By Cheryl Smith, Special Contributor…
“You know, he was the first baby I ever held,” she said softly with a gentle lisp. “He was the first baby that they ever trusted me to hold. I still remember that.”
She mopped her brow in the heat. Her dark eyes and chocolate skin contrasted with my fair skin, but we were sweating together in the hot July sun on a ragged corner of the street in Huntsville, Texas. We stood just feet outside the Walls Corrections Unit. It was ticking down to 6:00 p.m. and there were about eight of us gathered on the corner on the west side of the death house, for that’s what it would become for this woman’s nephew in just a few minutes.
Convicted of a horrific crime he committed when he was 19, he would be executed by the State of Texas in just a few minutes. He, no doubt, was already “rigged” as they call it—strapped to a gurney with tubes and IV’s inserted.
I am told that prison staff get everything ready so that, if there are no last-minute interventions by courts or governors, the walk of the condemned’s family from the holding building will take place in public view at exactly 6 p.m. The family of the victim already waits inside in a separate viewing room.
It was almost 6 p.m. and I was keeping my vigil with others who come to bear witness to the inhumanity of the legalized killing that we call the death penalty in Texas. And the death penalty, if left to run its course, always ends up right here at the Walls Unit in Huntsville. Anyone killed by the State of Texas is killed right here—just a few feet away from where we stood.
This night, there was a family member of the condemned, Yokamon Hearn, standing with us. She was not with the others who would be escorted across the street in just a few minutes. She said softly that she needed to be close, but just did not think she could watch it happen.
She told me that with her nephew’s death, her brother’s lineage would die out. Yokamon was his father’s only child and her brother died himself a few years past. She seemed to understand with her head, but it was clear that there would not be any understanding with her heart concerning the death that was about to happen. For you see, she still remembers the first baby she ever held, and what will transpire shortly on a gurney in Huntsville, Texas seems a bit unreal to her. “I could never live here,” she says.
A man wandered up asking if this is where people stand for executions. He was there to bear witness for the murder victim. He was gently redirected to the “other corner” on the east side of the Walls. That’s where supporters for the murder victim stand. Apparently, it is not possible for those who mourn to stand together without the wounds of the crime, the wounds of our society, the wounds of the world pouring out in raw invectives. So those who bear witness are separated into their respective corners on opposite ends of the Walls.
The professor of criminal justice at the local university who is present at every execution with his lighted votive candle, kindly told the man that if he got to the other end of the block and there was no one else there, he was welcome to come back and stand with us. Standing silently in prayer while a man is being killed just a few feet away is stressful work, and sometimes company is required.
Meanwhile, everything was quiet enough that we could hear the blanket of the cicada song. It was then that a car drove by with three college boys in it. “Kill ’em all!” one of them yelled thoughtlessly into the crowd. How comfortable it must be to have such certainty about what is happening here. The reality of what brought us all to this moment in the July sun is multilayered and more than complex. There are no easy answers, no clean solutions for this situation, unless, of course, you are an immature college student, still sure of your own imperishability.
At about 6:30, the front door of the Walls opened and the media witnesses walked back across the street. Yokamon’s family would soon follow, having just witnessed the cessation of breathing that comes when the chemicals have their way with the body. As they came back, they moved slowly. There was among them an elderly woman who was so frail that she had to have help to walk. She normally would be in a wheelchair, but the steps to get into the Walls will not accommodate her chair, so she walked. With the sight of the media and family coming out, we knew it was over.
The professor blew out his votive, crossed himself and walked away. I stood my ground for a few more moments taking it all in. I wanted to reach out to the aunt if I could find her. I caught a glimpse of her walking away and I wondered about going to say goodbye when she collapsed. She was surrounded by family members; they helped her find a seat on the curb. She was overcome and wept openly.
Her words echoed in my mind as I hung back—unwilling to intrude on this private moment.
“You know, we, the family, are victims too,” she said. “There are lots of victims, and now we become victims too—after tonight—after this killing here.”
The Rev. Cheryl Smith is pastor of Wesley Memorial UMC in Huntsville, Texas.