HUNTSVILLE, Texas — If Texas executes Robert James Campbell as planned Tuesday, for raping and murdering a woman, it will be the nation’s first execution since Oklahoma’s bungled attempt at lethal injection two weeks ago left a convicted murderer writhing and moaning before he died.
Lawyers for Campbell are trying to use the Oklahoma debacle to stop the execution here. But many in this state and in this East Texas town north of Houston, where hundreds have been executed in the nation’s busiest death chamber, like to say they do things right.
For two years now, Texas has used a single drug, the barbiturate pentobarbital, instead of the three-drug regimen used in neighboring Oklahoma. Prison administrators from other states often travel here to learn how Texas performs lethal injections and to observe executions. Texas officials have provided guidance and, on at least a few occasions, carried out executions for other states.
Even the protesters and TV cameras that used to accompany executions here have largely dissipated. “It’s kind of business as usual,” said Tommy Oates, 62, a longtime resident who was eating lunch at McKenzie’s Barbeque last week, about one mile from the prison known as the Walls Unit. “That sounds cold, I know. But they’re not in prison for singing too loud at church.”
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More than any other place in the United States, Huntsville is the capital of capital punishment. All of the 515 men and women Texas has executed since 1982 by lethal injection and all of the 361 inmates it electrocuted from 1924 to 1964 were killed here in the same prison in the same town, at the redbrick Walls Unit. Overall, Texas accounts for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s executions.
So many people have been put to death and so often — in January 2000, seven people were executed in 15 days — that people here take little notice.
Gov. Rick Perry is a staunch defender of the state’s record, saying that “in Texas for a substantially long period of time, our citizens have decided that if you kill our children, if you kill our police officers, for those very heinous crimes, that the appropriate punishment is the death penalty.” On “Meet the Press” recently, he added, “I’m confident that the way that the executions are taken care of in the state of Texas are appropriate.”
Some of those who condemn the state grudgingly agree that it kills with efficiency — from initial slumber into cessation of breathing — even though a prisoner who died of lethal injection in April was reported to have said, “It does kind of burn.”
“Texas’ death chamber is a well-honed machine,” said Robert Perkinson, the author of “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire,” a critical history of the Texas prison system.
David Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston who has represented more than 100 death-row inmates during their appeals, explained the state’s record of seeming success simply. “When you do something a lot, you get good at it,” he said, adding archly, “I think Texas probably does it as well as Iran.”
In February, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced he was imposing a moratorium on all executions during his time in office. However, he did not commute the sentences of inmates already on death row. That creates the potential for future governors to reinstate the death penalty in those cases.
Cal Coburn Brown, the last person executed in the state, died by lethal injection in September 2010 for the 1991 murder of Holly Washa in SeaTac. Condemned inmates also may choose to be hanged in Washington.
In Huntsville, a city of 40,000 that cuts through pine forests along Interstate 45, the Walls prison sits like a fortress in the heart of town, roughly half a mile from City Hall, the county courthouse and the campus of Sam Houston State University. Huntsville is part college town, part prison town — there are seven state prisons, including the Walls, in the Huntsville area, as well as the headquarters of the state prison agency, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
But many residents do not dwell on the pace of executions at the Walls. “Unless the high-profile cases are going on, you don’t really know until you read about it the next day in the paper or you hear it on the news that an execution was going on,” said Heike Ness, 48, an insurance agent.
Some of those who work in the system are proud of their expertise. Jim Willett, who was the warden at the Walls prison from 1998 to 2001, oversaw 89 executions. Staff members who prepare prisoners for execution are trained and skilled, he said. The “tie-down team” that straps the prisoners onto the table, “can take that man back there and put those straps on perfectly and easily in 30 seconds. This may sound odd to an outsider, but they take pride in what they do.” He added, “They’ve done it so often that it’s almost second nature to them.”
Willett, now retired from the prison, is director of the Texas Prison Museum, about three miles from the Walls prison, which celebrates the institution and, to an extent, its history of execution. It received 31,280 visitors last year.
It was built to resemble a state prison and has a replica guard tower in one corner of the building. The electric chair that was used until 1964 is there, displayed behind a protective glass barrier with a sign that reads, “Attention: Please do not enter past the rope or attempt to touch ‘Ol’ Sparky.’ An alarm will sound if you do try to enter.”
Willett said he was not haunted by his time supervising executions, but he was touched by it and drained by it.
Motion to stop execution
Since 1976, Texas has carried out more executions than six other states combined — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma and Virginia — all of which have some of the busiest death chambers.
Last week, lawyers filed a motion seeking to stop the execution of Campbell, who in 1991 with his co-defendant, Leroy Lewis, abducted, raped and murdered Alexandra Rendon, a 20-year-old bank employee. The lawyers cited the execution in Oklahoma, where Clayton Lockett writhed and moaned on the table until prison officials halted the procedure. Lockett died 43 minutes after the delivery of drugs into a vein in his groin began. Oklahoma has declared a six-month stay of the next execution.
The complaint in the Campbell case, filed in federal court in Houston, tracks arguments in several current lawsuits challenging Texas’ execution process. It focuses on efforts by Texas, Oklahoma and other states to restrict information about the source of the drugs.
Texas has declined to disclose such information as how its drug is tested for potency and purity, among other details of the process. The lawyers for Campbell argue that “to permit this execution to proceed in light of the eye-opening events in Oklahoma should not be countenanced by a civilized society, nor tolerated by the constitutional principles that form the basis of our democracy.”
State officials say Texas is not like Oklahoma partly because it uses a single drug, the barbiturate pentobarbital, instead of the three-drug series employed north of the Red River. This approach was favored by a new report on the death penalty from The Constitution Project, a group that includes supporters and opponents of capital punishment.
Maurie Levin, a lawyer who has worked on many Texas death-penalty cases and who is one of Campbell’s lawyers, countered that “Texas doesn’t have some kind of magic touch. There’s nothing that says we can’t trust Oklahoma, but we can trust Texas.” The risk of mistakes, she said, “are exponentially greater when executions are carried out in secret.” In fact, she noted, Oklahoma’s publicly available protocol is far more detailed than the one provided upon request from Texas.
On Wednesday, Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general, filed the state’s opposition to the request to stop the execution, stating that “recent problems in another state following an entirely different execution procedure do nothing to change this fact.” The state argued that pentobarbital has been used successfully in 33 executions in Texas, and that testing showed the batch of the drug to be used, which came from a compounding pharmacy, was potent and “free of contaminants.”
Still, an execution in April has raised questions. Jose Villegas, 39, who was convicted of fatally stabbing his ex-girlfriend, her young son and her mother, reportedly complained of a burning sensation as a lethal injection began to take effect. Texas argued that the Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution “does not require the elimination of all risk of pain,” only that the method not be “sure or very likely to cause serious illness and needless suffering.” The state’s filing noted that frequently, the action cited before pentobarbital-induced death in articles by Michael Graczyk, The Associated Press reporter who has covered hundreds of Texas executions, is snoring.
In Campbell’s case, Judge Keith Ellison of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on Friday denied the request for the injunction. He noted that the Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit “does not permit” a ruling in Campbell’s favor. Anticipating an appeal, however, Ellison urged the higher court “to reconsider its jurisprudence that seems to shield crucial elements of the execution process from open inquiry.”
Opponents of the death penalty question Texas’ reputation for trouble-free execution. Austin Sarat, a professor at Amherst College who has studied the death penalty, put the state’s rate of mishaps at about 4 percent, slightly higher than Oklahoma’s, if difficulty in finding a vein is included in the calculation.
One of the botched executions was that of Raymond Landry Sr. in December 1988. Two minutes after prison officials began administering the drugs, a tube attached to a needle inside Landry’s right arm began leaking and shooting the drugs across the death chamber toward the witness room. The warden then pulled a curtain to block the view. When the curtain reopened 14 minutes later after prison officials had apparently reinserted the needle, Landry was motionless with his eyes half-closed, according to The Associated Press. Three minutes later, two doctors arrived and declared him dead.
Texas’ 10-page execution protocol requires each “drug team” to have “at least one medically trained individual,” whether a certified medical assistant, emergency medical technician, phlebotomist, paramedic or military corpsman.
Support for the death penalty in Texas runs higher than in the rest of the country; a May 2012 University of Texas-Texas Tribune online poll showed that 53 percent of Texas voters said they supported the death penalty for murder over life imprisonment without the chance for parole. A Quinnipiac University telephone poll conducted in May 2013 found that 48 percent of American voters favored the death penalty over a life term for people convicted of murder.
In the late 1990s, 40 to 50 death sentences a year were being handed down in Texas; since 2010 the number has fallen below 10 a year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a group that opposes the death penalty.
Part of the reluctance to sentence people to death springs from the more than 140 high-profile exonerations in the state in recent years, including a dozen death-row inmates. And there have also been questions about the guilt of some executed prisoners. The state Legislature allowed juries to impose sentences of life without parole for capital crimes in 2005. Even in the greater Houston area, which is first in the state in death sentences, support for alternatives to the death penalty has grown to 69 percent in 2014 from 54 percent in 2010, according to a new survey by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.
— Information from The Seattle Times archives is included.