The First Vigil on the Street Corner and the Issue of Public Executions
Witnessing the execution of Eric Charles Nenno in October, 2008
Eric's Physical Responses
The Chaplain's Actions
The Local Physician Pronounces Death
The Drape is Pulled Over and the Witnesses Exit
Interaction with Christine, a Journalist
Interaction with Dick and Chris, Eric's Lawyers
Going to the Funeral Home and Feeling a "Sense of Humanity"
Serving as a Tour Guide and Answering a Young Girl's Questions
Does the Execution Hurt?
How Long Does it Take to Get the Body to the Mortuary?
Physical Contact on Death Row
Going to the Funeral Home to Feel Eric's Warmth
Introduction [corresponding to first part of part 1 of transcript on TAVP website]
GABRIEL DANIEL SOLIS: Okay, so now we're on. Do you have any other questions?
PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: No other questions; no other questions about the process and I appreciate that.
SOLIS: Okay, I'm sorry to interrupt you.
PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: Where we were, and quick summary: I'm hopeful that what your project includes is some effort to translate what we are doing and
all of the things that you are doing into Spanish so that it can reach the Hispanic community in Texas.
I believe the Hispanic community's involvement in the issues around the death penalty will help toward the death penalty's demise.
I think that as Hispanic voters grow in numbers and become better informed about what the death penalty system is like and particularly how the death penalty
system affects Hispanics in Texas, there will be greater resistance to the death penalty than currently appears.f you look at the survey data that looks at Hispanics versus whites versus Blacks
concerning attitudes about the death penalty, that research generally shows Hispanics are more like whites, in that they tend to support the death penalty more than Black citizens do.
But I think that we're getting a bad sample, an unrepresentative sample of Hispanics, and I think that we need to do better research in that regard.
So, I encourage you to do that. If you need support in terms of letters or anything to get additional funding to translate this material into Spanish, I will
happily try to assist you, and recommend that you do that, because that's a very, very important community that often gets ignored in this entire discussion.
SOLIS: We're always trying to think of new ways to get our oral history interviews as public and as accessible to everybody in Texas —and so, any ideas
are very much welcome.
PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: Good. And now you want me to talk about my experiences with the death penalty?
SOLIS: Your experiences with the death penalty.
PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: I'm gonna just start and tell you how I got here, and what my role here has been. And in this process, as I'm doing this,
interrupt me and ask clarification, or ask me to slow down or speed up or whatever you want to do to expedite the process and make sure I'm responsive to issues that you know are important that
may have been mentioned before.
I came to Texas in 1984, very reluctantly, and my reluctance to coming to Texas was largely because two years prior to 1984, Texas had resumed the process of
I was coming here from Ohio. I was on the faculty of the Sociology Department at Ohio State University.
One of my colleagues had come down here for a visiting professorship at the College of Criminal Justice.
And he returned to Columbus and told me—at that time I was a young assistant professor—he told me, "Longmire, you need to get down to Texas. The College of
Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University has a lot of resources and they are really doing some interesting things. You need to get down there."
I was born in Washington, D.C., so my immediate response was, "I'm a Redskin fan. I can't go there because the Dallas Cowboys are close."
I figured out that Huntsville was kind of close to Houston and it's not quite so bad, so I came to Texas with a five-year plan.
I interviewed for the job that was available. At that time it was the Assistant Dean for Graduate Programs, and I told them that there were two conditions
that I will accept the job.
One is that you realize that this is not a fully administrative position. I'm a faculty member and I want to remain a faculty member. I don't think that I
want to be an academic administrator, but "Assistant Dean of Graduate Programs" sounds close enough to faculty that as long as everybody knows coming in the door, I'm not an administrator, I'm
a professor, I'll come.
Secondly, I'm gonna come for five years. I don't think I can live in Texas very long, for a wide variety of reasons, but more importantly, I'm an East Coast
kid, born and raised in the Washington, D. C. area, did my Ph.D. at University of Maryland, and I wanna go back home whenever I can.
So I can give you five years, if you like me for five years. If you want me to leave sooner, we can negotiate that deal.
But I'll come for five years and five years is it.
As soon as I got here, the Assistant Dean for Graduate—they said everything is cool, no problem –as soon as I got here, the Assistant Dean for Graduate
Programs' role was converted to Associate Dean for Academic Administration, which was as administrative as it could possibly get.
And after a couple of months, I started dating a woman who was from Houston, as she would say, "born and raised in Houston, Texas," and we started dating,
and over a couple of years, our dating got more serious, and my five-year mark was coming closer.
I had actually come to be very good as an academic administrator, although I hated every day of my job. I didn't like it, it wasn't what I trained to be, and
so I was having angst, angst about my role as administrator, but I also had fallen in love with a Texas girl.
So she, we were talking one day and she says, "You know, we've got to talk about your five-year plan."
And I said, Why?
And she said, "Well, there's something you need to know about Texas women," she said.
"Texas women never leave Texas. Or if they do, they come back whether they're alone or not."
And so I renegotiated my plan, and continued doing academic administration for another eight years, I think, but more importantly, I tell everyone that my
five-year sentence to Huntsville was commuted to life.
So, Lin and I got married and I'm here and I love Huntsville. I love Texas. I've gotten over all of that Yankee angst about living in the land of Texas.
But two years prior to my arrival, Texas had been infamous on the news because there had been two people executed under the "modern" execution regime,
following the Furman stay, Gregg and other decisions opened up Texas' death chamber again, and there were two widely publicized executions, both of them lethal injections,
the first lethal injections in the United States of America, and both of them were at midnight.
It was when we still executed people at midnight, and there were hundreds of students, protesters, as I thought they were, when I first started watching the
film, the media.There were hundreds of protesters, which kind of made me think there is hope, because as an academic criminologist, I was opposed to the death penalty prior to leaving graduate
school because of problems associated with the discrimination that seems to follow most punishments,
not just the death penalty, but the death penalty that issue of discrimination is more salient because we're killing people, not simply depriving them of
And so I was opposed to the death penalty watching these films, but I saw protesters at the Walls Unit, and I thought, Maybe there is hope, for Huntsville,
And so as I watched it they began interviewing people at the execution, and almost all of the people there were protesting in support of the death
penalty, and they were protesting with great relish. They were having a big party. And many of them identified themselves as criminal justice majors at the school just up the street from the
execution chamber. So when I saw that, I knew I would never come to Texas and I would certainly never teach at Sam Houston State University with a bunch of small-minded students who celebrate
the killing of another human being.
So, the job is offered and I'm coming here reluctantly with a five-year plan that ultimately gets converted to, commuted I like to say, to life. So I was
unclear about what I was going to be able to do when I came, but I knew that upon my arrival I was going to have to do something beyond simply be a professor and/or an administrator, and I had
to do something for myself, to make certain that I felt like I was being honest about my position toward the death penalty.
Right after I arrived, a colleague of mine who is on the faculty at a small university at Massachusetts had gotten in touch with me when he learned I was
here, because he had been corresponding with an inmate who was scheduled to be executed a couple of months after my arrival. This inmate had a long series of delays associated with his
execution. One of the delays was caused by his request to have his execution televised.My colleague was doing a paper; he was doing research on public executions and examining the question of
whether or not we could or should ever publicize and possibly televise an execution.
As a result of that, he had gotten in touch with this particular offender and they had corresponded. So my colleague called me and asked me if there was any
way I could get him access to witness the execution and I didn't know.
At that time I didn't know what kind of power the College of Criminal Justice wielded in this community, and so as soon as I called the Texas prison system
and asked them they said, "Sure, we'll get you in. We'll get him in, and if you'd like, you can witness as well." At that time, I thought, Okay.So I called my colleague and he agreed to come
down, and he came down for that particular execution.
That was actually the third execution that Texas will have engaged in since it resumed its executions, and it was the first execution in this community since
my arrival. I met with my colleague, and we—the executions were at midnight.
We met at about ten o'clock and we talked a little bit about what to expect and none of us—neither of us had any idea what to expect. We went to the Walls
Unit right before eleven o'clock and, when we were told to be there, and as we literally were at the door of the Administration Building, there was a crowd that I could see off to the distance.
I could hear the crowd there, and I stopped myself from going in. I felt like I was a voyeur. I didn't feel like I had a reason to be there beyond support with my colleague, but it was really
his issue—public executions.
And I didn't feel, I had no relationship with the man we were executing. I hadn't corresponded with him, whereas Richard Moran, my colleague, had. And he— I
stopped and I said, Richard, I can't do it. I can't go in.
And he stopped and he said, "Wait for me and we'll talk afterwards."
PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: So he went in and witnessed the execution. I went to the corner and stood quietly and did my first unplanned vigil. I didn't know
what it was I was going to do upon my arrival, but at that moment I decided I was going to be doing a vigil.
I didn't call it that. I called it a protest. At that moment in my life I was an intellectual agnostic.
My parents were not religious people. I had been baptized Methodist, I think, but never had any strong calling to any particular faith system. When I was in
sixth grade, apparently, I went through a period where I thought I was going to be a priest or something: I don't have vivid memory of this but my mother reminds me of it.
But at that time in my life I was an intellectual agnostic. I had been trained in the sciences as a scholar to try to remain neutral and objective about life
and to be able to study life objectively.
I knew there wasn't an objective presence possible on the corner, that everyone on that corner; media, protestors on either side of the issue, and/or myself,
had a stake in this thing that was going on that we couldn't silence, we shouldn't silence, that we should keep alive in our minds and our hearts, if not be vocal about.
And so I began my vigil on the corner as an intellectual agnostic and that particular execution.
I don't remember much about the vigil. I remember the moment of my decision not to go in, and I remember hours afterward, sitting in the parking lot of what
was then the Holiday Inn, drinking beer with my colleague in the car as he debriefed and we talked about his experience with the execution.
He switched his interest at that moment, from public executions, because the state had decided prior to the execution that it was not the offender's
execution, but it was the state's, and the offender didn't have the right to demand that it be published, or publicized, but it was the state's decision, and they decided that they were not
going to publicize or televise the execution, that the media witnesses could write their articles and report their reports, but that they were not going to put it on television.
PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: So it hadn't been publicized, but Richard Moran at that time, shifted his focus from public executions to the inhumanity of lethal
injection. Because what he was most moved by in his witness is exactly the same experience I had last night when I witnessed Eric Nenno's execution, the first execution I've ever watched.
And that was how horrific the moment was, how horrible that ten-minute period is, however long it takes for us to kill him, how horrible it was because it
was so antiseptic, because it was so sterile, because it was so quiet, because it was so inhumane. The humanity of life was absent in that execution chamber. It was absent in the witness
chamber where I stood. It was absent from everything I could discern in the witness chamber that was beside me.
There was silence, virtual silence throughout the whole process. Eric's body responded. Eric didn't utter any final statements, although as we entered the
room, Eric acknowledged our presence and mouthed the words, "Thank you," and we heard him.
He didn't even speak them clearly but he just whispered them. We could hear them through the amplification. He said, "Thank you, it's going to be all right,"
and then he lowered his head and closed his eyes.
The warden asked Eric, "Do you have any final statement?" Eric said "No, warden, " and we had already been advised that if Eric were to say, "No, warden," or
if he were to say nothing, that immediately the warden would give the signal to the people in the other room that the procedure could start.
So as soon as Eric said, "No, warden," the warden looked to a door that opened. We couldn't see anything other than a door opened across the room, and the
warden said, "The procedure can begin," or something, I don't literally remember what he said, but he said something like, "You can begin," and at that point Eric closed his eyes.
He had already closed his eyes before the warden said that, and fifteen, twenty, maybe thirty seconds passed before I saw Eric's chest rise. He had been
breathing. I had been watching him breathe, and he took a deep breath and that breath paused for a moment, and then there was a sputtering sound that came from him.
The chaplain beforehand had characterized what we would likely hear as a snore. I think of it as a reverse snore. Most snores that I know are— you hear the
air coming in. [Mimics intake of breath.] Like that.
Eric's snore was a sputtering as he was exhaling, and there were three sputters, three relatively quick exhales. The final one, the loudest of them, and then
there was nothing. Eric's body was still. His right eye opened slightly, and that was the eye that was facing us. I could see his left eye through a reflection in a Plexiglass window that was
directly across from us. Immediately beside that window was a small door with two catheters streaming from— One of them I could see affixed to his left arm in the reflection.
The other one I could see affixed to his right arm, which was immediately in front of us, so I could see the reflection of his left side. His left eye
remained completely closed. His right eye opened slightly and never changed. His right eye remained open through the rest of the hour that we waited there, which was really only about five
minutes, maybe seven, but it just seemed like an extraordinarily long time.
We had been warned in advance that it would be a long period that might seem like twenty minutes but that usually it was only five or seven. So we had been
told to anticipate this long wait.
We stood there in the room for this hour and as we stood there, the warden looked at the chaplain. The chaplain was immediately in front of us with his back
slightly turned toward us. He was holding what looked like a Bible in his left hand and his right hand was on Eric's leg. I watched his left hand and it was relatively stable. The warden
watched the chaplain, the chaplain watched the warden and at one time I saw the chaplain's fingers start to tap the Bible. And I watched the warden watch his finger. I then watched, and about
eight, maybe ten seconds later the chaplain's fingers started tapping the Bible again, very, very aggressively.And then, seconds later, maybe thirty seconds later, the warden turned around, and
opened the door, didn't say a word but turned and opened the door, and in walked a man with a stethoscope over his neck and a jacket on. White, it wasn't a white jacket, but it was a regular
kind of jacket. He walked in. I immediately recognized him as one of the local physicians in town, a very kind man.
I know him in the community as a very, very kindhearted physician. He actually provides medical assistance at virtually no cost. He will do office visits for
twenty-five dollars, so people who are relatively indigent can get access to medical care through him. He's a—I don't know him personally but I know of him, and he's got a very, very good
reputation for being a wonderful assistant in the community.
He also witnesses and pronounces—he also pronounces death at all of the executions. He doesn't witness them, but he's brought into the room after the two
witnesses who are the official witnesses, the warden and the chaplain, believe that the condemned has expired. I don't know if the tapping of the fingers was a signal. My suspicion is that the
warden is feeling for a pulse in the vein of the condemned's leg.The chaplain told us that he would put his hand on the leg of the offender for human contact, and that's probably how it may
have may ultimately started. My suspicion is that there's— that he's feeling for some pulse, or for something, and I don't know what happens at the last moment of death. Watching that, my
suspicion is, when his heart stops, there must be some kind of fluttering of some sort and that's where the tapping was, but I don't know that.
That's my suspicion.So after the doctor comes into the room, there's still not a word said. The doctor takes a pencil flashlight out of his pocket, and he
moves to Eric's left eye, the first time I see Eric's left eye open, and he shines a light in it and I'm looking at that through the reflection in the Plexiglass. He then moves to his right eye
and does the same. When he closes, when he lets go of Eric's left eye, his eye closes completely. When he lets go of Eric's right eye, it again closes only partially. So his left eye remains
open. The physician then puts his flashlight away and moves his hands and feels the left side and then the right side of Eric's carotid arteries, doesn't say a word.
He then puts his stethoscopes into his ear and he moves the sheet that was covering Eric's chest slightly away, clearly listens to Eric's chest in the center
of his chest and then to the left side.He then looks up toward the chaplain and says, "Six-twenty." He turns and walks away, which must be the pronounced time of death, so Eric was pronounced
dead at six-twenty p.m., probably died at six seventeen p.m. or six eighteen p.m., but it took that, maybe two minutes, maybe not, maybe it was only fifteen seconds. At that time, the whole
notion of time is invisible to me. I'm not sure how long it's taking. But Eric is pronounced dead, and that's the only word that is spoken after the warden has said, "Everything is, everything
can proceed," or whatever it was that the warden uttered.
The warden and the chaplain then drape, pull the sheet over Eric's face and at that time, nothing is said. The warden resumes, returns to his position, the
chaplain returns to his position, which, the warden is at the head of Eric, the chaplain is at the foot of Eric, and nothing is said.
I hear movement in the room beside me and I know that the witnesses for the victim's family are being escorted out.
After about two minutes, our door opens and Chris walks out first, one of the attorneys; Richard follows him, and I turn. And as I turn, the first person
that I see is the woman who is the reporter for the Huntsville Item. Young woman, Christine is her name, and she must be in her early twenties, and I'm, I know her because my wife has had
interaction with her on a couple of occasions before, and had in fact met with her the day before Eric's execution.
My wife does hospice work, and this is getting ready to be Hospice Awareness Week, and a year ago, my wife had been interviewed by Christine for a story in
the local paper to try to encourage people to consider hospice as an option when their loved ones are dying. And so my wife had met with her in anticipation of this year's story, and she
acknowledged that she was going to be at the execution, and my wife said, "Well, Dennis is going to be there, my husband's going to be there, and I don't know what's going to happen. I don't
know how he's going to be." And so, Christine said, "Well, if you'd like, I'll give him a hug. If you don't mind, I'll give him a hug if he feels like he needs it." And so I had been forewarned
that I was going to be eligible for a hug upon the execution. So when I turned, I saw Christine.
To me she looked frightened. I don't know if that's just her natural look, but she just looked very frightened. And so I gave her a one-armed hug as I was
following Dick out the door and that's the last I saw her. I never saw and still haven't seen her since then. She must have exited after me but didn't follow me [static] attempt to interview or
PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: I can turn mine off.
SOLIS: Yes, I think we should [inaudible].
PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: There is a call coming in but I can ignore it. Yeah, it might have been my call.
SOLIS: [Inaudible] sometimes [inaudible].
PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: Yes, I understand. This is off now, so.
SOLIS: Thank you, sir.
PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: No problem. So I didn't see Christine afterward. I read her story in the paper this morning and she characterizes me as a friend
of Eric's, which is fine. I didn't need to be identified any more than that, and I do consider myself as having been a friend of Eric's in a very small kind of a way.
But as I exited, I then walked up to Dick, one of the attorneys who represented Eric during the appeals, and I put my hand on his shoulder and I told him
that he and Chris had done a wonderful job and done everything they could,
assured them that I knew they had tried as hard as could be tried, and so the three of us left together with the chaplain, four of us, and went our separate
Dick and Chris were going to try to get in touch with Eric's sister, who had visited Eric over the weekend but had chosen not to witness the execution, and
they were going to go get hold of her.
I was on my way to the funeral home because I wanted to be able to feel Eric's body before I went home to give, in one sense, for me, I didn't know it in
advance, but I needed a sense of humanity to return to that moment, because everything from the time that we walked in to that building was surreal and inhumane, and that's the experience that
Richard Moran shared with me twenty years ago, twenty-three years ago, twenty-four years ago, when he witnessed his execution.
It's the same sterility and the same lack of any sense of humanity, any sense that anything, anything human is associated with the process. It's all sterile
and almost like it's a machine. That's the only way that I can explain the experience at the moment.
I wanted to feel Eric because, years ago, during one of my vigils, I stood at the corner and one of the roles that I frequently play is what I call kind of a
There are a lot of people who are there for the first time and they don't know what's happening. And because I'm a known presence, if someone ever asks a
question, they generally direct the person with the question to me, because I "know everything."
And so I watched a group of people, off to the left there was a group of four or five Black people, a family.
They looked to be a family, who were standing off to the left. The person they were executing that night was a Hispanic man, and I wasn't sure what the
presence of the Black people was about, and I very, very rarely approach people.
People come to me or I remain silent at the vigils.
I saw a young Black girl walk over to somebody and ask something and they pointed at me and so I watched her walk to me. And I didn't know what to expect,
and she came to me and she asked me if I could answer some questions.
She said, "I understand that you know a lot about what's going on," and I said, "Sure." So the first question she asked me was whether or not the execution
hurt, whether the people felt any pain.
This was long before the lethal injection controversy had become very public, but I knew that there was some research that was suggesting that sometimes, in
botched executions in particular, lethal injection was a very painful process.
I didn't share that with her. I told her that at the moment what we know about the process was that it was relatively painless; it's not unlike what a person
experiences prior to surgery, and so there might be some anxiety and a small prick of pain when the catheter is inserted,
but if everything is working well, there should be no pain. That's what I assured her, even though I really wasn't certain of it myself.
And then she said, "And how long does it take to get the body from the prison to the mortuary?" And I said, I don't know.
I've never contemplated that question. I've never been asked it before. And I honestly said, I really don't know. I said, I do know that the prison likes to
get the body out as soon as possible. I do know that, so I don't think they'll take much time.
And I said, Why? Why is that an issue? And she was clearly agitated, more about that issue than the first one she'd asked about. And she said, "I'm
twenty-one years old. I've never felt the warmth of my daddy's touch. And my daddy's going to be executed tomorrow and I'm prayerful and I'm hoping that I'll be able to feel his warmth before
"Before I die," is what she said, "before I die." And I stopped myself and I thought, I said, Twenty one? I said, How can this be?
And she said, "I was in my momma's womb when my daddy went down. He was either in jail or in prison my whole life."
And in prison in Texas, if you're on Death Row, you have no physical contact with another human being other than the guards, who, some of them
compassionately transport you to the shower, or to the visiting room, others, not so compassionately, but every inmate who goes either to a shower or to recreation or to a witness or to a van
to be taken to a court for a hearing, every one of them experiences a full body cavity search before they leave and before they go back in their cell.
So the physical contact men on death row receive isn't human. It's not very pleasant. So I was dealt with this question: Was this girl going to be able to
feel the warmth of her daddy's touch before she dies?
I assured her that the prison system got them there as fast as they could, and that he would still be warm, and I wanted to make sure that that was the case
I've talked to people otherwise, and people have assured me that I didn't lie to her, I didn't misinform her, but I needed to know that for myself. That's
why I went to the funeral home last night. I didn't realize that I needed that warmth, that feel, that touch myself because what had happened during the execution, during the hour I waited in
the waiting room before we were transferred,
before we were escorted into the execution chamber, was a period of time when humanity shut down.
I didn't consciously do it; it happened and it wasn't until I felt Eric, interestingly, if interest, I'm not sure that is the right word, when I showed up at
the funeral home.
The chaplain who had been in the room with us during the execution and who had sat with us while we waited to witness the execution was there waiting for me
in his car.
I arrived in my car, and this would have been about five, maybe ten minutes after the execution to get from my car to the funeral home; I stopped and spoke
with you all on the corner, briefly. I then immediately went to the funeral home.
We showed up, we got there together, we walked up to the funeral home, and everything was closed down and dark and there was an old man. I - when I saw him,
Boris Karloff came to my image,
and he was sitting in a completely dark room in the main office of the funeral home; totally dark, but I could see movement in the room.
And so I'm standing there with the chaplain, and the chaplain has done this many times before, and he's telling me, "I don't understand. Normally there's a
light on in that building. Normally they have everything set up in the building. Maybe they're not here yet."
And I thought, my God,
Video 6of "Interview with Professor Dennis Longmire."
Dennis Longmire is an anti-death penalty activist and a professor of sociology at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. In Video 1, Longmire discusses his background, his residence in Huntsville, his interest in the death penalty as a topic of research and activism, his first silent vigil outside the Walls Unit and his role in the case of Eric Nenno, including his experience witnessing Nenno's execution on October 28, 2008. In Video 2, Longmire expands on his role in Eric Nenno's case, and discusses the role of religion in his intellectual and activist commitments. In Video 3, Longmire discusses Eric Nenno's trial in more detail, expands on the history of the prison system and executions in Texas, and compares the hospice movement with standing vigil outside the Walls Unit. In Video 4, Longmire discusses his prayer vigils and witnessing in the context of other activist strategies, and talks about the role of the Hospitality House in Huntsville. In Video 5, Longmire elaborates on his experiences standing on the corner outside the Walls Unit during executions, and considers trends in attitudes towards both the death penalty and abolition of the death penalty in Texas. In Video 6, Longmire discusses the wider communal effects of the death penalty on the town of Huntsville, media coverage of executions, and the interactions between families of the executed and families of murder victims. This interview took place on October 29, 2008 in Huntsville, Walker County, Texas.
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Dennis LongmireRole: Narrator
Texas After Violence ProjectRole: Collaborator
Gabriel Daniel SolisRole: Interviewer
Virginia Marie RaymondRole: Videographer
Jorge Antonio RenaudRole: Transcriber
Virginia Marie RaymondRole: Proofreader
Kimberly Ambrosini-BaconRole: Proofreader
Texas After Violence Project
University of Texas Libraries
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