The Current-trarian: Truth and lies in final words of the condemned

Dan Malone

Dan Malone

By Dan Malone

Contributing Editor

Twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to work on a series of articles for ­ The Dallas Morning News about civil rights violations by Texas police. I say “opportunity” because it was. I spent two-and-a-half years reporting the story. My partner, Lorraine Adams, who started on it a year earlier, put in three-and-a-half.

This was a time when newspapers, in addition to keeping people informed, still made tons of money and could afford to send two reporters roaming across the state digging up news for however long it took.

The stories documented all sorts of outrageous act in records we obtained from the U.S. Justice Department. The headline on the lead story in 1991 read, “Texas Leads the Nation in Police Abuse Cases.”  The records showed that Texas cops were more frequently investigated for civil rights violation than police in any other state. The series of stories won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. Even more important, we felt like we informed readers about a serious issue affecting the state’s law enforcement and the citizenry.

I’m thinking about this today because, as I write this, Texas is in the news again for another way it leads the nation.  Kimberly Lagayle McCarthy, a 52-year-old former waitress, became the 500th person to be executed in Texas since the death penalty was reinstated. And Texas, of course, executes more people than any other state.

McCarthy was put to death by lethal injection for the murder of her 71-year-old neighbor, a retired college psychology professor named Dorothy Booth, in Lancaster. She was pronounced dead at 6:37 p.m., 20 minutes after Texas prison officials began administering a single lethal dose of pentobarbital, The Associated Press reported Wednesday evening.

In her final statement, McCarthy did not profess innocence or guilt, but said she did not view her death as a “loss.”

“This is a win,” she said in her final statement, according to the AP.”You know where I’m going. I’m going home to Jesus. I love you all.”

Witnesses included her ex-husband, her attorney and her spiritual adviser.

The Associated Press reported her last words as, “God is great.”

A few years after the civil rights stories, I had another opportunity that put me in contact with roughly a quarter of the men and woman on death row in the United States. Another reporter, Howard Swindle, corresponded with more than 700 condemned prisoners, and interviewed people awaiting executions on about a dozen death rows across the nation. We wrote a series of articles and, later, a book,

America’s Condemned: Death Row Inmates in Their Own Words is about the causes of crime from the perspective of people who were convicted of the most serious violent crimes. All the correspondence from that project is now archived in the Dick Smith Library at Tarleton State University, where I now teach.

And when I had the opportunity a few years after that to leave the newsroom for the classroom and work on a graduate degree, I chose to research and write my thesis on the last words uttered by the people about to executed. I wanted to know, among other things, how many executed prisoners claimed, in their last gasping breaths, to be innocent and how many admitted their guilt. At the time, Texas had executed 355 prisoners – 34 claimed to be innocent, 24 admited their their guilt.

When I started teaching at Tarleton, students in several of my classes built upon my research and collected every available final statement from more than 1,000 executed prisoners – and made their statements available in a searchable, online database published on the university’s website.

You can see it at http://www.tarleton.edu/scripts/deathrow/default.asp.  To my knowledge, it’s one of the largest, if not the largest, collection of death row prisoner’s final statements that exists.

Some people go to death without making a statement. For some people, it was not possible to tell whether a statement was made or not. Some statements parse the language too finely. Some are hard to categorize. But in the more than 1,000 executions carried out between 1970s and 2010, when the database was last updated, there are a disturbing number of people accused and convicted of very bad things using their final words to say,  in essence, “Listen up — I did not do this. Something is wrong. I am innocent.”

I know people lie. I know criminals — some, anyway — respirate lies with almost each breath. I also know some cops lie, some reporters lie, just about everyone lies about something at some point in their lives.

Someone reading this  column — by a journalist who spent so much of his career writing about abusive cops, what makes killers tick,  possible cases of innocence on death row – might be inclined to call me a “bleeding heart liberal.”

So I want you to know this: A friend of mine was murdered 30 years ago. My wife was tied up in our former home in Fort Worth by two robbers. The gun I kept in the nightstand was placed by her head as she lay bound on our bed and they picked through her jewelry box. (For those of you who don’t know – she wasn’t hurt.  She’s alive and kicking as editor of this site.) I’m not worried about what the courts do to people to commit crimes like that.

What worries me about the claims of innocence in that database isn’t so much whether someone is lying.

What bothers me is whether they just might be telling the truth.

 

 

2 Responses to The Current-trarian: Truth and lies in final words of the condemned

  1. Larry P. Smith Reply

    June 28, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    Dan,
    I know that, many times, it is best to think before one acts but, I am so upset over reading that she had to go through that experience, I have to respond. There are degrees of malice and the law does take that into account.
    As far as whether they are telling the truth, there really is no way of knowing unless one was there and that is the truth. So, I support the laws we have and pray that no innocents are put to death.
    Our relationship wth God/Christ is personal and the person that you wrote about was mistaken and blasphemous to put it mildly.
    Anyway, we do the best we can and, when a friend is attacked or threatened, we hurt for them.
    Truth can be elusive at times but, we must continue to seek it. Somewhere, I read that God is Truth so, there you have it.

    Thanks for sharing your experience, your work and for making us think.

    Larry

  2. Ronnie Godfrey Reply

    June 26, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    Poignant.

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