The entrance gate to the Ellis death row unit in Huntsville Prison, Texas (Photo: Getty Images)
The entrance gate to the Ellis death row unit in Huntsville Prison, Texas (Photo: Getty Images)


What it feels like at the Texas Death House

Novelist Julia Heaberlin on the busiest execution factory in the United States

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By Julia Heaberlin on

Outside the Texas Death House, everything quivers. The trees, the grass, the birds. The ribs in my chest, the balls of my feet. I feel like I am about to explode from the inside out. Thunderous noise swells from the rows of motorcycles revved by nearly two dozen former police officers. They want the condemned man on this night, a Mexican national named Edgar Tamayo, to hear their fury through the walls. They want him to go straight to hell.

Tamayo is about to die by lethal injection, courtesy of the state of Texas. His crime is horrific, like many of the more than 250 men and women who now find themselves on Texas Death Row. While he was being carted off to jail, Tamayo had pulled a hidden gun and shot a young cop in the back of the head three times.

I’ve driven three hours from Dallas to Huntsville to stand here as part of the research for my psychological thriller, Black-Eyed Susans. Since 1982, my state has killed more than 525 prisoners. I had picked Tamayo off a list of executions online more casually than I’d like to admit. I asked a friend to ride along for company, someone constantly reshaping her opinions based on fact instead of emotion. I don’t know many people like that. 

We are just yards from the tiny, nondescript room that is the busiest execution factory in the United States. The death chamber is housed in a room on the corner of “The Walls”, a legendary red brick prison with a grassy area and a clock tower. 

The scene is nothing like what I expect – both the sparseness of the crowd and the building itself, which sits a few blocks off the historic square in the centre of a small Texas town. There are no Facebook screamers or politicians. I am struck by the sense of ordinary, like the old neighbourhood that stretches out beyond the prison. The covered barbecue grill on the front porch of the white frame house next door. The calmness of the crowd literally standing on different sides of the line. The state troopers wandering around who don’t seem to expect trouble. 

I am also struck by the fact that I have been against the death penalty all of my life, and it took writing a novel, a piece of commercial entertainment, to get me to this patch of earth where executions have been performed by lethal injections and the electric chair for nearly a century.

Evenings like this are a routine fact of life in Huntsville. Yet executions are becoming far less common in the US as concerns ramp up over the fairness and morality of capital punishment. 

According to Amnesty International, executions in America are in sharp decline – falling from a high of 98 in 1999 to 35 in 2014. Seven states have voted to abolish the death penalty since 2007 (31 states out of 50 still have it). Even Texas did not receive a new inmate on Death Row in the first seven months of 2015 – reflecting shifting views among prosecutors and juries about the use of capital punishment even after the most heinous crimes. In a high-profile capital case this summer, a young man who shot up a Colorado movie theatre, killing 12 and wounding 70, was spared a death sentence.

The emergence of DNA technology has led to highly publicised exonerations and the belief that states have executed innocent men and women. Under pressure from European nations as well as religious groups, major drug companies stopped supplying key drugs used in lethal injections, leaving states to find compounding pharmacies to fill the need. Some new execution cocktails have caused problems, with inmates in Arizona and Ohio reportedly left gasping for air instead of being sedated – raising the issue of cruel and unusual punishment.

That doesn’t mean the death penalty is going away any time soon. Utah recently brought back the firing squad as an option if the drug cocktail is not available. Texas executed nine prisoners in the first half of 2015 and eight more were scheduled to die by the end of the year. 

The death penalty is not going away any time soon. Utah recently brought back the firing squad as an option if the drug cocktail is not available

David Dow, a Texas death penalty lawyer who has represented more than 100 men on Death Row, helped me navigate the slow march to a Texas execution in Black-Eyed Susans. The appeals process  drags on for years. Dow believes that the death penalty should be abolished primarily because it is part of a racist and unfair system, not because there are hundreds of innocent men about to be executed. (He gives a great Ted Talk)

That said, Dow has helped exonerate two, including Anthony Graves, who spent more than 18 years in prison, most in solitary confinement on Death Row. 

Anthony was wrongly convicted of walking into a house in Somerville, Texas and helping slaughter a family of six, most of them children. Years later, the real killer admitted in a sworn statement before his own execution that he had implicated Anthony in an attempt to save himself. He said it again in his dying breaths. 

It took years and countless lawyer hours for Anthony to be exonerated. He agreed to take time out of a precious day of freedom to talk to me for help on a scene and a character in Black-Eyed Susans. He told me about how one of the worst things about living on Texas Death Row was that he didn’t want to breathe. He didn’t want to suck in air that smelled of the sweat and desperation of men condemned to die with no hope of human touch. The smell is indescribable, he told me, like nothing in the outside world.

He told me how prisoners play imaginary games of chess in their heads. How he somehow hung on to hope while those around him went crazy from being locked for 23 hours a day in a tiny cell. When the interview is over, he asks politely if, in return, I would please mention his website whenever I can. He is a remarkable man. Not bitter. He spends much of his life traveling the country, fighting for legal reform.

Before I started my research, I wanted an authentic novel. When I finished talking to David Dow and Anthony Graves, I wanted to be a more authentic person. 

When I arrived back home, the experience began to shape my story, my characters, in ways I didn’t plan. I poured out a chapter I feared my editor would cut entirely. She never touched a word.  

The lawyer, so important to this part of the story, sprang to life. 

Tessa, my heroine, would not cooperate all the time. She was conflicted about the death penalty no matter how much I tried to convince her otherwise. *How can you know how I feel, she asked me, if you’ve never experienced something this terrible? If evil hasn’t ripped out a staggering piece of who you are? Don’t preach, she told me. Let me be who I am.*

Sometimes, my mind drifts to the scene outside the Death House. Slivers of ice are falling from the sky. Edgar Tamayo’s mourners are singing and kneeling by a tree, their mouths opening and closing like birds. A local criminal justice professor, a quiet and regular protester at these occasions, hangs out near a stop sign and holds a battery-operated Christmas candle. A woman named Gloria is using a bullhorn to declare Edgar innocent, even though he is not innocent at all. 

The motorcycles begin their fury. The men gunning them are here for one of their own, Guy Gaddis, a 24-year-old cop who left behind a pregnant wife. He was two-and-a-half years on the job. A war veteran. 

The roar of engines drowns out the singing of the mourners and fills every molecule of air.

 It is hard to breathe.       


(Author’s note: More than 250 men and women are sitting on Texas Death Row. Seventeen prisoners were marked for execution this year.)

Black-Eyed Susans is published by Ballantine Books

The entrance gate to the Ellis death row unit in Huntsville Prison, Texas (Photo: Getty Images)
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