Several years ago, I reported from Texas on the impending execution of a man
named Derrick Frazier.
There was nothing much, really, to distinguish him from the 478 other criminals
Texas has injected with poison since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital
punishment in 1982.
Like many of them, he was non-white, poor and vicious.
He and his partner charmed their way into Betsy Nutt's home, then forced her to
her knees. His partner shot her dead, as her young son, Cody, knelt beside her,
watching. Frazier's partner then killed the boy, too.
The 2 master criminals were found later in possession of Nutt's truck. Frazier
confessed; then, much too late, changed his story.
I spent some time with Jerry Nutt before Frazier's execution. We visited the
graves of his wife and son, and we had supper together.
Nutt was eager to see Frazier die and he got his wish on Aug. 31, 2006, at 6:18
p.m., a few weeks after we spoke.
'Let 'er rip, warden'
For some reason, I went looking this week for the details of Frazier's
execution, spurred by the lingering memory not just of Jerry Nutt, but the
recent boasts of Texas Gov. Rick Perry about his state's nation-leading
Celebrity human rights campaigner Bianca Jagger is pressuring the British
government to help save the life of a British woman, Linda Carty, who is on
death row in Texas. (Reuters) The information wasn't difficult to find. Texas
not only keeps a public record of all the people executed since 1982, it also
posts their last words on the internet — save for profanities, which are
That's Texas: executions are considered normal, as is keeping a macabre record
of last words. Cursing, though, is out of bounds.
The website is a bizarre, riveting archive of the things men, and a few women,
choose to utter with their last breaths.
The latest, a murderer named Rodrigo Hernandez, had this to say before the
chemicals stopped his lungs and heart on Jan. 26: "I'm gonna go to sleep. See
you later. This stuff stings, man almighty."
Hernandez also proclaimed his love of God, as did the vast majority of those
who faced the needle before him. Men sentenced to death tend to find Jesus, or
Allah, or some other deity, and, in their final fear, they shout their belief.
Quite a few apologize.
"You did not deserve this," Angel Resendiz told the family of his victim in
June 2006. "I deserve what I am getting."
Many of them, perhaps in some final attempt to assert control over something,
long after all control has been taken away from them, save their very last
words to instruct the man presiding over their death.
"Let 'er rip, warden."
"You may proceed, warden."
"All right, warden," said Melvin White in 2005, "let's give them what they
Many, of course, weep during these final moments: "Here I am a big strong
youngster, crying like a baby," said 31-year-old Michael Hall last February. "I
am sorry for everything."
Some choose to describe aloud the first bitter taste of the poison as it
spreads into their bloodstreams. Others spit curses.
Some go out singing. Quite a few denounce the medical reality of what's about
to happen: "They are fixing to pump my veins with a lethal drug the American
Veterinary Association won't even allow to be used on dogs," Reginald Blanton
declared, correctly, in 2009.
Vincent Gutierrez, at the last moment in March 2007, asked where his stunt
Then there was the hair-raising statement of Billy Vickers. In 2004, strapped
on the gurney, he confessed to several murders for which he had not been
convicted, and calmly informed the warden that a few of them had been blamed
unjustly on other men.
And that by far is the most troubling topic in Texas's death row archive: the
possibility of wrongful conviction.
Didn't do it
Every so often, a condemned man insists right until the last moment that he is
Derrick Frazier, with Jerry Nutt watching, did just that.
"I am being punished for a crime I did not commit," he told the collected
From what I've been able to gather about Frazier, he was lying. He told police
things only someone in the room when the murders took place could have known.
But click through all those dying declarations of innocence, and something
inevitable dawns: By the law of averages alone, at least some of these guys
were probably telling the truth.
Add to that the fact that, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre,
Texas has released 12 men from death row since 1973, usually after prisoners'
advocates discovered new evidence of their innocence, much of it resulting from
To be clear: Texas intended to put 12 innocent men to death. Nationwide, over
the same period, the number is 140.
No official second thoughts
Knowing that, these utterances from the archive are all the more disturbing.
Roy Pippin in March 2007: "You will answer to your Maker when God has found out
that you executed an innocent man. May God have mercy on you - Go ahead,
warden, murder me."
Protestors show their support for death row inmate Troy Davis in September
2011, just days before he was executed by Georgia for the 1989 murder of a
police office. The case attracted international attention after seven of nine
trial witnesses recanted their testimony against him. Cary Kerr, on May 3 of
this year, loudly told the state of Texas he was innocent, then said: "Check
that DNA ... Here we go. Lord Jesus, Jesus."
William Chappell on Nov 20 2002, looking at the mother of the victim: "You know
damn well I did not molest that kid of yours. You are murdering me and I feel
sorry for you ..."
Or, Steven Woods in September 2011: "I never killed anybody, ever - This is
wrong. This whole thing is wrong - Well, warden, - go ahead and do it. Pull the
I don't know much about those men or their specific cases, but I do know I
wouldn't have wanted to be any of those wardens.
I covered an execution in 1985 of an elderly woman in North Carolina, and I had
the chance to ask the warden why he himself didn't push the button, as the law
entitled him to do (he had delegated the job to someone else).
He proclaimed complete confidence in the courts, but couldn't really answer the
question. When I pressed him, he ended the interview.
This is not a subject the American justice system likes to discuss, either.
Exonerating the living is one thing, and it is done regularly here, if often
But exonerating the dead would amount to a state confession of murder and, in
all likelihood, end capital punishment in America.
Such a thing has never happened here.
Once a prisoner has been executed, state and federal prosecutors steadfastly
oppose reopening cases to conduct post-mortem DNA checks or consider any new
The reasoning is obvious: The dead cannot be brought back, and all such efforts
might accomplish is to bring the system of justice into severe disrepute.
The U.S. is just about the only democracy left in the death-penalty club. There
were 43 executions here in 2011, down from a peak of 98 in 1999.
America's enthusiasm for executions is exceeded only by places like China, Iran
and North Korea.
Those countries would just write off the odd execution of an innocent as the
cost of doing business.
But when such a case finally surfaces here, as it almost certainly will, this
deeply religious country might want to pray with the same fervor that so many
of the condemned do as the poison starts to flow into their veins.
(source: Neil Macdonald is the senior Washington correspondent for CBC News,
which he joined in 1988 following 12 years in newspapers; CBC News)