November 3, 2001

Jolly Ranchers

Does the public really need to know the final meal requests of the last 253 death row inmates to be executed by the state of Texas? I’m all for freedom of information, but why is Texas putting this stuff online?

Certainly it’s mesmerizing – a bizarre combination of banal and lurid. When you click on an inmate’s name, you see a page scanned from his death row file, presented as a single, enormous image. These pages (many of which are poorly three-hole punched, the little holes often breaking the edge of page) contain identifying information, a pair of mug shots, and a summary of the inmate’s crimes. The summaries are horrifying, the horror enhanced by the dry-as-dirt language. For example:

Convicted in connection with the deaths of sisters Grace Purnhagen, 16, and Tiffany Purnhagen, 9, in south Montgomery County. The bodies of the two girls were found along a pipeline in the Imperial Oaks subdivision on Rayford Road. Grace’s throat had been slashed and she had been sexually assaulted with an object later found to have been a beer bottle. Tiffany had been strangled with a rope found around her neck. Grace’s former boyfriend, Delton Dowthitt, then age 16, confessed to killing both girls following his arrest in Lousiana four days later. He later recanted, saying he killed Tiffany at the order of his father, who he said had actually killed and sexually assaulted Grace. Delton led police to where his father had disposed of the knife. Police also found a bloody bottle and rope at Dowthitt’s auto sales business in Humble.

Elsewhere on the site you can access gender and racial statistics, final meal requests, and other handy death row facts. I learned a lot about lethal injections, the current execution method employed by Texas. (Previous to 1977, the state used electrocution, and before that, from 1819 to 1923, hanging.) In Texas, a lethal injection consists of three drugs:

  • Sodium Thiopental (lethal dose; sedates person)
  • Pancuronium Bromide (muscle relaxant; collapses diaphragm and lungs)
  • Potassium Chloride (stops heartbeat)

Texas is a stickler for details: “The offender is usually pronounced dead approximately seven minutes after the lethal injection begins. Cost per execution for drugs used: $86.08.”

$86.08 for the drugs. Thank you, Texas. Elsewhere I learned that the cost per day per offender is $53.15 and that the average time on death row prior to execution is 10.58 years.

If I remember my Foucault correctly, he said that public torture restores the state’s sovereignty (which had been violated by the offense) by displaying infinite force on the body of the prisoner. Here we’re dealing not with force but disclosure. Since we no longer witness executions, all we’re left with is the paperwork. Well, that and a USA Today-like obsession with factoids:

  • shortest time on death row prior to execution: Joe Gonzales, 253 days
  • longest time on death row prior to execution: Excell White, 8982 days (24.6 years)
  • average age of executed offenders: 39
  • youngest executed offender: Jay Pinkerton, 24
  • oldest executed offender: Cydell Coleman, 62
bag of Jolly Ranchers candy

And then there’s Mike Graczyk of the Associated Press, a man who has made a career out of watching Texas death row inmates die, having witnessed 234 out of 253 executions since 1982. Thus we know what Mike will likely be doing on on November 14: He’ll be witnessing the execution of 41-year-old Jeffrey Tucker of Parker County, convicted in the July 1988 robbery and murder of 65-year-old Wilton B. Humphreys of Granbury. Texas doesn’t tell us what Tucker has requested for his final meal, but we know that the last inmate executed, Gerald Mitchell of Harris County, asked for a bag of assorted Jolly Ranchers.

Sadly, Odell Barnes, Jr. of Wichita County, executed March 1, 2000, never received his final meal. I know this because he requested justice, equality, and world peace.