Nel's New Day

May 14, 2014

Texas Execution Postponed

Last night, Texas failed to kill someone. After several appeals, a judge finally stopped the execution just two hours before the scheduled execution at 6:00 pm. Robert James Campbell was convicted of a 1991 rape and murder when he was 18 years old. He has been in prison for 23 years. His execution was scheduled for exactly two weeks after Oklahoma injected drugs into Clayton Lockett that left him writhing in pain before he died of a heart attack.

One appeal concerned the unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment that Campbell might have suffered because Texas planned to use unknown drugs compounded at an unknown facility with no federal oversight. Judges didn’t find that a problem. Texas did lose on the next count, however, because Texas had hidden psychological evaluations showing that Campbell is intellectually disabled.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision will permit Campbell to appeal his execution because the state had failed to turn over his past intelligence tests. Texas has no law against executing mentally disabled people because Gov. Rick Perry vetoed the bill have it passed the legislature. Perry has executed people who committed crimes as juveniles (3), mentally disabled (10), and victims of inadequate counsel (5). Two of Perry’s executed men didn’t commit murders. He even executed a man who was most likely innocent.

A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision, however, ruled that executing the mentally disabled violates the Constitution. One school test put Campbell’s IQ at 68, well below the average of 100. Officials said he scored 84 after a robbery conviction two years earlier but there were no details about the exam. In April, a psychologist reported his IQ at 69.

While in school, Campbell couldn’t make change, read a gas gauge, or tell time. Prosecutors claimed that he showed higher intelligence because he played sports, sang in a church choir, and mowed yards. His execution would have been the eighth this year in Texas. The next one is scheduled for August.

The Fifth Circuit Court has a reputation of supporting executions. Judge Edith Jones reinstated a death penalty for a man whose lawyer slept through his trial. Last year, she claimed that blacks and Hispanics are predisposed to crime and “prone” to violence. The execution, according to Jones, is a “positive service” because the executed have an opportunity to get right with God just before the state kills them. Her position is that appeals on the basis of mental retardation “abuse the system” because anyone who can plan a crime can’t be mentally retarded. 

So many people have been executed in Texas that the residents of Huntsville, where the killings take place, pay very little attention to the hundreds of people legally killed in their community. Instead of the three-drug “cocktail” used in Oklahoma, Texas uses a single drug, pentobarbital. Prison administrators from other states visit Texas to gain guidance for killing its prisoners. Occasionally, Texas executioners are outsourced to other states to perform their executions. They have a great deal of practice: 515 men and women have been killed in Texas since 1982 with lethal injections. Forty percent of the nation’s legal killings of prisoners occur in Texas. Since 1976, Texas has carried out more executions than the six other busiest killing states combined: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Virginia.

Texas officials think they are efficient even though a prisoner who was being executed last month woke up and said, “It does kind of burn.” David R. Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston who has represented more than 100 death row inmates during their appeals, said, “I think Texas probably does [executions] as well as Iran.”

Last year Woodland Compounding Pharmacy demanded that Texas return drugs to them because the state had obtained them under false premises. The state had ordered the drugs in the name of “Huntsville Unit Hospital,” which hadn’t operated for over 30 years. According to a letter from Woodland’s owner Jason Lovo, however, it was obvious they knew the use for the drugs they were selling:

“I am the owner and pharmacist-in-charge of the Woodlands Compounding Pharmacy, the pharmacy that has provided TDCJ with vials of compounded pentobarbital.

“Based on the phone calls that I had with Erica Minor of TDCJ regarding its request for these drugs, including statements that she made to me, it was my belief that this information would be kept on the “down low” and that it was unlikely that it would be discovered that my pharmacy provided these drugs. Based on Ms Minor’s requests, I took steps to ensure it would be private. However, the State of Texas misrepresented this fact because my name and the name of my pharmacy are posted all over the internet. Now that the information has been made public, I find myself in the middle of a firestorm that I was not advised of and did not bargain for. Had I known that the information would be made public, which the State implied it would not, I never would have agreed to provide the drugs to the TDCJ.”

Huntsville is a lovely town of about 40,000 people with seven state prisons in the vicinity. The Walls prison fortress is about a half mile from City Hall in the heart of town. Jim Willett, Walls warden from 1998 to 2001, said that the “tie-down team” that straps the prisoners on the execution table “can take that man back there and put those straps on perfectly and easily in 30 seconds.” He added, “They take pride in what they do. They’ve done it so often that it’s almost second nature to them.”

Willett’s job now is director of the Texas Prison Museum that had 31,208 visitors last year. Built to resemble a state prison, it has a replica guard tower in one corner. The electric chair for executing people until 1964 is displayed behind a protective glass barrier. The sign states: “Attention: Please do not enter past the rope or attempt to touch ‘Ol’ Sparky.’ An alarm will sound if you do try to enter.”

Texas attorney general Greg Abbott, also a GOP gubernatorial candidate, thinks that Texas is much better at executing people than Oklahoma. The drug to be used came from a compounding pharmacy and is potent and “free of contaminants,” he wrote. There is no information about how the drug is tested.

Austin D. Sarat, an Amherst College professor who has studied the death penalty, rates Texas’s mishaps at 4 percent, higher than that of Oklahoma, when considering difficulty in finding a vein. In 1988, a tube attached to a needle inside Raymond Landry Sr.’s right arms shot drugs across the death chamber toward the witness room. The warden closed the curtain, and 14 minutes later when it was re-opened, Landry’s eyes were half-closed. Three minutes later he was pronounced dead.

In the late 1990s, when George W. Bush was governor of Texas, between 40 and 50 death sentences were handed down in Texas. The number has fallen to below 10 a year since 2010, perhaps because of the 140 high-profile exonerations in the state in recent years, including a dozen death row inmates. Questions also exist about the guilt of already executed prisoners.

People justify executions by saying that those people have killed—a type of vengeance. There’s the belief that if these evil people act outside the law that the government should do the same—kill people. Twenty-two countries executed people last year, including Yemen, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, China, Sudan—and the United States. As we criticize other countries in the world for being less “democratic” or “highly developed,” we need to consider the company we keep.


Strapping down prisoners to kill them, injecting drugs, running a museum with an electric chair–it’s just business as usual to the people who have become desensitized to legally killing people.


1 Comment »

  1. Gruesome.


    Comment by Lee Lynch — May 14, 2014 @ 11:06 PM | Reply

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