peaceful and quick” did not sit well with several of those at the memorial service. Historian Richard Halperin of Southern Methodist University in Dallas called it an “outrage” for America to use an instrument of death developed by Hitler’s personal physician, Dr. Karl Brandt. Like Nazi Germany, several states were also killing the retarded, the mentally ill, the young (those who committed their crime before age 18), the “useless, the guilty and the innocent,” Halperin said.

“The needle is not better. Who made up this myth?” he asked. “It’s peaceful for the exterminators, but not for their victim,” said Halperin, who has witnessed an execution.

The notion that lethal injections have replaced the electric chair -- which killed 361 men in Texas between 1924 and 1964 -- because they are cheap and humane is an “oxymoron,” said former anesthesiology professor, Dr. Lawrence Egbert. Certainly a rope or an axe, even bullets are cheaper than the $75 toxic cocktail used to end life in Texas and in 32 of 38 states that impose the death penalty.

Despite the American Medical Association’s opposition to physicians taking part in executions, doctors are engaged in every step of execution, according to Egbert, who lives in Baltimore and heads the Maryland chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Doctors have prescribed tranquilizers as part of the preparation for executions. They have selected intravenous sites for the injection, have started the injections or supervised others in its administration. They have consulted about the drugs, their doses and order of administration and have monitored to determine death.

The execution process has become so “ritualized” that when he witnessed it Jan. 24, it reminded Charlie Sullivan of the Latin Mass rite in the days before Vatican II’s liturgical reforms. Sullivan, an inactive priest of the Mobile, Ala., diocese, has spent the past quarter century working for prison reform. With his wife, Pauline, he founded Texas CURE, Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants. The couple runs the National CURE office in Washington.

Searching for healing

Sullivan returned to Texas to attend three of the seven vigils, to witness the execution of his fellow Mobile native and friend, Billy Hughes, and to hold a two-day strategy conference, which he hopes will lead to a moratorium on state executions. Some 60 members of the religious, academic, medical, political and legal fields attended. Among participants were five persons who had lost a family member through murder but had come to forgive the killers and to work on reconciliation.

Linda White’s 15-year-old daughter, Cathy, was raped and murdered by two 15-year-olds, high on drugs, in 1987. White joined a victims’ rights group in Houston but found that “reliving the anger and revenge through the group” didn’t bring her the healing she craved. Instead she returned to school to be educated to be a teacher and a grief counselor. She has taught murderers at Huntsville since 1997.

“I discovered they’re human beings. If we didn’t dehumanize them and make them lower than us, we couldn’t inflict pain and death on them,” White told the gathering. White thinks victims are used by the system to allow more and more violence in fighting crime.”

In talking to groups about forgiveness, White is fond of quoting two reconcilers: Sr. Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, who has said that “Every person is more than the worst thing he has ever done.” The other is Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in a sermon, called the death penalty “society’s final assertion that it will not forgive.”

If reconciliation is the key to healing the hearts of families of victims, dialogue with victims’ rights groups is fundamental to a moratorium on the death penalty, Sullivan and others said.

Several religious orders, justice and peace groups, civic, business and legal organizations have already introduced moratorium resolutions. The Quixote Center in Hyattsville, Md., has collected some 660 of them. The group’s Equal Justice USA wants to get 2,000 resolutions by the end of 2000. It has also gathered the names of 4,100 persons who favor a moratorium. Dozens of the signers favor the death penalty -- like former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Smoot -- but believe it’s being administered unfairly.

Proof of unfairness is evidenced by the fact that 85 people on death row have been declared innocent and released in the past six years, among them 18 in Florida and 13 in Illinois.

At least 35 mentally ill persons have been executed. Race has been shown to be a determining factor in death sentences, too; the killers of whites stand a far greater likelihood of being executed for their crime than killers of non-whites.

In his recent autobiography, Bush said he agonized over his decision not to stay Tucker’s execution. He is quoted in the book as saying that he felt “like a huge piece of concrete was crushing me” in the minutes just prior to Tucker’s receiving the lethal shot.

Bush was out of state for most of the seven executions performed in January.

Perhaps in the end Catholics and others will have to wear their faith more publicly, as Robison’s lawyer, Melodee Smith, does. In court, at a vigil, a conference or witnessing an execution, Smith, an ordained United Church of Christ clergywoman, wears a large crucifix over her clerical dress. “I wear it as a symbol of Roman law and Roman execution,” she said. It is her hope that history’s worst example of unlawful execution will engender forgiveness in all who see it. “Forgiveness is something religious people can do when someone does a really horrible thing,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2000