A behind the scenes look at witnessing executions: The good, the bad, the ugly

By Andy Kahan

Today it’s considered not to be a big deal for surviving family members of homicide to witness an execution, so let me give everyone a historical perspective on how what is now the norm came to be in the great state of Texas. Join me as we delve into the past to make great strides for victims’ rights. 

The quest for victims’ families to witness the execution of the person who murdered one of their loved ones began with a simple question to me in the hallway of the courthouse in Harris County. Randy Ertman’s 14-year-old daughter Jennifer and her 16-year-old friend Elizabeth Pena were brutally murdered and sexually assaulted by six members of the Black N White Gang in 1993. Randy came up to me during the trial of Peter Cantu the ringleader of the gang and asked me “When they execute these guys, can I be there”. Now for those who know Randy, a big burly Grizzly Adams type of a man, I cleaned up his entire question to me. I remember telling Randy that’s a great question, I am not really sure if you can be up there, so let me find out.  I discovered by prison policy victims and other inmates were specifically prohibited from attending an execution. I remember thinking to myself, what a dubious category for victim’s families to be placed in—that needs to change. Thus, that one innocuous question started a quest that took two years and plenty of wear and tear on our cars for a positive resolution. 

Back in the mid 90’s, a victim’s family witnessing an execution was extremely rare and practically unheard of. I tracked down two families; one in all places California and the other one in Louisiana. Some of you might recall seeing the Oscar award winning movie Dead Man Walking about a nun’s relationship (Sister Helen Prejean) with a death row inmate whom she eventually becomes his spiritual advisor. I contacted Elizabeth Harvey whose daughter Faith was one of two people murdered by the subject in the movie. I wanted to know what it meant for a victim’s family who actually witnessed the execution to be there in person. Mrs. Harvey graciously agreed to assist me and actually made a cassette tape (those were the days) describing what it meant for her and her late husband Vernon to be at the execution. She stated “You know I didn’t want to watch it on the news, read about it in the paper or listen to it on the radio; that person was the last one to see my daughter, look into her eyes and hear her breathe---Your damn right I am going to be there” 

Legislation was proposed to allow victims’ families into the execution chamber and it swiftly passed the Senate with no opposition. My testimony basically stated the issue of victims’ families being allowed to be in the execution chamber was symbiotic to inmates rights. If the inmate’s family, friends and relatives are allowed to be present then quid pro quo for victims’ families. Strictly, a semblance of fairness and balance.  The House proved otherwise not because of the issue but because of petty childish politics. I was advised by the Bill sponsor that the Chairman of the Calendars Committee which is responsible for bringing bills up to be voted on by the full house was in a feud with the Bill’s co-sponsor and stated unless his name was removed from the Bill he would bury it. Sure enough, none of them were going to budge and our bill to allow victims’ families to witness executions died without ever having been voted on. Plan A failed so I went into Plan B mode. (I don’t like to lose)

I contacted the Chairman of the Texas Criminal Justice Board and asked him if he would consider changing the prison policy to allow victims’ families to witness executions. He agreed to put us on the next board meetings agenda and as Hollywood would say—the rest is history. The Board voted unanimously to change the policy to allow victims’ family to witness executions.  Mission accomplished.

Part Two: The day of the execution:

I was involved with the first Texas victims’ family allowed to be in the death chamber that was captured so poignantly by an HBO Documentary titled ‘A View to Kill’. The film is a rare look at what it’s like from the victims’ family perspective the days leading up to the execution. I was present when the first female killer-Pick Axe Killer Karla Faye Tucker was executed and let me tell you from first-hand experience what a zoo like atmosphere that was. The streets of Huntsville were roped off, over 200 Media Satellite Trucks were on the scene and anyone who had an agenda was protesting. I was asked what it was like to be present for the execution and I told them it was like being an extra in The Ten Commandments Movie-all that was missing were popcorn and peanut vendors---it was that chaotic. Lost in the circus like atmosphere was how viciously Jerry Dean and Debra Thornton was murdered by Tucker. I was with the family of Mark Frederick, a Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper murdered in the line of the duty. The execution of the offender was marred by antics from so-called Documentary Filmmaker Michael Moore and his staff for a show he had on Bravo Cable called The Awful Truth. Another bizarre story for another day. Trust me it’s a good one.  Moore’s unethical tactics were on full display. 

I attended all three executions of the offenders convicted in the Ertman/Pena murders. Two were commuted to life when the US Supreme Court ruled 17-year-olds could not be sentenced to death. The execution of Jose Medellin took on a life of its own—Read Pure Murder by my late friend Corey Mitchell for a full narrative of the Ertman/Pena story. Both families and I waited for 3 hours and 17 minutes in a conference room for a final decision whether or the execution would proceed. Finally, the Warden came into the room to announce the execution would proceed. Needless to say, you can only imagine the tension in the room as the clock ticked and ticked not knowing the final outcome for over 3 hours. It was excruciatingly emotional as the tension was thick as each hour passed. I will never forget the execution of Peter Cantu the ringleader of the Black N White Gang. We walked into the chamber at 6:04 and departed at 6:17. When asked if he had any last words, Cantu looked up to the ceiling and uttered “Nah”! 

When you are part of witnessing an execution all parties are quarantined from mid-afternoon until finality. Afterwards, the victims’ family is debriefed and has the opportunity to address the media. I will tell you unequivocally from my perspective as an advocate it is the most mentally draining, emotionally grueling day I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. It’s like time has stopped as you vividly recall why you are there. Trust me,I am physically and mentally spent when I depart from Huntsville. I can only imagine what it’s like for the victims’ families. 

Finally, the last time I checked approximately 75% of victims’ families in Texas have opted to be present at the execution of the offender who murdered their loved one. I always felt like it should be the victims’ family choice whether or not to attend the execution. The numbers clearly indicate we did the right thing pursuing policy changes, despite the fact our legislative efforts failed. So, while it’s common practice by jurisdictions that allow victims’ families into the death chamber in today’s world, it’s important to know the history and how one seemingly innocuous question changed the course of history. A big-shout out to the Ertman’s and Pena’s for taking the worst possible tragedy and turning their grief into positive action for social change. Instead of yelling and screaming about injustices, both families sought solutions and ultimately triumphed over their tragedy.

Copyright 2019 by Andy Kahan. All Rights Reserved

Andy Kahan is the Director of Victim Services & Advocacy at Crime Stoppers of Houston

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