Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
The sting was barely noticeable to Thomas Lee Hart, even the fact that he didn’t care at all for needles was no bother to him at this point. His mind was elsewhere. He laid on his back strapped to a bed that was more like a gurney or maybe even a table, except this one had wings that protruded out from either side so his arms could be strapped away from him like some kind of bizarre crucifixion. He laid staring at the ceiling, his heart pounding making a thumping sound that seemed to surprise him, while three prison officers worked on him, preparing him. Thomas Lee Hart was in the Texas State Penitentiary in West Livingston, also known as Polunsky Unit, the death house; he was minutes away from death and ready as he could ever be.
Before leaving the room one of the officers quickly put his hand on Hart’s shoulder almost in a comforting gesture, and then he was in the room by himself however he was not at all alone. In front of him was a window he knew was to show through from the gallery of witnesses in the adjacent room. He wondered to himself if the curtain on the other side was open, if he will see people in the room watching him. He had an IV line inserted into each arm, the second one being redundant, in case the primary line fails. The first drug they pipe into him will render him unconscious as if he’s about to undergo an appendectomy or some such thing. Two other powerful drugs administered cause muscle paralysis, respiratory arrest and finally cardiac arrest. This lethal cocktail was the subject of one of his defense teams many appeals, arguing lethal injection is cruel and unusual due to past botched executions in which the condemned took an extremely long time to die and woke up in the middle of the operation. The appeals court didn’t agree and cleared the way for execution.
Will they see me before I go under? Do they see me when I make my final statement? They must. He looked around the room a little, afraid and preparing for what was next.
He noticed a clock on the wall when he was escorted into the room, mounted to the wall directly above the gurney. It was the type of clock one would see in a government building, like a public school. He tried not to look at it, his nerves got the better of him and he glanced up to see it; from his vantage point he couldn’t make out the position of the hands anyway. He only knew he was close.
As he lay there for this brief few minutes he could hear the quiet bustle of people moving around and talking subtly among each other, seemingly just another day on the job. He never felt so alone. He wondered if his father was in the building, in a waiting room perhaps. He knew a chaplain was nearby and would be in soon with the warden to see him, to pray with him, to take his statement. The clock ticked.
He pulled air into his perfect lungs that loyally continued to do their part to keep him alive all the while noticing the antiseptic smell of the room which reminded him of a hospital or a doctor’s office, the irony was not lost on him. Thomas tried to think only of the things that made him comfortable, happy; his father, who continued to visit and write; and the Almighty God, who he had come to know and feel in his soul in the months and years. Thomas had come to know God in a way like never before indeed, he was indifferent to religion until recently. It didn’t come overnight for sure and the chaplain whose job it is to save the lost souls in Huntsville knew he had his work cut out for him with Thomas Lee Hart, but the good chaplain also knew he had seen stonier hearts.
The night before Reverend Rose made his final official visit to Hart. He had Thomas’ salvation in mind but one more thing troubled him. Rose had to face one more earthly hurdle when Thomas raised a rather peculiar question.
“Have you ever heard of a cell extraction?” Thomas asked.
“Yes, I’m familiar with the term, why do you ask? Thomas, where did you hear this term?” Rose asked.
“I heard the guards talking about another guy some time ago who made them remove him by force.”
The Reverend thought about how clumsy and careless guards can be. “Yes, that sort of thing doesn’t happen very often. Please tell me you aren’t considering such a thing. Do you know what they do? They send about five guards; this cell can barely fit five more people. They come in riot gear. It’s the most unpleasant thing.”
“They’re going to kill me,” Thomas said sharply.
“Yes. Yes, they are. But making it difficult on them won’t make it better for you. What good will it really do? I swear as God speaks to me in my heart, and to you as well what’s better for you is to make peace in this world. Forgive those against you. You know the Lord is waiting to accept you, but you must be ready to be accepted! You must make peace with yourself and this world.”
Thomas knew deep down somewhere in his heart the Reverend was right. The notion of creating a hostile resistance conflicted with Reverend Rose’s message and was losing ground to Rose’s soothing tone. The Reverend’s demeanor had the most incredibly calming effect. A vital part of the conditioning process.
He suddenly wanted to change the subject and quickly moved to the first thing that came to mind.
“You know,” he said, “I was reading from one of the magazines they let me have, there was an interview with Paul McCartney.”
“Oh, really?” said Rose, he was slightly suspicious of the sudden change in topic but straightened in his chair with interest.
“Yeah, he said that he and John, you know, Lennon wondered a lot about what happens after ya die.”
The reverend continued to look interested while thinking, don’t these guards page through the reading material around here before giving it to inmates?
“Yeah, he said he and John had a deal, the first one to die would come back and give the other a sign. He said he’s still waiting for the sign.” He looked up and with a somewhat self-conscious laugh said, “reverend would you like a sign?”
The final visit with the man who raised him came a few days earlier and brought emotion so rich, so brilliant Thomas felt overwhelmed with a sense of calm. His father’s presence, his voice, the familiar demeanor made Thomas feel secure like so many times before in his life. Now Thomas could see clearly the pain, despair and love in his father’s eyes. Thomas couldn’t imagine how his father must feel at this time, in this place. The feeling went both ways.
Thomas had been groomed for this moment for weeks, in a way that’s hard to imagine. Thomas figured any person who has never been on death row cannot fully appreciate the experience. When he could start counting the days to execution, that is when the death warrant was signed by the governor and a date of his execution was set, guards then showed up at his cell shackles in hand to move him to death row. There were two people in front of him, occupying the two other cells on the block. That situation didn’t last long however, within two days William Chaney’s punishment was carried out putting Thomas in the number two cell behind John Westover. The whole process reminded him of a sort of mechanism, a bizarre assembly line. His first day on H-Block they came to take his measurements for his burial clothes, took his request for disposal, he has the choice of being buried or cremated, request for a last meal and regular visits from the in-house chaplain Reverend Rose. Thomas Hart was being processed. Conditioned.
Thomas didn’t know Westover at all until they became block mates but in the brief few days before John made his exit from this mortal coil he learned more than he cared to know. Westover was facing the music for the murder of his wife, whom he killed for her life insurance. He went to great lengths to make her murder look like a botched home invasion. He did a good job of it and was on his way to a nice payday if not for an anonymous call to local police. The caller warned police to check deeper into his past. It turned out this wasn’t the first tragic loss Mr. Westover had to endure. Fifteen years earlier he lost the first Mrs. Westover to a hunting accident. That was a $50,000 payout, the exact amount he collected from this one. But there was more, he had a second wife also deceased. She also met her demise by accident, the insurance payout being $45,000, low enough to keep anyone from getting suspicious. He apparently used that routine one too many times.
Thomas thought he heard something in the next room behind the window with the drawn curtain. Are they here? Are people filing in? People who hate him, who had come to watch him die. He was anxious to make his statement to them, one he had pained over for weeks. He was ready.
People were in fact filing into the adjacent room, led in by prison guards to three short rows of folding seats. One seat in the front row was occupied by a member of the press, a local reporter named Heather Ziola of channel 5 Action News. As the witnesses found their seats they observed a small room, a plain room with only a window and a wall clock exactly like the one found in the execution room. There was a curtain drawn in the window. The feeling in the room was a cocktail of emotions, a somber mixture of closure and sorrow. There was a nervous energy in the room only compounded by the authoritarian figure entering the room behind them.
Warden Parkman, a mountain of a man physically and in stature made his way to the front of the room and faced the group of witnesses there to receive their pound of flesh. Anyone who knew Garry Parkman more than 30 seconds understood in full that he’s in charge, his demeanor was undeniable. In a room so quiet one could hear the slightest rustle of movement made by the uneasy group, Warden Parkman’s voice carried loud and clear as he introduced himself.
“Good evening everyone, for those of you who don’t know my name is Garry Parkman I’m the warden here at Polunsky Unit and I’ll be overseeing this execution tonight. It’s 5:51 PM and in about seven minutes this curtain behind me will be open and you will see Thomas Lee Hart on a gurney in the next room, I will be at the head of the gurney and a chaplain at the foot of the gurney. The chaplain’s name is Reverend Rose. Mr. Hart will have an I.V. in each arm. He will give a statement. At the end of Mr. Hart’s statement I will give the order to proceed.”
Anyone who thought Parkman couldn’t get more serious or intimidating was wrong, he stared at the room as a whole and said, “This is my fifteenth execution, I know your emotions are high and your nerves are raw but we are going to perform this operation in a professional manner with dignity. Anyone who disrupts this procedure with unreasonable outbursts of emotions, shouting or movement will result in the entire witness pool being removed.”
He looked for everyone to show they understood.
“Are there any questions for me right now?”
Everyone gave a slight head shake and sat quietly. Garry Parkman nodded his head at his audience and disappeared from the room.
The scene was exactly the way it was described, the curtain was opened like some bizarre theatrical presentation and there he lay center stage, his final act. The chaplain at the foot and the warden at the head, Thomas Lee Hart felt the hands on his shoulders and the warden said softly, “It’s time. Go ahead, Mr. Hart, make your peace.”
Thomas turned his head slightly to the right and could see clearly through the window and there they were, some already weeping, some just staring but all projecting a searing hatred Hart could feel penetrating him, saturating him. He spoke never once admitting or denying guilt.
“Nothing will bring back your loved one…hatred will never heal your soul… find God. Find God.” He had more but he couldn’t say it. He tried with only marginal success to suppress the urge to weep. “I’m ready,” he said with a glance at Warden Parkman.
His audience’s faces were made of stone.
God, I want this to be over! It’s almost over. It’s almost over!
This time there was no stay of execution like twice before giving Thomas a sense of hope, or possibly denial. Warden Parkman had a signal for the techs who were watching and waiting; he took off his watch and put it in his hip pocket, it was time. A moment of calm before the storm and suddenly it happened, Thomas Lee Hart felt the first drug enter his arm, feeling cold as the room temperature drug clashed with his body temperature. The cold ran through his arm like lightning. The shock of this moment of truth hit Thomas like a ton of bricks, but the adrenaline and heavy breathing were no match for the power of the drug. He began to see double and in an odd moment of clarity realized he probably lost control of his eyes shut them tight in an effort to retain some dignity. His ears began to ring wildly. All the while the people in the observation room saw his body spasm, his breathing become erratic and saw Thomas mumble something unintelligible.
The minutes drained away as Thomas became still as stone, the quiet in the room was deafening. As the gallery watched in a hailstorm of inner emotions Warden Parkman glanced to the window and a guard closed the curtain. This seemed odd to Channel 5 reporter Heather Ziola. Usually, the witnesses see the physician before someone pronounces the inmate dead. Within a few seconds, Warden Parkman was in the room and addressed the grief-stricken group.
“At 06:21 AM Mr. Thomas Lee Hart was pronounced dead. May God bless all of you in your search for closure. You will now be escorted to the shuttle which will bring you back to the parking area. Thank you.”
He nodded his head politely before exiting the room.
Thomas felt the euphoria of letting go. Like feeling a warm breeze on a summer evening on his face, the sensation of freedom from the pain of the world was overwhelming. He eagerly searched for the light. He reached out with all his senses to find the way. Where is it? Where is paradise?
Suddenly something changed. A tingling in his extremities? Could he feel his fingers? His toes?
A dim light made Thomas sore with excitement! And was that a noise? A shuffling of some sort? He completely forgot about the feeling in his fingers and concentrated on the light. Was it Heaven?
Why does no one come to get me?
Thomas’ mind raced, his eyes darted around the dark. He tried to move but couldn’t at first even tell if he was standing or not. He stopped moving and held his breath as he again heard very quiet shuffling. And there it was, in the dim light! Someone! Someone was there! A voice almost not audible came to him in a whisper he could hear all around him.
“Thomas,” the breathy voice said.
“Yes!” Thomas exclaimed.
“Yes! Yes! I’m here! I’m ready!”
Thomas could feel his senses coming back to him. The adrenaline started his heart racing, his pulse pounding.
“Thomas,” the voice whispered again.
Thomas held his breath and stopped moving again. He couldn’t see for the room was still so dark but he could hear; he could feel the presence of someone in the room with him. Thomas went to speak again but cut himself off thinking he heard something, hoping the voice…God would speak again. And finally, it did.
“Thomas, you’ve come a long way. Salvation has been a long road. I know you’re tired, I know you’re ready,” the voice breathed.
“I am, I am! God, please…” Thomas began.
“You must do one thing before, you must cleanse yourself before me. You must say it out loud,” the whispering voice demanded.
“Say what? What should I say?” Thomas asked on the verge of tears. Tell me what you want!
The voice waited for what seemed a cruel eternity and then said, “You must cleanse yourself. You must say it out loud. Where is Jenna Troy?”
The question hung in the air while Thomas tried to process it. He felt the adrenaline rush him again. His fingers and toes felt like they were on fire, he tried to move but something stopped him.
“Jenna Troy? How can I tell you…?”
“Yes! Jenna Troy. Her body, where can it be found? You must say it out loud, to cleanse your soul, to earn your way into heaven!”
“You know I don’t know! Why are you asking me this? Who are you?”
Thomas wanted to run but could tell now he was still restrained. He tried to jump up, he thrashed but it did no good.
Thomas yelled, “Where are you? Where did you go?”
The voice changed from a whisper and said, “What now?” Suddenly, the room filled with light. Thomas looked around the room in confused disbelief; he recognized the room. He never left and was still strapped to the gurney! Did they botch the execution? Why am I here? What did they do? The horror began to sink in, the execution didn’t happen.
“Hey! Oh, God, hey! Who’s there! Somebody help me!” he screamed. By now he had his faculties back, at least enough to fight. He began to thrash for his life. Three corrections officers moved quickly into the room and fell on Thomas, pinning him. One guard checked the straps on his arms and legs, when satisfied he moved on to the IV in both arms. They were still intact as well. The guard looked into the control room window and spoke, “It’s good! Go!”
“Wait! Wait, stop! What are you doing?” Thomas screamed! He tried to throw himself left and right. One guard got on the gurney and put his knees on Thomas’ chest, and put his palms on Thomas’ face pushing his head to his left. Adrenaline exploded into Thomas’ body while he now stared into the block wall. The guard spoke into Thomas’ right ear, “Calm down! It’ll be over soon! It’s almost over!”
Warden Parkman and Deputy Warden John Fischer watched from the warden’s office closed-circuit TV in horror as three corrections officers sat on a screaming Thomas Lee Hart until the drugs began to work again. John Fischer wondered if there was any color left in his own face as he pondered the many laws broken and civil rights violated, and for what? Hart didn’t even know anything!
“What have we done here?” Fischer said. “What are we going to do now? This… This is a disaster.”
Parkman looked sharply at Fischer with an urgent stare and said, “What are you talking about? This worked! Did you see that? He literally thought he was talking to God, we had him! This isn’t a failure. This worked!”
“Worked? Worked!? Are you insane!? He didn’t know a fucking thing! He doesn’t know where Jenna Troy’s body is! He might not even be guilty of a crime for all we know now!” Fischer retorted.
Parkman jumped as if jolted with electricity and stopped just short of lunging at his deputy. The warden pointed into John’s face, “You shut your goddamn mouth! I’m not hearing any of that! Hart got his day in court and we did what we do. We carried out his order. He’s gone now and that’s the point! Now if you’ll excuse me the morgue is expecting a body.”
Parkman stepped back and took a breath. He turned away from Fischer for a second and said, “You could end up in a cell, you know.” He faced John to see his reaction. “Yeah, and if anyone found out what we’re doing here, you’d go to jail too.”
Deputy John Fischer knew how deep this was, he also thought Hart had information for them. He felt sick, his body felt weak. As he glanced at the TV in time to see the lifeless body of Thomas Lee Hart being wheeled out of the chamber, he suddenly realized the wording of Warden Parkman’s comment. “What we’re doing here.” Doing here. As if there was some ongoing thing happening.
He can’t be considering trying this again, he thought. That would be insane! The deputy warden could hardly bring himself to ask. But he couldn’t leave the room without knowing for sure.
“Well, it’s over now,” Fischer said. “And we’re not going to another stunt like this, right? I can’t… won’t… do this again.”
“John, you can stay, or you can resign, but you’re going to keep your mouth shut either way. You follow me?” Parkman looked coldly into his eyes. “Because some of these guys have a lot of secrets.”
Credit: Kevin MacKinnon
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