Witness to the Execution

The day had started off like any other day. I remember thinking that as my children ran into my room and jumped on the bed, jolting me out of a deep sleep, the day was going to be good. My oldest son wanted to play catch with me before I went to the office. It only took a few minutes to remember that today was the day that I was to witness the death of a murderer. Later in the afternoon, while going over those last-minute documents, the phone rang. It was my client, saying that he was down the street from my office and was ready to head to Huntsville.

Some time ago I received a call from a local criminal attorney, James “Rick” Reed. Rick asked me to help look into claims made by one of his clients. He stated that his client wanted some defense issues investigated. Rick told me that it was a death penalty appellate case and time was of the essence. As an experienced criminal private investigator, I felt that this type of case was pretty standard compared to all the others I have investigated. The only difference was that this case was going to change my life.

The case was the State of Texas v. Rex Mays.

Rex was convicted of the stabbing deaths of two young girls, ages seven and ten, on July 20, 1992. Rex entered his next door neighbors’ house and stabbed both young girls with a knife. He then returned home and discarded all of his clothing and continued going about his business as usual. After the bodies were discovered and the police arrived at the scene, Rex acted as a concerned neighbor and even offered his assistance in locating the killer. The families of the girls placed signs all over Harris County and offered rewards to find the killer of these young, innocent children. After the Sheriff’s Department began eliminating suspects one by one, they focused their attention on Rex because of his strange over-enthusiasm to assist with the police investigation. Ultimately, the police conducted round-the-clock surveillance and befriended Rex to see if he would offer some insight on the case. After a year of diligent work by the Sheriff’s Department, Rex finally confessed his involvement with the double homicide to the police. The former clown at children’s parties informed deputies that he would tell them anything they wanted to know about the killings for the price of a hamburger, fries, and soda from Burger King. He told detectives that he was angry at the loud music coming from the home next door. He also stated that he had recently lost yet another job and was becoming increasingly aggravated with life and his place in it. He confronted the young girls and slipped into a terrible rage. After many conversations I had with this killer, he never denied committing the offense. He would skate the question when I approached him with it. However, the strongest piece of evidence against Rex was that he signed a written confession and assisted the police in corroborating the damning evidence. He was tried, convicted and was sent to Texas’s death row.

Capital murder in the State of Texas is defined by the Texas Penal Code in section 19.03. It states that the following crimes are considered capital murder in Texas: murder of a public safety officer or firefighter; murder during the commission of kidnapping, burglary, robbery, aggravated sexual assault, arson, or obstruction or retaliation; murder for remuneration; murder during prison escape; murder of a correctional employee; murder by a state prison inmate who is serving a life sentence for any of five offenses- murder, capital murder, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault, or aggravated robbery; multiple murders; and murder of an individual under six years of age. These crimes are punishable by life in prison or a sentence of death from a jury.

Rex’s attorney and I were driving up Interstate 45 North towards Huntsville, the mecca of the Texas prison system. Rick had a look on his face that I will never forget. It was more than just a look of disgust; it was a look of seeing the bad that the criminal justice system had to offer. Rick is a very successful attorney and a strong advocate for clients accused of crimes. He has been practicing law for about twenty years and has seen his share of successes and failures of the criminal justice system. Rick relies on me to re-investigate the crime and re-evaluate the forensic evidence that is presented, no matter how horrible it might be. He argues the legal points of the case and I feed him the analysis of the forensic evidence. I have learned to develop a tolerance for evil over the years of being involved with the criminal justice system. This is the greatest skill criminal attorneys and their investigators must have: the ability to disassociate oneself from the criminal act. Some can do it more easily than others; I guess Rick and I aren’t too good at it. We are only human. The conflict that we have is that representing and working for our clients is a necessary function for our criminal justice system to work; however, feeling no remorse when they are executed is another. After looking at the autopsy photos of what pure evil can do, you can’t help feeling that an animal like this needs to be put to sleep. Seeing the photos of these two innocent girls lying on the medical examiners’ table with the most horrid looks on their faces is something I will never ever forget.

We arrived at the Huntsville unit, also known as “Walls” due to the high orange walls surrounding the compound, in Huntsville, Texas around 4:30 pm and needed to be at the prison around five in the evening. The attorney was allowed one last visit with the condemned before the execution. As we arrived at the unit I was asked to have a seat outside the warden’s office while Rick spoke with Rex. The only thing I could think of was to wonder what Rick was saying to Rex. Rick is a soft-spoken, private person who was severely uncomfortable being at the unit. What would one say to a client right before they die?

After a few minutes passed, Rick and I were summoned to a room that resembled an employee break room. We stood in this room with nothing much to say, just waiting until this process would end. At that moment the assistant warden walked into the room and took a roll of the visitors to this evil. The feeling around us was almost clinical. I felt that I was in a hospital rather than a prison facility. After the roll call was done the warden told everyone that he would escort them to the visitor observation room when it was time for the execution. At that moment a young gentleman walked over to us and asked if we were involved in the case. I stated that I was the appellate investigator on the case and that Rick was Rex’s attorney. This gentleman stated that he was a very distant relative of Rex’s who had just graduated from Sam Houston State University with a Ph.D. in criminal justice. He added he was a professor at a state university, and had gotten permission from Rex to experience the execution for academic reasons. I thought I was the only one who felt this way and was glad to meet someone who shared my academic curiosity.

The warden then led us out of the break room and down a long narrow hallway. This hallway then led outside the prison administrative offices to the death house. While we were walking across the street, we could see on our right the anti-death penalty protestors. On our left were the protestors demonstrating on behalf of the victims’ families. It seemed to be democracy at its finest.

As we walked into the death house we observed that the victims’ families and the family and friends of the condemned were separated for obvious reasons. It was not until January 12, 1996, that close relatives and friends of the deceased victims were allowed to witness executions. At the moment we walked into the witness room for the inmate’s family and friends, the curtains that separated us from the condemned were opened, allowing us to see Rex belted down to a gurney. Intravenous tubes were already connected from his arm through a small hole in the wall on the north side of the room. At that moment, Rex looked up from the gurney at us and smiled. I really do not know why he did that. Maybe he was grateful someone cared enough to show up on his behalf. I guess in his own warped mind he thought we were cheering him on, like at a little league baseball game. But the truth of the matter was that we were curious to see what his end was going to be like- how the state was going to end his existence. The warden walked out of a small door on the east end of the room and read the death warrant. This is a legal document that the judge of the district court signs, after a unanimous verdict by a jury, which allows the government to carry out the execution. The warden then asked Rex if he had any last words to say.

Rex then rattled off a semi-coherent statement into a microphone that was situated above his head. “I would like to say a final prayer: Dear Heavenly Father,I come to you today, Lord, and thank You for this opportunity to be with You in paradise. I ask you for forgiveness for the ones that need to be forgiven. Dear Lord, deliver us from evil and give us the comfort and peace and joy that we need. Dear Lord, I ask You right now to be with each of the witnesses and lift them up and be on solid ground. Let them know what has gone on and may we all see each other again. Amen. I would like to thank each witness: Ms. Cox, Whiteside, Reed, Scott, and Chad. I am going to go and see Jesus tonight and reserve a special place for each one of you. You all have been there when no one else was. Thank you for all of your love and support. Just know that I am ready to go. You all know what I’ve gone through. I am going to a better place with the Lord. I’m mad for one reason, that I’m leaving you behind, when I am going to a better place. Y’all still have to go through this hell on earth. Just remember the good things and not the bad. You are all loved and respected. Warden, just give me parole and let me go home to be with the Lord.”

The only thing that was going through my mind, listening to his soliloquy, was that wherever Rex was going, I was sure that it was going to be warm and he would not need a jacket. After Rex made his final statement he laid back and took a deep breath. You could see his stomach move up and down at momentary intervals. A few seconds after the lethal dose was administered, Rex let out a series of breaths and his body turned whiter than standard bed linens. That was the moment that I knew he was dead. A chill like no other ran up from my feet all the way to my neck and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up straight. At that moment I felt scared of something. I was not sure what it was, but a fear came over me with a vengeance. All I could think of was getting out of that room. I could hear faint cries from religious leaders that were standing behind me. I heard the clergy in the room praying. After a couple of minutes a man with a stethoscope walked into the room and listened to Rex’s body. After a few passes across the body, a man stated in a loud, clinical voice, “6:19 pm”. The doctor was calling Rex’s time of death. I just wanted to get out of the room. The warden then walked back into the execution room and closed the curtains on both witness viewing windows. The door to the witness room immediately opened and the prison officials whisked us out of the death house. The prison officials still wanted to keep both groups of witnesses separated. As I walked by the door that led to the victims’ families’ room, I saw an older man looking out the small tinted window watching us walk away. I guess he was wondering how we could be supporting Rex after the horrible crime that he had committed. Little did he know that as involved as we were in the case, we were disgusted by our client and felt no love for him whatsoever. We walked out of the prison unit and got into our car and drove away.

The drive back from Huntsville to Houston was a quiet one. As Rick and I parted ways we could only think that justice was a vicious animal. I was constantly wondering if it changed my beliefs about the death penalty. After experiencing my first execution, I found that I was still on the fence when it came to capital punishment. The only thing I question is the fairness and impartiality of the system. I do not question this because of Rex but because of the way the system was created; it showed no remorse for the guilty or the innocent.

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