Life on Both Sides of Death Row in Texas


For Robert West, life is a collection of rooms.

There's the shower down the row, the basketball cage, and the mesh and plexiglass cubicle where he talks to visitors. There's his prison cell, where he's glued dozens of greeting cards to the walls and fashioned a file cabinet from empty boxes of Frosted Flakes. That's where he spends most of his time now, stubble-chinned and barefoot, drafting letters on a battered typewriter.

The other rooms are only shadows in his mind. At night, when it's too hot to sleep, he returns to the Houston motel room where 15 years ago, fresh from a Florida jail and high on PCP, a hallucinogen, he murdered a waitress named DeAnn Klaus. He returns to the Harris County courtroom next, to hear his sentence again, and then, if he can bear the weight of it, he pictures the small chamber with Carolina blue walls where he is scheduled to die this month by lethal injection.

"There's a spiritual war going on inside of me," Mr. West says. "Other inmates on death row tell me they've seen signs when praying, heard heavenly fliers singing to them, or seen an image of the Virgin Mary on their wall. I ain't seen none of that."

Spiritual questions

West admits his guilt, explains that he came to that motel looking for the drug dealer who murdered his brother. He understands the Klaus family's desire for revenge. He knows that Texas has carried out a record 24 executions this year, and his chances for clemency are slim. His only concern, he says, is the shape and character of the room beyond.

"I wonder if we have a partial God that just shows some people signs while other people get stuck with nothing," he says, tugging uncomfortably at his prison whites. "I'm afraid of that. I've been trying to deal with that for years."

Among the 420 death-row inmates at the Ellis Unit outside of Huntsville, the mood is somber. Not since 1935 has Texas carried out more than 20 executions. Last year, there were only three.

But ever since a judge upheld a Texas law designed to expedite the appeals process for death-row inmates, the state has begun working through the backlog. So many prisoners have been executed in such a short time, inmates say, they have ceased holding informal memorial services.

"When people go, it takes pieces out of you," West says. "There are holes you can't refill, and you really don't want to. You want to leave that empty stuff and try to be indifferent to what's going on. You try not to feel anything."

Public liaison

David Nunnelee's office is small and windowless. There's a bag of pretzels on the gray desktop and a copy of the Houston Chronicle sports section in the wastebasket.

As a public information officer at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice here, it's Mr. Nunnelee's job to arrange interviews with death-row inmates. In recent months, he has chaperoned reporters from all corners of the globe, many of whom don't bother to veil their contempt for capital punishment, and their impression of Texas as backward and barbaric.

They notice the movie stills of John Wayne in the warden's lobby and note that the state's electric chair, retired in 1976, was nicknamed "Old Sparky."

They don't linger over the descriptions of the crimes these men committed, which Nunnelee keeps in a green vinyl binder on his desk. They rarely mention that the average inmate executed in Texas has been on death row for 10 years.

"A lot of reporters come in here with the idea that Texas just decided to round up a bunch of prisoners this year and kill them," he says. "They call Texas a killing machine. They only see the what, not the why. That's not fair, but we expect it."

Getting worn out

The last few months have taken a toll on Nunnelee. You can see it in his eyes, hear it in his curt responses. Although he has witnessed 114 executions in 10 years, the recent pace has exhausted him. He has visited death row nearly every day, conveying interview requests to inmates he has known for years. Some of them are hostile. Some of them tug at his heart.

"I have to admit there are inmates I've come to know and some of them have been executed," he says. "That's a little difficult, but I try to keep a distance. I'm friendly with them, but I make it clear that I'm not their friend. I'm sensitive to the victims as well."

A final smile

Kenneth Harris was put to death last month for the rape and murder of Lisa Ann Stonestreet. In Harris's final months, Nunnelee had often stopped by his cell to ask him how he was doing. The two men had an easy rapport. Harris was always smiling, Nunnelee recalls, and he had a fine sense of humor.

On his execution day, Harris slept in. He drank punch. He visited his family for several hours before he was transported to the Walls Unit in Huntsville, where the chamber is located. There, he requested a final meal of barbeque, french fries, and ice cream.

Shortly after 6 p.m., Harris was strapped to the gurney. In one of the viewing rooms, he saw the five friends and family members he'd invited. In the other, he saw the Stonestreets. Nunelee was with them, and when the two men made eye contact, Harris smiled, even there.

In his last statement, Harris apologized for the anguish he'd caused both families. It was the first time Nunelee had heard him discuss his case, much less admit his guilt. "I have had time to understand the pain I have caused you," Harris concluded. "I am ready, warden."

Familiar route

On the 20-minute drive from death row to his office at Walls, after another long day with no lunch, Nunelee grows quiet. The car glides through a patch of pine trees and over the Trinity River, which is full against its banks. It's the same route that inmates travel on their way to the death chamber.

"A lot of these guys joke with me that I have the easiest job in the world," he says. "They tell me I'd have nothing to do if it wasn't for them."

Nunelee parks in the shadow of the Walls Unit, just 100 yards from the place where Harris died, where Robert West will arrive in a month's time - shackled at the waist and ankles - to take one last look at the sky. Nunnelee will be there, as always.

"I guess if it ever got to the point that I couldn't sleep at night, I'd quit," Nunelee says. "Maybe I'm a little bit cold-hearted. I don't really know anymore."

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