Roughly once every 22 days, a convicted killer is executed in America’s busiest death house: the Huntsville “Walls” Unit in Texas. He cannot choose his final meal, but once strapped to the execution table, with IV lines in his arms, a chaplain’s hand on his ankle, and a microphone suspended above his head, he is allowed to choose his final words…
A person’s last words, however, are much more rarely remembered or recorded, because ‘lasts’ in life usually occur without our knowledge—we don’t see them coming. Humans, after all, are in the habit of planning firsts, not scheduling lasts, and there’s always a chance that we’ll say, see or experience something again in the future.
Most people, therefore, die without ever knowing on which day they will see their last sunset, or hug their parents for the final time, or utter their last words.
But there is a tiny subset of the population whose departures from life are not at the mercy of chance, but subject to the will of the state. They are the prisoners of America’s death row. For these condemned individuals, every ‘last’ can be planned and will be remembered, because their deaths are scheduled not just to a certain week or day, but to an exact minute. And the last thing they know they will ever do is speak about 100 words to the people who have gathered to watch, or help, them die. What, then, do they say? What messages do they most want to get off their chests and into the minds of their families and the families of their victims?
I wanted to find out.
If you want to know what death row prisoners say before they die, you go to Texas. Well, actually you go to the website for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Once there, you click Public Resources, Death Row, Executed Offenders. Texas, you see, as well as being America’s capital for killing killers (Texas has executed more prisoners than all other U.S. death penalty states combined1), also maintains a publicly accessible online record of every murderer that is put to death within its borders. You can click on any of the 481 persons listed and see their mugshot, read about the crime that landed them on death row and, perhaps most interestingly, read his or her final words—what they said literally seconds before a deadly cocktail of chemicals intravenously flooded their bodies, knocked them out, collapsed their lungs and stopped their hearts. 8 out of 10 prisoners choose to say something before they’re dispatched2 and reading their statements is a sombre and sometimes chilling experience.
In an effort to discover what the average prisoner says before they are killed, and maybe even why they say it, I scraped all of the data from TDCJ’s database of executed offenders. At the time I did this, in February 2012, there were 478 inmates listed there—475 men and 3 women. The combined word count of their final statements totalled over 40,000, which is the equivalent of almost 5 hours of continuous speaking. 5 hours of ‘I’m sorry’, ‘so long’ and ‘goodbye’. Before we get to the results of the analyses I ran on the offenders’ last words, some background information on the death penalty in Texas could be of interest.
To wind up on Texas’ death row, you have to commit capital murder. Well, more accurately, you have to be found guilty of capital murder. This means that you’ve probably killed someone in a premeditated way, not in a ‘crime of passion’. The victim is completely blameless and may have been killed merely because they stood in your way or were a witness to a crime you were committing.3 Other sure-fire ways to end up at Texas’ “Walls” Unit, where all condemned prisoners take their final breaths, are by killing a child under 6 years of age, murdering a police officer, or killing more than one person in a related series of events. Convicted killers who meet the death row criteria aren’t immediately sent to the death chamber though. In Texas, they spend an average of 10.6 years at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Polunsky unit in Livingston—death row. Here they go through several stages of appeals, which can go on for months or, usually, years. The record for the longest amount of time spent on death row is currently held by David Lee Powell, who was executed on June 15th 2010, after spending 11,575 days (31 years) on death row4.
Powell declined to make a last statement.
When every avenue for reversing the guilty verdict (trial phase) and the death penalty (punishment phase) has been exhausted, the prosecution asks a state district judge to set an execution date, which will tend to be two to three months away.5
Executions in Texas always occur on a weekday, and begin at 6pm. They used to happen at midnight, but in 1995, friends and relatives of the victim were allowed for the first time to watch the executions, so the time was brought forward to better accommodate their attendance.
On the day of his execution, a condemned prisoner is not allowed to be interviewed by anyone from the media and, thanks to Lawrence Russell Brewer, is no longer allowed to request a special last meal. Brewer was executed in September of 2011 for torturing and killing a 49-year-old handicapped black male in 1998, but not before he requested the following for his final meal: two chicken fried steaks, a triple meat bacon cheeseburger, a cheese omelette, a large bowl of fried okra, three fajitas, a pint of Blue Bell ice cream, and a pound of barbecue with a half loaf of white bread.
He ended up not touching any of it, which incensed Texas officials so much that they then revoked the ‘special last meal’ right of all soon-to-be executed prisoners. Now they have to eat from the same menu as everyone else on the row.
“At 6:00 p.m. sharp, the prisoner is taken from the holding cell outside the execution chamber. He is walked into the chamber and strapped to the execution table, face up, his arms extended on supports. When the prisoner is in place, guards escort the two witness parties into their respective rooms. IV’s are then inserted into both arms and a saline solution is started. After the saline has flowed for a few minutes, everyone leaves the chamber except the prisoner, the warden, and the chaplain. The warden usually stands behind the prisoner. The chaplain stands at his feet, with his hand on the prisoner’s ankle. This is when the prisoner is allowed to make a last statement. He speaks into a microphone suspended just above his head.” – Texas Execution Information Center
And so to the question of what these men, and a couple of women, say before they are not-so-much ushered through death’s door, but pushed. The main things I wanted to find out when I created the corpus of the 478 final statements were the most frequently used word and the most used 3-word phrase. Would the word God be uttered more than Sorry? Would innocent outweigh guilty?
It turns out that the word prisoners in Texas most use before they are put to death for their crimes is love. Their last statements are littered with loves. Prisoners tell their families, who are often right there, behind glass, about to watch their condemned relative die, that they love them. In fact, family is the second most frequently spoken word, with thank coming in third.
Reading through the 20 or so most used words, you can pretty much form a generic last statement that sums up the sentiments of a large majority of the men who are executed in Texas. “[04 – Sorry.] [05 – God], [06 – Just] [07 – Forgive].” In actual fact, the 3-word phrase prisoners elect to include in their final statements the most is
I love you.
9.5% of the prisoners executed in Texas between 1982 (when the lethal injection was brought in) and 2005 claimed they were innocent of the crime that they were strapped to the gurney for committing. This is a sobering thought, especially when you consider that since 1973, 140 men have been exonerated from death row because their conviction was overturned and they were acquitted at re-trial or had all charges dropped, or were given an absolute pardon by the governor based on new evidence of innocence. DNA evidence played a major role in establishing innocence in 17 of these cases.6 These facts naturally bring to mind the main question that has surrounded the death penalty for hundreds of years: do the benefits of killing the guilty definitely outweigh the risk of accidentally murdering the innocent? The justification for the death penalty acting as a deterrent to criminals has long stood on shaky ground: 88% of former and present presidents of the country’s academic criminological societies say that it’s not.7 And in a 2010 poll by Lake Research Partners, it was found that a clear majority of voters (61%) would choose a punishment other than the death penalty for murder.8
Of course, these statistics mean very little, if anything, to the men who have ended up on death row in Texas. Through a toxic combination of bad luck and bad choices, they have extinguished every bit of the freedom that other people, non-murderers, take for granted. The only thing certain for a death row prisoner in Texas, when all hope for exoneration is gone, is that he will get to choose his final ‘last’—the concluding remarks to his calamitous life.
I have collected all of the results from my analyses of the prisoners’ last words and created an infographic to show them. It also includes additional facts about the death row process.
If you’re interested in this subject and want to learn more about death row, its inmates, and their last words, please check out the sources listed below. Also, try to watch a documentary called Into the Abyss.
1. Death Penalty Information Center — http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/FactSheet.pdf
2, 5. Texas Execution Information Center — http://www.txexecutions.org/primer.asp
3, 4. Texas Execution Information Center — http://www.txexecutions.org/primer.asp
6. Death Penalty Information Center — http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-list-those-freed-death-row
7, 8. Death Penalty Information Center — http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/FactSheet.pdf