The Last Statements of Death Row
Texas executes far more people than any other US state. A Texas prisoner will be executed tomorrow. What do the inmates tend to say in their final words, right before they are killed by the state?
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Tomorrow, at 6pm CST, Gary Green will be executed in Texas, at the Walls Unit in Huntsville. Barring a last minute legal stay, he will be given a lethal injection and will likely be declared dead roughly fifteen minutes after the drugs begin flowing into his veins.
Green, like so many death row inmates, was convicted of a heinous crime, but is also the outgrowth of a broken childhood, poverty, mental illness, and a racially biased criminal justice system. He killed his girlfriend and six year-old daughter in September 2009, a horrific and monstrous crime.
But Green was also a victim himself, failed by his family and by society. He grew up in a home filled with brutal domestic abuse. He was beaten by his father. Green later developed severe mental illness, according to a court filing:
Throughout his life, Green purportedly exhibited signs of paranoia and mental illness, including speaking of and attempting suicide, believing others were out to “get him,” hearing demons, and believing vampires were following him.
Green tried to get help in August 2009, was diagnosed with a psychotic disorder, and was subsequently discharged. After hearing voices in his head, he committed murder the following month. Green was sentenced to death in November 2010.
Immediately before he is killed tomorrow, Green will be asked to make a brief last statement. Texas, which has executed many times more inmates than other states, keeps a record of what each prisoner says before they die. And the statements make for harrowing, but often moving, reading, as someone speaks for the last time—a final statement that, as death penalty advocates often point out, many of their victims were unable to make before their far more brutal and violent deaths.
What do the condemned prisoners say?
America the Outlier
Before we get to the last statements themselves, we need a little bit of context.
As a rich democracy that regularly executes prisoners, the United States is a major outlier. If you look at pre-pandemic data (which is most representative of overall trends), you can tell that America’s capital punishment figures put it into a league with some pretty unsavory countries. This graphic is from the BBC:
And, while most of us assume that all executions are done by lethal injection, that’s not true. The last execution by electrocution in the United States was done in 2020, in Tennessee. The last firing squad execution was in 2010, in Utah. The last execution in a gas chamber was done in 1999, in Arizona, and the last hanging was carried out in 1996, in Delaware.
There’s also a disturbing fact to contend with. Since 1973, 191 prisoners who had been sentenced to death were later exonerated. These cases often involve official misconduct. According to the Death Penalty Information Center:
“Nearly 70% of the exonerations involved misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other government officials. 80% of wrongful capital convictions involved some combination of misconduct or perjury/false accusation and more than half involved both.”
Here’s the full list of those who have been exonerated from death row.
Since 2020, twelve people who were sentenced to death have since been fully exonerated. It is, of course, unknown how many innocent people have been executed.
Texas and the Huntsville Unit
From 1924 to 1964, the Huntsville Unit in Texas was home to an electric chair known colloquially as “Old Sparky.” 361 prisoners were killed in that chair, executed by a process known euphemistically as “judicial electrocution.”
Since 1976—when the Supreme Court issued a ruling that allowed the revival of capital punishment in the United States—there have been 581 executions carried out in the Huntsville Unit. That’s about 4 in 10 of all executions in the United States, in a single cramped chamber, in a small town in Texas.
George W. Bush became Governor of Texas in 1995, and he ramped up the rate of executions considerably. By January 2000, the rate of executions was unprecedented in modern history. Texas set a gruesome record – 40 executions in a single year, one every nine days. Here’s the data showing the varying execution rate over recent years. (I compiled the graph, but the data are from the Texas government, available here).
As you might imagine, the racial breakdown of executed inmates is not representative of the broader population in Texas. For the last several decades, the Black population of Texas has held steady—at around 12 percent. And yet, by far the largest number of death row inmates are Black men. Here’s the racial breakdown of current death row inmates:
The Final Hours
Michelle Lyons has witnessed more executions than just about anyone else in the United States — 283 in total. I spoke to her a few years ago about her experiences, and here’s what she told me the inmates experience in their final hours before going to the execution chamber:
On the day of an execution the inmate is given four hours to meet with her family and friends in the morning and then once those visits conclude they are loaded into a van and taken from the Polunsky unit in Livingston which is where all of Texas death row for men [are housed]…They're driven to Huntsville to the Walls Unit which is where the death chamber is located. Once they arrive, they're taken out of the transport vehicle and strip searched. They're given new clothes. They go through the paperwork to process fingerprints and obviously make sure that you have the correct inmate. And no it has never happened that they didn’t [have the right person].
The inmate is then given tea, coffee, and a big plate of cookies, while they’re also allowed to call anyone in the continental United States before their death. They usually meet with a chaplain, who speaks to them about their spiritual beliefs.
In many states, inmates on death row get to pick whatever they want – within reason – for their last meal. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, ate two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Serial Killer John Wayne Gacy ate 12 fried shrimp, a bucket of fried chicken, french fries, and a pound of strawberries. Ronnie Lee Gardner, who was executed by firing squad in Utah in 2010, requested steak, lobster tail, apple pie, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream – and he wanted to eat it while watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy. One inmate requested a single olive, with the pit still in it, and that’s the last thing he ate.
But in Texas, there is no special last meal. That’s because an inmate in 1998 asked for two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions; a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger; a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapeños; a bowl of fried okra with ketchup; one pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread; three fajitas; a meat-lover’s pizza; one pint of Blue Bell Ice Cream; a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts; and three root beers. He was too nervous to eat it. When the story hit the papers, a Texas politician figured he could make headlines by arguing that this was government waste, coddling the condemned, and so last meal requests were banned.
The inmate last moments involve being walked down the corridor to the execution chamber, where a “tie-down team” does what its name implies—ties them to the gurney.
A few feet above the inmate, there’s a single microphone, so that the inmate can make a final statement, should they wish.
Here’s what they say.
Final Words: Jesus, Forgiveness, or Silence
I’ve read most of the 500+ last statements given in Texas since 1976, but here are a few trends over the last five years.
Since 2018, 17 percent of executed inmates declined to give a last statement.
Of those who gave final statements, 45 percent mentioned God.
Of those who gave final statements, 52 percent asked for forgiveness, or apologized.
Of those who gave final statements, 17 percent either said or hinted that they were innocent.
Of those who gave final statements, 17 percent explicitly criticized the criminal justice system.
What people say in their final moments reveals aspects of the human condition—love, regret, religion, forgiveness, mental illness, and stoicism. But these statements are also an opportunity for inmates to lash out against a system that they believe has failed them, or to protest their innocence. Some may be innocent. Others may be continuing a useful fiction, committed to the lie until the very end. For many, we will never know the full truth.
I’ve covered the death penalty extensively in my Power Corrupts podcast series in two episodes: “An Eye for an Eye” and “Witnessing 283 Executions.” (In “An Eye for an Eye,” I explain why I think that, at least in practice, capital punishment is indefensible given our current criminal justice system).
To give you a glimpse of the final moments of people on death row, here is a selection of final statements from Texas executions, broken down into a few representative categories:
“I’d like to take a moment to say I’m sorry. No amount of words could ever undo what I’ve done. To the family of my victims, I wish I could undo that past. It is what it is. God bless all of you, I will die with a clear conscience. I made my peace. There is no others. I would like to wish a Happy Birthday to Barbara Carrol, today is her birthday. I would like to especially thank those that have helped me, you know who you are. God bless everybody until we meet again. I’m ready warden.”
—Anthony Allen Shore
“Yes sir, I would first like to say to the Sanchez family how sorry I am. Words cannot begin to express how sorry I am and the hurt that I have caused you and your family. May this bring you peace and forgiveness. I am sorry. To my family, thank you for all your love and support. I am at peace. Jesus Christ is Lord. I love you all. Thank you Warden that is it.”
“Yes sir, I would like to ask forgiveness of the family. I have no reason for why I did it, I don't understand why I did it. I hope that you can live the rest of your lives without hate. I pray the Lord grant me forgiveness. All powerful and almighty Lord I commit myself to thee, Amen.”
An unjust system
“Capital Punishment: Them without the capital get the punishment.”
“First I would like to say I have been here since September 2005. I had the honor and privilege to know many prison guards and staff. I want to thank all of them. I would like for everyone to write the people on death row as they are all good men and I am very happy I got to know them. All of their lives are worth knowing about.
Secondly on February 14th the medical examiner and the chief nurse were engaged in numerous false illegal acts. They tried to cover up that thousands were wrongfully convicted by Matt Powell, district attorney. This needs to be brought to justice.
I call upon the FBI to investigate Matt Powell and the Lubbock County Medical Examiner. Lastly, I was born and raised Catholic and it was not lost upon me that this is Holy Week and last Sunday was Palm Sunday. Yesterday was my birthday. Today is the day I join my God and father. The state may have my body but not my soul.
In order to save my brothers on death row I call upon Pope Francis and all the people of the world.
Lastly, I want everyone to boycott every single business in the state of Texas until all the businesses are pressed to stop the death penalty.
With that Lord I commend my spirit. Warden I am ready to join my father.”
—Rosendo Rodriguez III
“Thank you. I love you all. Sandra, nice meeting you. I Love ya’ll. It’s all good. I’m not the one that killed Christina, so whatever makes ya’ll happy. I love ya’ll. I’ll see you on the other side. Ya’ll be good. OK Warden I’m ready.”
“I want you all to know I did not do this crime. I wanted to wait for a thirty day stay for a DNA test so you know who did the crime.”
“They are fixing to pump my veins with a lethal drug the American Veterinary Association won't even allow to be used on dogs. I say I am worse off than a dog. They want to kill me for this; I am not the man that did this. Fight on. I will see ya'll again. That's all I can say.”
“If you think I did this, you need to think again. There were three people in the house and have confessed to it. Larry Ashworth in Fort Worth killed seven people. All I was asking for was a DNA and I could not get it. But get in church and get right with God. Jane, you know damn well I did not molest that kid of yours. You are murdering me and I feel sorry for you. Get in church and get saved. I really don't know what else to tell you.”
“Never trust a court-appointed attorney. I am ready Warden. Thank you, Brad, I'm sorry. Check that DNA, check Scott. Here we go. Lord Jesus.”
“Statement to what? State What. I am not guilty of the charge of capital murder. Steal me and my family's money. My truth will always be my truth. There is no kin and no friend; no fear what you do to me. No kin to you undertaker. Murderer. [Portion of statement omitted due to profanity] Get my money. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my life back.”
“Yes Sir, that will be five Dollars I love you, I love you, and I love you. Mike I love you. Where’s Nelley at? I love you. That will be five dollars. Take Care.”
—Billie Wayne Coble
Yes, I would like to tell my wife that I love her and thank her for all the years of happiness. That will be all, Warden.
“Tell Mama I love her.”
—John K. Barefield
“Yes sir, Warden. Okay I've been hanging around this popsicle stand way too long. Before I leave, I want to tell you all. When I die, bury me deep, lay two speakers at my feet, put some headphones on my head and rock and roll me when I'm dead. I'll see you in Heaven someday. That's all Warden.”
“Let's ride. I guess this is it.”
Thank you for reading The Garden of Forking Paths.
Exit association in switzerland has a very good “death potion”. For the ones who voluntarily decide to stop living on this planet. Nembutal (pentobarbital sodium). I know that from a very close family experience. There is no suffering at all. You just fall asleep amd stop breathing. Less than 10 minutes. With dignity!
Why american authorities (and other government willing to kill people) do not use that “drug” ?