Friday, September 5, 2014

It can't help but have some effect

My father died in 1986.  It was no surprise.  The doctors had said 6-12 months and it had been about 10.  He was in the hospital in New York.  I was in Texas.  My mother kept telling me not to come.  
It isn't time, she'd say. It isn't time.  I'll tell you when.
Then she called.
Now, come now, today.
I caught the first plane I could get to LaGuardia.  I wore my funeral suit.   Cab from the airport to Mt. Sinai.  Ran up to the room dragging my suitcase.  My mother and sister were there.  My father was in a coma.  He was hooked up to machines that beeped and buzzed.  Monitors with green lines tracing breathing and pulse and heartrate.  My mother and sister left the room.
We'll go get some coffee.  Give you some time alone with him.
I looked out the window at Central Park.  Or maybe it was at the building across the street.  I don't know.  I didn't really see the view.  I know it was evening.  Getting dark, probably already dark.  

He lay there in the bed with the wires and the monitors and the buzzing and the beeping.  I looked at him.  I said a few words to him.
I'm here.  It's me.  I love you.
Or maybe I talked about the flight.  Braniff from Lubbock to Dallas, then from Dallas to LaGuardia. I have no idea what I said, but I remember babbling for a couple of minutes.  Then he stopped breathing.

When my mother died, I was in Toledo and she in New York.  After months in Mount Sinai, they were finally going to grant her wish and unhook her from the machines.  My sister was there with her.  She had a few strawberries and was going to give one to our mother, a treat she'd been denied for months as they fed her intravenously.  

I stayed in Toledo.  Was in court that morning to argue some case.  One of the judges asked how my mother was doing.
They're pulling the plug this morning.
Then why are you here?
I don't know.  Work distracts me.  Besides, you know how these things work.  Sometimes people linger.  My sister's with her.  When I get back to the office, I'll get word.  If she died, I'll catch a flight.
(I don't have a clue about the case.  What it was, what I argued, what they decided.  Did I win or lose? Not a clue.)

Got back to the office.  She'd died.  I caught a plane. 

When my sister died in a hospital in New York (not at Mount Sinai - neither of us will ever willingly go there), I was in Toledo, teaching at a seminar.  They'd told me she had another couple of months. They were wrong.

When my father-in-law died, in Pittsburgh, I was on my way from there to Chicago to pick up my younger son who'd just suffered a major broken ankle.  When my client,Jim Filiaggi was killed by the good people of the State of Ohio, I wasn't one of the witnesses.  I was across the way, in an office, watching the door, waiting for the witnesses to leave the execution chamber.  And for them then to wheel Jim out in a body bag.

I've had other relatives die.  I've had friends die.  I've lost clients.  Months before she became my wife, I held her cat in my arms while he died.  I was with her when her dog was put to sleep, though we didn't witness it.  I dug a grave in our backyard for my older son's rabbit.  I have friends who do death penalty work, lots of the late stage stuff.  They've watched and wailed as their clients were killed.  

Me, I've been on the periphery of a lot of death.  But my father is the only person I've actually watched die.  It's not something I'd wish on anyone.

That's me.  Then there's Michelle Lyons.  Texas Monthly, in an article by Pamela Colloff, calls her "The Witness."*

Michelle Lyons watched 278 people die.  Men and women.  Murdered in cold blood by the State of Texas.  She started attending the killings as a reporter.  She watched many more in the Public Information Office of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the state's prison system.  She eventually became Director of Public Information.

Driving along in her car after she dropped off her daughter at elementary school one morning after she left TDCJ, she spoke into her tape recorder.
“I support the death penalty,” she began. “I believe that there are some crimes that are so heinous that the only way you can truly pay your debt to society is with your life.” She spoke with the same deliberation she had used when addressing reporters outside the Walls after high-profile executions. “But in other cases, I feel very conflicted,” she added. “There are men I watched die that I don’t think should have.” A piece of folk art she had picked up on a trip to Austin—an evil-eye charm to ward off bad spirits—bobbed from her rearview mirror. “I thought being away from the prison system would make me think about it less, but it’s been quite the opposite,” she continued. “I think about it all the time.”
Larry Fitzgerald hired her at TDCJ.  He was Director of Public Information at the time, and they'd attended executions together.  She'd never asked how he felt about watching the killings and he never said.  Until one day on the road, after they'd both left TDCJ.
So when she had phoned him from the road the previous fall and he had casually mentioned that he was having nightmares—which he downplayed by calling them dreams—about his time inside the Walls, his words had sent a jolt through her.
Over the years, she'd gotten to know many of the folks she'd later watch be killed.
"I came to believe that there were 2 kinds of people on death row," Michelle told me. "You had guys who were true sociopaths. A lot of them fell into that category. And then you had guys who'd gotten themselves into a bad situation - running with a rough crowd, abusing alcohol, doing drugs. Maybe they robbed a store to get money for drugs and something went wrong and they shot the clerk. They'd had a choice to make, and they'd made the wrong one, but they hadn't set out with the intention of killing someone."
Some of them, anyway, she saw as people.  

Rodolfo Hernandez was missing a leg, amputated below the knee, a consequence of diabetes.  He asked for a prosthetic leg so he could walk to his execution.  No, said TDCJ.
When Michelle visited him beforehand, he anxiously jiggled the stump of his leg up and down, as if the entire limb were still there. "At one time, he was this powerful hitman and now he is an old man waiting for his death," Michelle reflected less than an hour before his execution, as she jotted notes in her office. "I don't debate whether there should be a death penalty because if someone killed one of my loved ones, I would want them to die. But I still feel sympathy for this man, who nervously kicked a leg he doesn't even have anymore."
But even then.

Hilton Crawford wanted catfish for his last meal.  Denied, since there was none in the prison kitchen. Lyons went and bought some to have it cooked for him.  She found it "very hard to explain" how she could feel compassion, do something, for a man who'd murdered a little boy.  
Later, when she caught sight of the victim's mother at Crawford's execution, she felt a twinge of panic. What if he acknowledged her gesture from the gurney? "May God pass me over to the kingdom's shore softly and gently," Crawford said after he asked the victim's family for forgiveness. He nodded as the lethal injection began flowing and then gasped before falling quiet. As Michelle looked on, contemplating how easily she had shown kindness to a man who had murdered a child, she was filled with shame.
And yet.

Fitzgerald only saw 219 executions before he retired, so Lyons at 278 by the time she left TDJC would seem to hold the record.  Fitzgerald testifies for the defense these days.  Life without parole, LWOP, death in prison, he says, is enough.  He's not bothered so much by what he remembers.  
"What bothers me is that I can't remember them all," he said. "There are names I have forgotten."
For Lyons? For anyone, you can't watch that many cold-blooded killings and not respond.  Not if you're human.
There is a difference between supporting the death penalty as a concept and being the person who actually watches its application. Being human, I knew there were bound to be cracks in the veneer. I just thought somehow it wouldn't happen to me.
She remembers a poem, not by an inmate, by Dorothy Parker, "The Veteran."
When I was young and bold and strong,
Oh, right was right, and wrong was wrong!
My plume on high, my flag unfurled,
I rode away to right the world.
"Come out, you dogs, and fight!" said I,
And wept there was but once to die.
But I am old; and good and bad
Are woven in a crazy plaid.
I sit and say, "The world is so;
And he is wise who lets it go.
A battle lost, a battle won--
The difference is small, my son."
Inertia rides and riddles me;
The which is called Philosophy.
*Much of the article is unfortunately now behind a paywall.  I've clipped and quoted from some of what you can't read there for free. 


  1. Beautiful post. This is my nomination for the Simple Justice 2014 blog entry award.

  2. There are many victims when someone is executed. The people at the prison who have to be part of the barbaric act also suffer in the end. There are no winners when there is an execution.

    1. I think it was after Wilford Berry's execution that Betty Montgomery of all people said, "There are no winners here tonight." Andrew Welsh-Huggins took that phrase for the title of his book on Ohio's death penalty.

  3. Thanks Jeff. My own reflections on the above article went on for some time. Over time many of the phrases and quotes begin to make even more sense or is it nonsense?