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Virginia Stem Owens

Death and Texas

How a self-styled "Community Conversation" turned into an anti-conversation carried on by an anti-community.

The brochure from our local museum had described its new exhibit as an "installation," a term that, in our town, we usually apply to dishwashers, church officers, or, more recently, computer software. My husband declined the invitation to the opening, preferring to spend the afternoon laying bricks for a new patio, so I went alone the following Saturday to "The Waiting Room," a multimedia production by San Francisco artist Richard Kamler.

"What was it like?" my husband asked when I got home, looking up from a patch of sand he was leveling.

"Big," I said. "It took up two rooms."

In the main gallery, ten gray posters, each about 12 feet long, hung from the ceiling. They outlined an area, a placard explained, the size of the room where lawyers, spiritual advisors, and family members wait to visit inmates at California's San Quentin prison. Inside this space, two rows of empty chairs faced each other. Stenciled on the posters were instructions taken from the prison's handbook for visitors. One poster warned, for example, that visitors' hands must be visible at all times, another that bras containing wires would set off the metal detector.

Beyond this space, along one wall of the gallery, were mounted cafeteria trays, the kind with partitions. Most of the trays were empty, inscribed with the names of executed prisoners, the dates of their death, and the words, "Declined last meal." A few trays held renditions of some portion of a requested last meal—an ear of corn, a banana, a hamburger. Against the opposite wall, four video monitors played tape loops of interviews with relatives of condemned prisoners or their victims' families. Speakers concealed around the room emitted two other persistent sounds, a ticking clock and a beating heart. Every once in a while the heartbeat would speed up briefly, then stop.

"So what did you think of it?" my husband asked when I'd finished this description.

"Interesting," I shrugged, "but is it art?"

My offhand gibe concealed the bothersome questions that had beset me all the way home. These questions weren't about the aesthetic merits of the show. True, I found somewhat overblown the artist's description of his work as "very dense." (For real density, you need to visit the Texas Prison Museum in the old drugstore on the town square where you can see not only Old Sparky, the retired electric chair, but such objets d'art as photographs of Bonnie and Clyde's bullet-riddled bodies, crude weapons fashioned by ingenious prisoners from toothbrushes and spoons, and the changing fashion in convict clothing.) As for the question of artistic genre, it hardly behooved someone attending her first "installation" to challenge the typology.

Nor was I troubled by the moral issues the exhibit raised. If you live in Huntsville, a town routinely and accurately labeled by the press "the execution capital of the nation," you've already heard and wrestled with every legal, sociological, and theological argument both for and against the death penalty. That—and our profound uneasiness with our town's media persona—probably explained why so few of the hundred or so people filling the auditorium that afternoon were residents of Huntsville.

It was what had gone on in the second room of the exhibit that remained a disconcerting enigma. In the museum's auditorium the artist had designed what he described as a "social sculpture." The printed program had listed it as "A Community Conversation." Why "community?" That was where, I dis covered, the whole experience began unraveling for me.

How and under what conditions does an aggregate of individuals merit the name community? What has the word come to stand for in our collective imagination? Clearly, in any number of contexts, community has taken on a certain coloration that distinguishes it from its dark doppelganger, society, which in recent decades has come to mean some distant and impersonal power, one that exerts an almost exclusively negative influence on our lives. Society now serves as a convenient catchall culprit for our every affliction. Membership in society, like affiliation with a political party, we somehow assume to be optional for human beings.

Community, on the other hand, is essential. We decry society's "demands," but we seek the "support" community offers. Society is impersonal, cold, and oppressive; community is redolent of maternal snugness, warmth, and goodwill. If one is "in community," one floats in the warm, amniotic fluid of caring and sharing. Conversely, belonging to no community strikes us as about the most miserable fate that can befall a person.

This shift in vocabulary has had, in fact, some beneficial practical effects. For one thing, it re focuses our attention closer to home, puts our imaginations to work on local problems like neighborhood crime and school bond elections. But semantic shifts can also disguise intractable problems, allowing us to pretend we have dealt with a difficulty when in reality we have merely renamed it. Whatever the brochure had called it, I was certain that what happened in the museum auditorium that afternoon had not been a conversation, nor did its participants constitute a community.

The Cast

What took place in the museum under the banner of conversation might more accurately have been called a drama. Visualize, if you will, the stars of the cast: four panelists who sit on a low stage up front. They are assisted, in classical fashion, by the chorus, made up largely of two groups wearing T-shirts, one group in purple, the other in black. The shirts are emblazoned with the names of two separate coalitions against the death penalty. From time to time, lone speakers will emerge from the audience in the not-so-classical tradition of guerrilla theater.

But this opening act belongs to the panelists. The first, a white-haired woman who served in the Texas legislature for five years and once ran for governor, tells us she came to be an death-penalty abolitionist by education and family tradition. Still, she says, "I continue to test this position against every horrendous murder that takes place in this state, including most recently the despicable dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper last year." But not even James Byrd's murderers should be executed for their crime, she concludes, because "the ability to be transformed is the ultimate identifying mark of humanity," and execution forecloses the possibility of such transformation. Clearly resonating with these sentiments, the audience hums like a well-tempered tuning fork.

The next panelist, Huntsville's district attorney, provides the first complication for the dramatic action. A handsome man with dark longish hair and a beard, he is the panel's sole proponent of the death penalty. He too mentions his early education and family tradition. Surprisingly, he was schooled in the pacifism of the Church of the Brethren. That he felt compelled to break so decisively with such a background suggests, he says, how deeply his personal experiences at the bar have affected his beliefs.

At this, the audience stirs restlessly. As if to mitigate their distrust, the attorney adds that he still keeps up a personal correspondence with one of the men he sent to Death Row 14 years ago. The audience, unimpressed, maintains a stony silence.

Moving forward a couple inches in his chair, the lawyer recalls his last capital murder case, prosecuted two years earlier. A 23-year-old mother had been raped and killed, her 16-month-old baby buried alive beside her. "A little baby," he repeats, "still running on its tiptoes. A child that couldn't have given evidence and was no threat at all to him." There are some acts, he concludes, so monstrous, their violence so gratuitous, that they put their perpetrators "beyond the pale of human society."

The sea of silence stirs uneasily but does not warm.

Sensing that, at this point, he may as well go for broke, the attorney continues. "As for whether the death penalty deters criminals, I believe it does." As proof, he cites a leader of the infamous Texas Syndicate, a powerful narcotics ring, who recently offered to plea-bargain rather than face execution. "He told me he could face a lifetime in prison but not the death penalty. But you see? Without the threat of that sentence, I'd have had nothing to bargain with." The D.A. closes by affirming that individuals are ultimately responsible for their own actions and that society has a right to protect itself.

Murmurs of dismay ripple through the audience. Maybe he should have said "community" instead of "society." At any rate, a steady stream of people, led by black and purple T-shirts, begins to eddy from the auditorium in protest.

Suddenly, down near the front, a large woman in a gauze dress, her black topknot slipping askew, charges forward and splashes something liquid onto the dais.

The people in the doorway freeze, the audience gasps. "What's that?" someone shouts.

"That, sir," the woman cries, her voice trembling with rage, "is your blood."

I am still puzzling over this—shouldn't it be a prisoner's blood?—when the artist, trying not to sound like a scolding schoolmarm, stands up to ask that we all "try to sit still and listen." Obviously, his "social sculpture," Pygmalion-like, is getting out of hand.

The next panelist quickly regains our attention, binding us in her oratorical spell. Casting an appraising sidelong glance at the district attorney, she begins by echoing the previous two speakers' theme of personal experience. And her experience upstages theirs, for she has, she tells us, coming down hard on each syllable, spent "nine years, five months, and 24 days in a Texas prison for a murder I did not commit." (Through out her remarks, whenever she refers to her sentence, she always spells out its exact length, driving home rhetoric like ten-penny nails.)

"And if," she adds, "the charge had been capital murder, I would have been sent to Death Row and possibly be pushing up daisies by now. Fortunately," she fixes the district attorney with another baleful look, "I survived to help the prosecutors discover the real culprit."

Here she takes us on an instructive tour of the appeals process wherein we learn that an appellate court is not allowed to consider the plaintiff's guilt or innocence, only whether there has been an infraction of correct judicial procedure. "Guilt or innocence is irrelevant," she says, pronouncing each Latinate syllable of the final word separately and distinctly. "And as for the death penalty preventing crime, if I had been executed, the real murderer would never have been found. I was the one, who, from a jail cell, discovered the suppressed evidence that had been sitting in the D.A.'s desk drawer for the past nine years!"

The audience cheers, claps, whistles. Even the district attorney shakes his head as if to commiserate with her long pursuit of justice.

Given her passion and eloquence, the woman is a tough act to follow, but the last panelist, despite his unfamiliar New Hampshire accent and subdued demeanor, soon has us in the palm of his hand. Stationed at the end of the table, he turns slightly so as to put himself at right angles and a little removed from his fellow panelists.

His voice is low and consciously controlled. "I too am part of a community," he begins, "one defined by experience—the experience of having a family member murdered."

He recounts his story thus: One June day in 1988 he was called to the hospital emergency room in his small town. There he found his father on a gurney, his chest "blown to hamburger" by an intruder's shotgun. A few minutes later, the body was sent to the morgue, "no longer my father, but just a piece of evidence." After he had called his six siblings with the news, "I was left alone to wonder how I was going to get the blood washed off my mother's walls at home."

His story stills the audience the way arctic cold slows the movement of air. We hold our breath for the denouement.

"I don't oppose the death penalty because I care about murderers, but because I care about their victims, including the families they leave be hind," he tells us. "If I could trade the life of my father for the life of his murderer, I'd do it in a minute." He reckons a life for a life to be true justice, and a trade he would gladly make if he only knew how. "But I will never get my father back by killing his murderer. I don't need vengeance," he says, "I need healing."

The audience, silent and wary till that final phrase, now murmurs its sympathetic approval.

But the man quickly continues, as if fearing that we mistake his meaning. "The isolation imposed on victims' families hinders that healing. Neither side in the death penalty debate wants to talk to us. Advocates of the death penalty want to exploit our grief as an argument for execution. They don't understand that killing the murderer compounds the pain; it only creates another grieving family."

A smattering of applause ripples through the audience.

But abolitionists, he adds, too often find victims' families an embarrassment to their cause. "It's as if there's only so much sympathy to go around. Any compassion for us means less for people on Death Row." Abolitionists, he says, also resent those family members who support execution. "They think these people are only out for revenge. But most of them are motivated by deep moral convictions. They're not hate-mongers, not for the most part. They just want to spare others the pain they're living with; they want to make sure that what happened to them doesn't happen to someone else."

He rolls a pencil between his fingers for a long moment, then rakes his gaze across the audience. "I don't know that I can ever forgive my father's murderer, but I do know if the state were to take his life, that would forever preclude that possibility."


As we trickle into the foyer for the scheduled break, each of us scans the crowd for someone we know, eager to discharge the static electricity we've accumulated during the past hour. The black and purple T-shirts clump together, making the rest of us seem aimless and unconnected.

Before I return to the auditorium, I take another turn through the posters and cafeteria trays in the main gallery, recalling a conversation I had with the artist a couple of weeks ago while he was installing his show. We sat in the museum foyer, empty then, across from a display of quilts made by local women.

Richard Kamler is a slight man with a shining bald head, his white chin whiskers divided symmetrically into two points, giving him the air of a 60-year-old elf. I asked if this were his first trip to Huntsville.

"Oh no," he shook his head, "I've been here several times during the past couple of years while I was working on this piece, interviewing different people."

He mentioned the man who manages the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, as well as the warden at the Walls, the original state prison that houses the execution chamber, only a few blocks away from where we sit. "And professors in the Criminal Justice Department at the university," he added.

"Was everyone cooperative?"

"Yes. Very helpful. Well," he paused, "almost all. I wanted to film inside the former residence of the prison director, that big brick mansion across from the Walls, but they didn't encourage that."

"What about prisoners?"

"Yes. Of course, they wouldn't let me take a videocam in there, but I got audio tapes."

"What about guards?"

"Guards?" He peered at me over his reading glasses. "No. I'm afraid I don't have any contacts among the guards."

Act Two

Back in the auditorium now, "Community Conversation: Part II" is cranking up, and I hurry back to my seat. As disjunctive as the panelists' presentations have been, they all gave me something to ponder, and I'm eager to hear what will doubtless be the Q&A part of the program. The moderator, a professor from Michigan, asks for input from the audience. And this is when the already precarious coherence of the artist's carefully contrived "social sculpture" really begins to crumble.

No sooner does the moderator pause for breath than the woman who earlier threw make-believe blood onto the platform jumps to her feet. "I am a doctor," she announces, "and I have spent my life working among the poor in Mexico." The death penalty, she tells us, is part of a conspiracy by the state of Texas to subjugate and colonize Central America. Her outline of this plot is interspersed with tidbits of her family history: her daughter is also a doctor, as is her father—who, however, was abusive and patriarchal.

The moderator, rattling his notes, gets to his feet.

"You people are wrong," she cries to the audience. "You need to do more than just abolish the death penalty. You should shut down all the prisons!"

People stir in their seats. The moderator nods uncomfortably in her direction. An invisible isolation booth seems to form around her, sealing her in a kind of unspoken solitary confinement. A number of people are waving hands while others, not waiting to be recognized, shout demands that the district attorney explain how he can justify serving a justice system that favors the rich and powerful.

The attorney glances accusingly at the moderator. "I think most people prefer an imperfect system to none at all," he says.

Another woman gets to her feet. "What we need is more economic development, more education. That's the only way to get rid of violence."

"Only poor people go to jail," someone near her adds. "The rich get off."

"All depends on who you are whether you go to jail or not," yet another voice calls out.

"And who you kill," someone else chimes in.

The moderator from Michigan rocks forward on his toes, appearing stunned. Fortunately, one of the panelists, the woman who spent time in prison, grabs the reins of this runaway fracas. "What it really depends on is your county's district attorney," she says with the authority of one who knows, turning toward the lawyer on her left.

The D.A. takes the ball and runs with it. "Absolutely," he agrees, leaning his elbows on the table and hunching to ward the audience. "This office has a great deal of power. It's the district attorney who decides whether to bring charges and what those charges will be." He sits back. "But you know who determines what constitutes a capital crime? The state legislature. It's your representatives who decide if Texas even has a death penalty." He aims a finger at the audience. "So it's the voters who really have the power. And the responsibility."

His challenge is ignored. Instead, someone shouts, "How come Houston has four times as many inmates on death row as Dallas?"

A woman gets to her feet. "As a lawyer from that city, I can tell you in one word. Economics. The county figured it was just too expensive to prosecute capital cases. It costs three times as much to prosecute and execute a criminal as it does to keep him in prison for 40 years."

To judge by the exclamations of surprise, this information comes as news to most of the audience, but before the issue can be pursued further, a thin man with a moustache near the back of the auditorium stands up.

"I'm here today," the man says a bit nervously, "both because my sister was murdered and because the state executed the woman who killed her."

A murmur rustles through the audience. This is Ron Carlson, someone whispers, whose sister was killed by Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed in Texas for a hundred years. "I have two other people here with me," he says, gesturing toward a middle-aged couple next to him. "Their son is scheduled for execution next week." The pair look down at their laps.

"Six months after my sister was murdered," he continues, "my father suffered the same fate. Yet his murderer escaped the death penalty by plea-bargaining. Where's the fairness in that?"

His voice shatters, and for a moment silence falls over this conglomeration of people hemmed up together in the auditorium. But whether they are pondering the inequities of the criminal justice system or gauging the extraordinary odds of having two family members murdered in the same year, I can't tell. I'm not even sure which has caught my attention.

In any case, the silence lasts no more than a moment. Then a woman wearing a purple turban to match her T-shirt stands and delivers a well-scripted speech about the Thirteenth Amendment. It did not, she claims, as we all probably believe, abolish slavery. "Oh yes, we still have slavery in this country. And why? Because the Thirteenth Amendment exempted prisoners from the provisions against forced labor. It was planned that way—to fill the labor demands of giant corporations!"

A hubbub, part protest, part confusion, follows this speech. The scene in the auditorium is beginning to resemble a painting by Hieronymous Bosch, macabre and self-devouring.

The panelist from New Hampshire tries to swing our attention back to Ron Carlson and the plight of victim families. "We rely on victims to justify the death penalty," he says. "We tell the families 'Look what we're doing for you! Killing the murderer to make you feel better.' But the death penalty is a cheap substitute for what victims' families need. It allows us to abandon them and their pain."

I want to hear him say more about this, but his point fails to grab the crowd's roving attention. Instead, their focus swings to a thin man with a two-foot-long gray ponytail, just getting to his feet. "I once came within 72 hours of execution," he says in a gravelly voice. He pauses briefly for the crowd to take this in. "So you can understand when I say I'm not exactly comfortable in this town." The crowd murmurs its comradely comprehension. "In fact," he chuckles confidentially, "I had to have a few drinks just to get here."

"We're with you, brother," someone calls out.

The man sticks his fingertips in his jeans' pockets. "I just want to say, you know, this room is full of family." He takes his hands from his pockets and hugs his elbows, as if not knowing how to go on. He frowns, concentrating. "And also that voting is the answer. Thank you. Thank you very much." And, sinking into his seat, he waves to us all as people break into applause.

The void is immediately filled by a tall African American woman. She's not a Texan, she tells us, but came here 20 years ago as a student from Chicago to interview 300 prisoners as part of her graduate research. "I now work in the Restorative Justice Program, and this is the part you're going to find hard to believe. My boss is the man you all have been dumping on." She points to the district attorney. "He knows my position on capital punishment, and though we don't agree on that point, he always listens to me with respect. We should be glad to have him serving in the office he holds."

Suddenly, the woman who doesn't believe in prisons jumps up and shouts at her, "Shame on you! You're a Judas. Shame on you!"

There is a collective gasp from the audience, followed by a fretful stirring. Our concentration is shredded by the constant volleys of stories, accusations, pleas—none of which we have time to absorb.

The Michigan moderator, intuiting that everyone has had enough, stands, thanks us all for coming, announces there are refreshments laid out now in the foyer, and dismisses us with the relief of a harried schoolteacher at the end of a particularly rowdy day in the classroom.

Out in the foyer, I glance at the delicacies and drink set up on a long table. Rarely has food seemed so unappealing. I head for the parking lot instead, feeling the way Alice must have, exiting the Mad Hatter's tea party.

Many of the stories told here had come from the deepest levels of human experiences. Yet none had been honored as they deserved. What, I wondered, had caused roughly a hundred people, most of whom obviously shared the same opinions about capital punishment, to pay so little attention to these stories?

Why do people with the best intentions often have the worst manners and show the least interest in what others have to say? Why does the language of advocacy so often polarize rather than clarify?

Eventually, all these questions, like moons around a more massive planet, settled into orbits around a core enigma—one that, I have come to believe, pertains to community. A cause, we think, unites people. Common goals create community. But under certain conditions (the event at the museum being a case in point), a cause—whether the right to bear arms or defeat of the death penalty—becomes instead a device for defining personal identity. Carving out one's position, claiming moral territory, takes precedence over making your cause common. Like James and John, those sons of thunder who wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan village, we are often more interested in destroying our enemies than in consolidating friendly forces.

This is not to say that town meetings and city councils, even church boards, are not frequently cantankerous and divisive. So are families, for that matter. But it takes more than similar views on issues to make a community. Some glue that makes us stick together even when we differ. Ties of place or blood or work, for example. Everyone in the auditorium came and went away free of such ties, thanking our lucky stars we'd never have to meet again. Such haphazard and transient couplings don't produce a community.

Perhaps in the artist's mind, shutting people up in a large room for a couple of hours with a volatile topic was a form of art, "subversive," defiantly unscripted: a "happening." Nevertheless, that afternoon's "Community Conversation" had not been artful. No care had been taken to fit the pieces together. Indeed, the "conversation" was profoundly careless. Even worse, it was unholy. Real suffering, both present and represented there, had been trivialized and desecrated by our casual and shifting attention. The result was an anti-conversation carried on by an anti-community.


The same week Richard Kamler's installation opened at the museum, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice began transferring the 461 prisoners on Death Row to a unit in another county. The citizens of Huntsville weren't sorry to see them go; in fact, they would just as soon the executions took place in the neighboring county as well, instead of the condemned prisoner being brought back to the Walls to receive the lethal injection. Not all of our citizens would admit they're ashamed of our town's reputation; they'd merely say they don't like the worldwide publicity the executions focus on us. Either way, it comes to the same thing: we care what other people say or think about Huntsville, the same way families feel responsible for, proud of, or shamed by their members. This is another necessary aspect of community.

I said that no one in Huntsville protested transferring Death Row to another county, but there was one telling exception: the community of execution itself, which included both the Death Row inmates and the 70 men who guarded them. Cloistered together for years, preparing for death, prisoners and guards had annealed in a furnace of waiting.

In the new prison, Death Row cells are equipped not with bars but with solid steel doors, leaving their occupants in virtual solitary confinement. Their new jailers have had no training in dealing with condemned men, a situation that puts both prisoners and guards at risk.

As time for the move approached, the old Death Row guards became distraught about their charges' uncertain future. In response, the spiritual adviser to this strange monastery, a chaplain who has served on Death Row for many years, reserved the local theater. He invited the 70 veteran guards to a showing of The Green Mile, the movie in which Tom Hanks plays the superintendent of a Depression-era Death Row. Afterwards, they ate dinner together and talked it over. And that, I'll bet, was a real community conversation.

Virginia Stem Owens is a novelist, essayist, and poet.

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