Interview with Dennis Longmire

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Table of Contents 
  •  Eric Nenno's Trial and Parole Eligibility in Jury Deliberations 
  •  Eric's Time in the Military and Exposure to Chemicals 
  •  Eric's Discharge from the Military and Actions 
  •  If Eric's Trial Had Been Today 
  •  Longmire's Prayers for Eric and the Family of the Victim 
  •  The Emotions and Actions of the Victim's Family Members 
  •  Revenge, Forgiveness, Anger, and Mediation 
  •  Trauma for Everyone Involved 
  •  Prison Conditions and Hopelessness 
  •  The Community Environment at the Ellis Unit 
  •  The First State Executions in 1933 
  •  The Brutality of the Move from Ellis to Polunsky 
  •  Prison Conditions and Prisoner Treatment 
  •  General Thoughts on Executions 
  •  Sentencing and the Prison Environment 
  •  Tookie Williams and Doing Good While on Death Row 
  •  Saying "We" In Reference to the Executions 
  •  The Hospice Movement, Executions, and Dignity
     
 
Transcript 
  •  PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: hours, I think eleven and a half hours to deliberate and to come to the conclusion to sentence him to death rather than to life in prison. Something that's really important to remember is at that point in time is that the jury was not able to be instructed that Eric, 
  •  if he were sentenced to prison, would be in prison for forty years before eligibility for parole. His attorneys tried to get the judge to allow that information to be shared with the jury, but at that time there was a Texas law that actually prohibited capital jurors from considering parole issues during their deliberations. 
  •  It was against the law in capital cases. Interestingly, at the same time it was required, in non-capital cases, that jurors be informed of the offender's parole eligibility, and that was usually because the parole eligibility dates were fairly early so they wanted to make sure they gave them very long sentences to make sure they stayed in prison an appreciably long period of time, in non-capital cases. 
  •  In capital cases, jurors were prohibited from knowing about parole eligibility. And so what happened, the Supreme Court eventually told Texas, "You've got to figure out which way you want it. It's okay with us either way; you can let juries know about parole eligibility or not, but you can't have one rule for capital juries and another for non-capital juries." 
  •  So eventually Texas— and within three years after Eric's execution, Texas had changed its law so that now, capital juries are required to be told about parole eligibility during capital cases. 
  •  So they are required to be told that they will be in prison for at least forty years prior to eligibility for parole. 
  •  So the jury ultimately sentences Eric to be executed. I'm not at all surprised at all by that sentence, given the nature of his crime, but I'm concerned about one of the big problems with the death penalty. 
  •  It's a big problem with law at large, but capital law in particular, and that is that time is such a critical issue. 
  •  And by that I mean, when a person commits their crime and is prosecuted and convicted determines a great deal of their fate—when it happens in terms of the nature of the laws that exist. 
  •  If Eric Nenno had committed his crime now and had been out on trial now, I'm convinced that there are a couple of factors associated with his situation that would have let the jury sentence him to life rather than execution because I suspect what was going on in the juries' mind, and why it took eleven hours, was because there were some people who were thinking to themselves, 
  •  "This monster couldn't have been in control of himself. He must have been driven by some kind of crazy impulse that he couldn't control, and is it right for us to have him killed because of something he might not have been able to control?" 
  •  During Eric Nenno's trial, his defense counsel did provide expert testimony that showed he had some kind of a brain dysfunction, an abnormality in his prefrontal lobe, probably caused by an early childhood head injury, a fall from a tree or something, and so his prefrontal lobe had damage that was certified and presented to the jury. 
  •  They knew something might have been going wrong. What they didn't know at the time, because it was not known to anyone at the time, was that while in the military— Eric served four years in the navy prior to discharging from the navy and ultimately moving to Houston where he was taking care of his sister's house, who herself was a career veteran. 
  •  His sister had been reassigned to Scotland, so Eric was in Houston, in Hockley, Texas house sitting while his sister's house was sold. 
  •  And then he was going to move back to Arkansas, where he had been living, where his mother had lived before her death. Eric had been in the navy, and while he had been in the navy he had worked on a battleship, 
  •  and he had worked on the power system, the engine system, and his primary job there was to clean the place up. He wasn't a high-ranking naval officer by any stretch; he was a low level ranked person in the navy. 
  •  But his appellate attorneys discovered that he was exposed to a neurotoxin that was part of the routine chemical procedure that operated in those vessels. 
  •  Eric remembered that there were huge tubs of some kind of chemical that had the skull and crossbones on it that warned against physical contact. He had no idea what it was; nobody knew about this, what it was, until his appellate attorneys examined and looked further into it and they found that this particular chemical that is used is an extraordinary severe neurotoxin, that if you have any physical contact with it, it has a very high likelihood of affecting your brain. 
  •  Not necessarily the frontal cortex, but the part of your brain that governs impulse control. 
  •  And Eric acknowledges that he'd been a normal guy until he was discharged from the service, and that after he discharged from the service, he'd began finding himself interested in pornography. 
  •  He'd never had an interest in pornography at all, and not only pornography, but he found himself interested in pornography depicting younger and younger and younger models, if you can call them that, and he found himself liking younger girls. 
  •  He'd not had much of a love life at all, if any, and so he became— he had an impulse toward young sex objects after discharging from the military. 
  •  He didn't know anything about neurotoxins, and nobody did. The only impulse that he'd acted on, other than watching and viewing pornography, was the time that he was at a songfest. There was a family around where he lived, and they were playing guitars in the garage and they were having a good time, and he was there at the place, smoking marijuana and drinking beer, 
  •  and he decided to go home and get his guitar so he could go back and join the group. The girl followed with him, came with him, to get his guitar. 
  •  He didn't abduct her but she agreed to go with him. It was at that time that he lost control of his impulses and he tried to have sex with her in the garage. 
  •  She resisted and in the process of trying to quiet her from screaming, he suffocated her and the rest is history, if you will. 
  •  His lawyers argue that today, if a jury today were able to learn that not only did he had this prefrontal lobe problem, which itself is the part of the brain that helps control impulses, but that he had been exposed to a neurotoxin that lowered his overall sense of impulse control, 
  •  that that eleven and a half hour jury, at that moment in history would clearly have said, "He's a veteran exposed to a neurotoxin who became a monster. We can't let ourselves kill him." 
  •  Not only that, but if the trial were being held today, the jury would have heard me say, "He will be in prison for at least forty years, and not only in prison, but in one of the most custodially sound, strong secure prison systems in the universe, for forty years, before eligibility for parole. 
  •  That means that you're looking at the possibility of a seventy-three-year-old man coming out into the community." 
  •  If it took them eleven and a half hours then, I don't think that there would have been any question but that they would have come out and said, "Guilty," and he was already guilty, but, "Life rather than death." 
  •  In fact, my guess is that prosecution may have gone ahead and had a no-contest sentencing hearing where they wouldn't have tried to argue for the death penalty, as they did in the Andrea Yates cases, 
  •  where they basically said, "We want her guilty but we don't want the death penalty for her." So time is such a critical factor. 
  •  Eric Nenno, today, I believe would have been given a natural life sentence. And we don't even know what that means. We know there is no eligibility for parole. 
  •  Laws can change over time, and there is the possibility that the law could allow a governor commutation rather than parole power. Today, a governor cannot commute any sentence without prior approval from the Board or Pardons and Paroles, so there is a check and balance going on. 
  •  But hypothetically, we're not paroling but commuting and you might commute someone's life sentence to forty years and then they become eligible for release at a different time. 
  •  So a natural life sentence isn't necessarily a natural life sentence given the possibility that laws can change. I'm convinced today that Eric Nenno— that we would have been spared the execution of Eric Nenno. 
  •  I also know, having talked with Eric two weeks prior to his execution— I visited him on two different occasions. Eric Nenno was ready to go. 
  •  Eric Nenno had spent the larger part of his sentence locked in a cage in the Polunsky Unit alone, only being strip searched when he goes out to exercise, or comes down for a visit, and so he was tired of that kind of treatment. 
  •  There isn't much hope for the guys on Death Row that they will ever be able to experience anything even closely resembling a normal life, normal prison life, and so many of them are giving up their appeals, or like Nenno, if they have appeals there is a quiet voice in the back of their minds, saying, "I hope it doesn't work." 
  •  Because Eric had come to a spiritual enlightening himself. He had become a very, very strong Christian, and Eric is certain today that he is in heaven. He is, he was, ready to go. 
  •  PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: I shared with Eric that when I go to the corner, the first thing I do when I get to the corner is I begin doing a series of— I do a silent rosary. 
  •  I do a series of Hail Marys, I do a series of Our Fathers, and in the Hail Marys I contemplate on the presence on praying for our sinners now and on the hour of their death. 
  •  That's why I get there at five o'clock, the hour prior to their death, and I begin doing a prayerful vigil there. I also pray the Our Father. 
  •  And I pray that we learn to forgive our trespassers as we learn to forgive those who trespass against us. And I pray that we aren't subject to the kind of forgiveness that we give to the condemned murderers, because that's hell, and I don't want hell. 
  •  I don't think that's what our creator has in mind for us. I also told Eric that by the time I get to the corner, ninety percent of the time, there is no hope. There is no appeal pending, as in Eric's case. All the appeals have been resolved prior to the day of his execution, and that's the norm. 
  •  Rarely the executions have a long hiatus, sometimes a stay, usually only to have thirty days pass, the guy gets another date, then we execute him, after having subjected him and his family to the terror of the day of the execution, we then stop it, 
  •  then we come back a month later, three months later, and do it all over again, and ultimately kill them. 
  •  So I tell Eric that by the time I get to the corner I have pretty much accepted that the execution is going to take place. 
  •  After I do my Hail Marys and my Our Fathers, Bob Dylan comes into my head. Joan Baez comes into my head singing an old Bob Dylan tune that people don't realize is a Bob Dylan tune, "I shall be released." 
  •  And I pray that the freedom that death is going to give the condemned is quick coming, that there isn't a long wait for them to be released, 
  •  and to be set free from what they've been condemned to in their lives and that there is a better life for them. 
  •  Those people I know who have contemplated their acts, whether they come to it through Allah or through Christ or through their own inner awareness, there's a forgiveness that's available for them. 
  •  And whether the family members of the victims can give it to them, is our responsibility. Their responsibility is with their creator, their maker, their higher power. And I think those that have come to that awareness, that sense of forgiveness, are ready. 
  •  Eric was. Eric didn't struggle.Eric tried very hard to give his victim's families a final statement. He wrote something but I don't know what it was. His attorney tried to give it to the father of the victim, and he refused to accept it through his attorneys. 
  •  Eric's attorneys tried to give, gave this letter to the warden and asked the warden if he would try to get the family to take it. I don't know if the family ever took it. 
  •  But in that letter was Eric's efforts to try to express his sorrow, and his responsibility, for what he did to them and what he did to their daughter that can never, ever be replaced. 
  •  I don't know where they are in terms of their willingness to accept anything. I know there was a period of time shortly after the murder and after the conviction and after the sentence, it was a horrible situation, complicated by the fact that Eric's victim was the daughter of the non-custodial parent who was at the house. 
  •  His parents had split up, I don't know if they were divorced or not, but she was with her father for the weekend. She was at her dad's house playing music and having fun when she was abducted, raped, murdered, and raped. 
  •  So there was a lot of— he must have just—I can't even begin to imagine the horror he feels about that. 
  •  He sued Eric's sister, the owner of the house, and tried to claim some kind of damages because he claimed that she should have known her brother was a pedophile and a potential murderer. He sued her for some monetary damages, and that suit went on for a year or so until finally he withdrew, 
  •  he non-sued it and pulled out of it because, I'm sure, all of that activity was eating him even further. 
  •  So he was there last night. I read in the newspaper that he and his father were in that room next to me. I don't know anyone else. But I know that he and his father were there. 
  •  I pray, I pray, I pray, that he was able to reach a conclusion, whether it was closure, or what it is, of that horror that he must feel, somehow, partially responsible for, because he was the custodial parent. 
  •  I'm a parent, and anything that happens to our kids, we are responsible for, whether we are or not. It's part of our soul. Part of the horror of the death penalty, I think, part of the violence of the death penalty, is that we don't really try to provide a sense of anything other than anger to rest in the hearts of the family members of the victims. The prosecuting attorneys need it; they need the family to be in the court; horrified, pained, and crying in order to get that conviction and in order to get that sentence. 
  •  I believe that as a civilized society we owe victims of violence and we owe the families of victims of violence more than killing as a response to what has happened to their loved one or to them. 
  •  And I don't think, as long as we have the death penalty, what we can promise them is, revenge, to the extent that this antiseptic, putting to sleep of the monster that took their daughter's life is at all revenge; I can't imagine that it was. 
  •  But that's what we promise them, and we do very little to quiet that until after the execution, and then I don't know what victims' services does for them. 
  •  But I know that up until the execution, there isn't very much that is available to help them work through that anger and that hurt and that terrible violence. 
  •  There have been some, only a couple of instances, where victim/offender conferences have taken place. Texas is careful to not call them victim/offender mediation meetings, 
  •  because they don't even pretend that mediating the anger is part of the goal. Their goal is to bring the offender into a room so that the victims can unload, and largely that's what happens. 
  •  There have been a couple of those that involved capital murderers, and one of the victim's families— In one of the instances there were multiple families, the case of Jonathan Noble where it was widely publicized, they publicized that a victim, that victim/offender conference with one of the mothers of one of the victims. 
  •  Jonathan Noble had several. He'd gone on a drug-induced murder spree in Austin and killed three, four, maybe five people. 
  •  And so one of the mothers agreed to do this victim/offender conference and it was on 20/20 or one of the magazine, news magazine shows, and again, that victim/offender conference was not about helping the mother come to a sense of release, but to give her an opportunity to confront her murderer, her victim's murderer. 
  •  Interestingly, as I recall from that moment, the mother left the conference session feeling a sense of release because she realized the monster who had killed her daughter was not a monster at all. 
  •  He was another person, he was another human being, he was someone else's son. That helped her give up some of the horror that she had associated with the murder of her daughter because she was able to see a human. 
  •  And Jonathan Noble was another one of those transformed people. What he did was monstrous, but who he was when we executed him, and who he was when this victim's mother confronted him, was a transformed, changed human being. 
  •  Jonathan Noble, his final words were singing the song, "Silent Night," and he didn't get through the first chorus before he stopped breathing. 
  •  So I'm not sure what else I have to say. I've kind of spoken and talked nonstop for what seems like four hours. 
  •  But I'm sure it wasn't so. I'm trying to think. One other point that I want to draw to our attention: we tend to think that the United States is alone in our use of the death penalty in modern, civilized worlds, 
  •  but more importantly we like, perhaps a lot of times think that we are the victims. We are the people who are experiencing either the horror of the crime and ultimate punishment, 
  •  or whether we're the people, the family members of the people that we're executing, who experienced the horror of their loved one being executed. 
  •  And we tend to think that it's a local issue. On almost every execution vigil, there are people from the international community who are there. 
  •  Last night, there was a woman there and I don't know her name, but she's been there several times. I recognize her face and she will be witnessing an execution coming up. She has been a pen pal to a man in Texas' death row who has a scheduled date, and he has asked her to come and witness. 
  •  She has been victimized by the brutality of the death penalty system, watching, time after time after time, people before her pen pal being executed and she now will be present at that execution. 
  •  It's not something that is only affecting that immediate circle of people involved, the family members of the victim, the family members of the alleged murderer, the lawyers and the judges. One of the things that I read in the paper prior to Eric's execution, the prosecuting attorney shared with the reporter how difficult it was for her to cross examine the pathologist who was describing the murder and rape of the corpse of the victim, 
  •  knowing that the family was behind her listening to that, how difficult that was for her. I can't imagine the trauma that we put functionaries through. 
  •  The prosecuting attorneys, I'm sure that they feel like what they're doing is justice, but even in the administration of justice, there's got to be a certain sense of our own humanity there that must come to play, 
  •  and I guess sentencing someone to life in prison is less inhumane than sentencing them to be executed. And I say I guess because some people ask me, "Longmire, when the death penalty gets abolished, what are you going to do? You're going to lose your cause." And I say immediately, No. There is another cause, and that has to do with the conditions of life in prison, whether you're serving life or whether you're serving ten years or two years. 
  •  What we do to people in prison is also horrific. I haven't joined that movement yet, because kind of in a Machiavellian kind of way, my research on attitudes about the death penalty shows me that there is a small group of people who support the abolition of the death penalty because they want to sentence these sons of bitches to a life of horror and terror. 
  •  And the death penalty is too easy: it's an easy way out. So they support getting rid of the death penalty, which I support, so I want everybody I can testifying before the legislature, saying, "Do away with the death penalty," 
  •  because they think it's going to be more torturous to keep these people alive and subject them to the horror of imprisonment. 
  •  My hope is that we can humanely and with compassion, manage the lives of these people that we decide we need to contain for an appreciably long period of time, but that we still give them a sense of hope. 
  •  A sentence to hopelessness is dangerous because certainly if somebody has lost any hope, they may become those monsters that we think they are. 
  •  As it stands, even if what you're looking for is the hope of being able to have a visit from your loved one once a week, or the hope to receive mail from your sister; if we have that hope available, people respond. 
  •  They act like humans. But if we isolate them and treat them like animals, and put them in cages, sometimes they become animals, and they do fling their feces at the correctional officers, 
  •  the prison guards who come to handcuff them and strip search them so they can take them to take a shower, with no sense of compassion, and sometimes, I know, with a sense of brutality. 
  •  If that's what we're subjecting these people to, the death penalty is a release; it is better than the rest of their life under those kind of conditions. 
  •  When we do away with the death penalty, I hope we don't sentence everyone convicted of a capital crime to life on death row because that wouldn't be life as we experience it. 
  •  There was a time, prior to 1990-something, when the prisoners were moved from the Ellis Unit, when death row was moved from Ellis Unit to the Polunsky Unit. 
  •  Prior to that, people served – and Eric Nenno spent some of his time on the Ellis Unit – and while prisoners were serving death sentences on the Ellis Unit, there was a community environment. 
  •  First of all, the cellblock on the Ellis Unit was cells with bars and the inmates could have a mirror, and they could see the inmates in the cell beside them. They could talk to them. 
  •  They could literally have an interaction with people immediately beside them. More importantly, there was a work-eligible status that death penalty- that Death Row inmates could earn. 
  •  By conforming to the rules and by not being a management problem, they could become eligible to work in the garment factory, where all of the prison uniforms are manufactured, and they could work two shifts. 
  •  They work two, six-hour shifts, so for a period of time Eric Nenno worked in the Ellis Unit, and he worked first in the garment factory for twelve hours a day, and there were people from all over death row on the garment factory. 
  •  So they had interaction with one another. He also worked as a medication technician, or a mail technician. So after he did his twelve-hour shift in the garment factory, 
  •  he would then walk through death row, giving people mail or giving them their medicine or whatever it was that had to be given to them in their cells. 
  •  So there was a sense of community, a sense of humanity. There was a reason for the death row inmates to act like humans, because if they didn't they would gradually lose those privileges until they would be locked up in an isolation cell, which was very rare in the Ellis Unit. 
  •  When they moved the Death Row inmates from the Ellis Unit, they no longer had the garment factory. They moved them to, what at time was called the Terrell Unit, in Livingston, Texas. 
  •  Charles Terrell, the building had been named after him. The building had been constructed fairly recently, prior to that date, sometime in the late 1990s. 
  •  They moved death row from the Ellis Unit to the Terrell Unit for two reasons. 
  •  First of all, they were already planning to move them because they were running out of space. 
  •  The cell space available in Ellis was not adequate to hold as many as four hundred inmates, so they knew that they were going to have some problems as death row continued to grow. So they were running out of space, but more importantly, there had been an escape from Death Row. 
  •  Several inmates hatched their escape plan working in the garment factory, interacting with one another. 
  •  They actually escaped, and several of them got out of Death Row. Whether they got out of the prison and how far they were and whether they were alive when they got out of the prison is questionable. 
  •  One of them they found later floating in the Trinity River, wrapped in newspapers. He had wrapped himself in newspapers to be able to get over the hurricane wire that they got through. 
  •  So one of them got out. I think all the others were captured before they got out of the prison, but they were out of death row—created a huge security problem. 
  •  So there was no question that whatever happened, whether they moved them from Ellis or they didn't, they were going to have some much more severe restrictions. 
  •  So what happened, they decided to go ahead and move them to the Terrell Unit. When they did, and when they moved them to the Terrell Unit, they put them on twenty-four-hour isolation shutdown. 
  •  The inmates then—the Terrell Unit had been constructed with the expectation that they would be housing extraordinarily young, violent offenders; most of the violence that occurs in prison is committed by young offenders. 
  •  Many of them come in for burglary, for drug possession or for distribution, but they're young, scared, and feel like they have to prove themselves, so they act out violently. 
  •  So they had this wing, special wing, that they had built and designed for high-security segregation cells. That's where— that's now Death Row. 
  •  That's now where men spend their time waiting to be executed. 
  •  It was the Terrell Unit, named after Charles Terrell, who was a mover and shaker in the criminal justice community from Dallas, and he'd been on the Criminal Justice Board prior to that, and it was customary to name new prisons after board members. 
  •  So they had named Terrell Unit. Shortly after death row was transferred from the Ellis Unit to the Terrell Unit, Charles Terrell notified the Texas Board of Prisons, or whatever they call themselves, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 
  •  he notified that board that he didn't want his name associated with death row. 
  •  He said, "I'm not opposed to the death penalty and I'm not out here telling you I don't support the death penalty, but I don't like my name associated with that kind of prison conditions, with the death row." 
  •  So Charles Terrell requested that his name be removed from the prison. Immediately, another Dallas-based criminal justice mover and shaker, Polunsky, I don't know his first name, but somebody Polunsky steps forward and says, "Name it after me." 
  •  Interestingly, they did, but I say interestingly because I think it was in 1936 when the first execution took place in Huntsville, Texas. 
  •  Prior to then all executions were a county function and people who were convicted of murder were hanged from a tree, or some other structure in the courthouse square where they were convicted. And sometimes they were hanged within days after their conviction. Texas was concerned about the high rate of quick executions so they passed a law that required that all executions take place at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, and at that time they substituted hanging with the electric chair. So they did that. They moved and required that all executions be held in Huntsville, Texas. 
  •  The person who was the warden at the Walls Unit at the time of the first executions were scheduled, the first electrocutions were scheduled, refused to carry them out. He said, "I can't be the warden of a reformatory," which is what they were called at the time, "and a killer at the same time. I can't be the warden of a reformatory and a killer, and so I can't carry out the execution." 
  •  He was fired. A former sheriff from Dallas said, "I can do it," and they immediately swore him in, made him the director, the warden of the Walls Unit, 
  •  so that a week or two later, the first executions in the state of Texas in Huntsville— the first electrocutions took place. 
  •  I don't remember the number, I think six, maybe five, young Black males were electrocuted the same day. 
  •  And so the Huntsville saga began with a Dallas replacement not unlike the Polunsky saga did. 
  •  I asked Eric, I had heard word from people who visited people on Death Row that the transfer of the inmates from the Ellis Unit to the Polunsky Unit was horrible, that the prison system was embarrassed there had been an escape from Death Row, even though they captured the guys and even though one of them was dead. 
  •  They were embarrassed and I had heard that there was retaliation taken against the men that they were transporting from Ellis to Polunsky. 
  •  And I asked Eric what had happened. He said whether there was retaliation or not he didn't know because he couldn't get into the hearts of the people who were there, but that they were certainly treated unkindly. 
  •  They were certainly strip searched, and Eric wore glasses, and all of their belongings were taken off of them, including the glasses, and they were put into a paper bag and they were treated very brutally while they were transferred from the Ellis to the Polunsky Unit, so much so that they broke the sidebar of his glasses. 
  •  All the way up to his execution he wore his glasses, but he only had one of the earpieces, so one of them is missing. 
  •  But his glasses were never repaired. He doesn't know if it was intentional, or accidental, but acknowledged that there was some harsh management and some harsh handling. 
  •  He also heard that several of the more recalcitrant inmates who were in the Ellis Unit and transferred to the Polunsky Unit were treated quite brutally during their transport. He didn't acknowledge that it was intentional, but did acknowledge that there was very, very little compassion shown in that transport process. 
  •  I like to believe that most of the people that work in the prison system, and especially the ones that work on Death Row, don't feel like it's their responsibility to torment the men. 
  •  Any torment of prisoners only creates security problems for everybody, especially the correctional officers, the prison guards. So it's not widely encouraged among the culture of the prison guards, and I know that as a former prison guard. 
  •  Prior to going to graduate school, I worked as a prison guard in Maryland, and so I remember being cautioned that we don't agitate prisoners because they are really the ones in control, and if they decide they want to take control of a facility, they're going to get control for a period of time before we get it back, 
  •  and we don't want an Attica, where when the prisoners take over the first thing they did was identify prison guards and they beheaded them; they decapitated them, for the way they had been treated. 
  •  So prison guards, as a rule, aren't encouraged to torment the people that they're managing, but I think some of them do it, and I don't know that they are consciously aware that they are doing it. 
  •  I hear horror stories from people who visit regularly inmates on death row that talk about some of the prison guards intentionally humiliating them and intentionally subjecting them to horrific kinds of treatment. 
  •  I hope the prison system is able to manage and weed those people out, but it's hard to hire a correctional officer these days. 
  •  I don't know what the system capacity is right now, but at many times we are as many as thirty percent understaffed for prison guards. 
  •  That puts a burden on everyone. Trying to recruit prison guards is a high priority, and then trying to train them and keep them, keep them and manage good prison guards is a very, very difficult task. 
  •  SOLIS: Thank you, Dr. Longmire. We've learned a lot. Is there anything else you think you might want to say that might be important for the public record concerning the death penalty? 
  •  PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: I guess that given the title of your project the After Violence Project, that we don't forget that even this sterile, antiseptic lethal injection, that looks so un-violent, is violent, and I think that it is the most horrific kind of violence because it appears to be so sterile. 
  •  And I don't think that is how we are programmed as humans. I don't think that we're supposed to take another person's life without some sense of remorse or some sorrow that has to come from a human moan or the wail and cry of someone. 
  •  But for it to take place in silence and in this medical type of sterility doesn't do any of us justice. I think it's a horror that we are ultimately going to be accountable for. 
  •  As a Catholic, I believe in collective judgment. I don't know how other faith systems built this in, but I believe that when we are ultimately judged, we aren't judged only by the actions that we take, but by the actions of those around us. And I stand on the corner and I will continue to stand on the corner because I know that at some point in time I will be able to say, "I witnessed it, and I worked as hard as I could to stop it." 
  •  Both on individual levels, I have continued to do expert testimony in capital cases after my initial experience with Eric, I've probably testified in over thirty. 
  •  I don't keep a record and I don't know how many of them got life and how many of them got death, and I don't want to do that tally. 
  •  But I continue to work on individual levels and I continue to work on a spiritual level with prayer to try to stop the killing. 
  •  And the killing is not only the murder of the victim but the killing of our spirit as a people that takes place as soon as we name them capital murderers and begin the process, the formal, legal process to certify them as such through the trial and ultimate decision. 
  •  I know and hope that you are interviewing people that have served on capital juries. I cannot imagine what happens in their souls. 
  •  I had one person, after I testified in a case in Houston, and I talked. 
  •  I usually will answer questions with— when I'm there, in an expert capacity, I'm there as an educative witness. 
  •  I don't do science that shows blood chemistries, etcetera. I'm trying to provide the jury with as much information as possible about the prison system and what's likely to happen if the person doesn't get the death penalty as I possibly can. 
  •  And so I talk sometimes and usually with the prosecution. If the prosecution asks me a question, I then try to take every opportunity to expand, and that's usually when I bring in discussion about this brutalization effect that I talked about, because sometimes they'll ask me about the deterrent effect, and I'll immediately say, 
  •  "Well, you know, there's a body of literature that says we might be actually increasing violence rather than decreasing it when we sentence this person to death." 
  •  And I talk about that brutalization literature. I acknowledge that it's speculative, that it's not an answer; it's science, and science is constantly changing. But I talk about the brutalization effect, and I got an email letter, an email after the trial from the person who was actually the foreman of that jury. 
  •  That jury ended up sentencing that person to life in prison. I got a letter from the jury foreman who himself was a transplant from Wisconsin, which doesn't have a death penalty. 
  •  And I would have thought, if I were picking him, this is a good person because he's going to be anti-death penalty if we get him on the jury. 
  •  Well, it turns out he wasn't; he was very pro-death penalty, and he lost the argument. He ended up losing the argument. 
  •  He argued that we should execute this guy. He sent me an email, and he said, "You know, I need to follow up. I need to let you know your testimony was very powerful, it was very informative, and I appreciated it. 
  •  And I'm curious. If I would have been more informed about that brutalization issue, I might have taken the side of the majority, the side that he not be executed." 
  •  And so he asked me for citations, and I was able to continue a correspondence with him for a couple of months to get him into that literature. I haven't heard from him since then, but I know from that discussion, from that interaction, juries take this issue very, very seriously. 
  •  They very, very seriously do. And to subject the jury to that kind of violence, I think is inhumane, and unconscionable, and unnecessary.All we have to do is adjudicate them guilty and then sentence them to life in prison, whatever that means. 
  •  Twenty years is a long time, and I think long enough. Forty years, most of these, the average— What we know about prison, the average life a person will spend in prison is less than twenty years. 
  •  They die. It's a very stressful environment. They don't necessarily get killed; they die from heart failure. 
  •  They die because it's such a horribly stressful position. If you're there for twenty years or longer, you're on borrowed time anyway. A forty-year sentence is natural life. 
  •  A life sentence is life, and there's a case involving Tookie Williams, an inmate who was sentenced to death in California. California, unlike Texas, executes relatively few people. 
  •  Like Texas, California sentences a lot of people to death. So Death Row in California and Texas are about the same size. 
  •  In California, they execute very rarely. Tookie Williams was one of the people we did execute. 
  •  We – California—executed a couple of years ago; maybe it was last year. Tookie Williams spent a long time on Death Row. 
  •  He was one of the founders of the Crips, or the Bloods— one of the big street gangs, and he was responsible for a number of killings. 
  •  He converted himself in prison from a gang member to an anti-gang advocate. 
  •  While he was on death row in prison, Tookie Williams wrote a series of children's' books and conducted a series of video conferences with children in California's school system discouraging them from going into gang activity and becoming gang members like himself. 
  •  As a result of that, Tookie Williams was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize one year prior to his execution. He had hope, and he did good things while he was serving, for all intents and purposes, a life prison sentence.So if we give prisoners, and capital murderers in particular, a sense of hope, they might be able to do some good to help educate people about the horrors of violent crime and perhaps even do some better good by reducing violent crime just through their example. 
  •  "Look at me. I'm here for the rest of my natural life. I can't decide what to watch on television; if I get to watch television, it's decided for me."People don't realize prison is a harsh, harsh time. There's a horrible misperception among the public that they are, that they get to play basketball, they get to do things. The day starts for virtually every prisoner in Texas at three o'clock in the morning, when they are awakened and told they have to feed. 
  •  They have to feed them all breakfast before they can start feeding them lunch and they've got to feed them all lunch before they can start feeding them dinner. 
  •  So they start breakfast at three in the morning so they can finish in time to start lunch at ten, so they can finish in order to start dinner at four so they can get them to bed before eight. 
  •  Prison is not easy, no matter how good you've got it. Even if you're a trusty, managing the warden's lawn outside of the Walls Unit, prison is tough, and it's not a nice place. 
  •  So life in prison is not life. It's something less than, but we've got to give them hope that they'll either be able to be released and come back to the community and be law abiding citizens, 
  •  or they'll be able to do something productive for themselves and for the good of the community while they're incarcerated. 
  •  Without that hope, we've lost all sense of humanity, and so I think the next move will be, when we do away with the death penalty, is trying to humanize life in prison for people who we do decide need to be locked up. 
  •  GABRIEL SOLIS: Virginia, do you have any questions? 
  •  VIRGINIA RAYMOND: I do have a couple. First of all, thank you very much. This has been extremely informative, and I very much appreciate you sharing so much of what you know with us, so thank you. 
  •  PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: You're welcome. 
  •  RAYMOND: I do have a couple of questions. The first one is, I was very struck by, and I did not realize until we met this morning, that your wife is involved in the hospice movement. 
  •  And my understanding of the hospice movement is that it's to allow people to die with dignity. That's one of the goals [inaudible] and so I wonder about the commonalities, if you and your wife see them, between both of your individual work; if you could talk a little about that. 
  •  PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: It's interesting, and you're right; it's not something that's public. I mean it is, and Linda doesn't hide from it. As I said, Lin did an interview trying to encourage it. 
  •  And interestingly, Lin's approach to hospice is not that it's about letting people die with dignity; it's about helping them live to the very end of their life with dignity. 
  •  The death penalty and hospice is not necessarily about death; it's about living, and it's about how we can manage to help people live, 
  •  and more importantly, help family members of those who know that their loved one is on their last steps toward death, 
  •  on their last steps of life, how we can continue to remain ourselves having dignity and be able to help them have dignity. 
  •  We've talked about this issue and my vigils on the corner, because in essence I'm the hospice worker on the corner who is trying to give dignity to the people who are ultimately being executed. 
  •  Lin helps the family members, and very, very, very beautifully helps the people who are in their last stages of life be able to live those last moments and those last seconds without a sense of humility and without being treated as objects. 
  •  My sense is most of the people who take hospice into their lives do so because they don't want the last moments of their loved one's lives to be spent under a machine, with the sterile lights, and with this sound that is usually a breathing machine or something going on, and then it stops, and then they wait. 
  •  That's what the execution was last night. It was that experience. It was a sterile, surgical environment with a bright light shining and no sound. 
  •  If you will, after the warden spoke the words, "Everything is ready," the machine, the breathing machine stopped, and there was no sound until the physician pronounced death. 
  •  I had a conversation with my grandson, Phoenix, who is fifteen. 
  •  Last night he asked me what happened, and he asked me to explain it to him. 
  •  And while I was explaining it to him I told him just what I told you; after the warden spoke the words, "Everything is ready, everything can proceed," the next word that we heard was, "Six-twenty." 
  •  And so he said, "Well, what did that mean?"And I said, "That's the time of death." 
  •  He said, "Well, how do you know? How do you know he wasn't already dead a minute before or two minutes before? 
  •  How do you know? How do we know when they die?" 
  •  And I said, "The moment of death becomes formal when the physician names it." 
  •  And he's struggling with that. "But how do we know? Shouldn't we know? Shouldn't we be able to say the second that that life ended?" 
  •  And it's hard, and I don't know. I don't know the answer. 
  •  I don't even know when we stop living. I know when our heat stops and that's kind of what we define as death. 
  •  I also know that if that physician had started cardiac pulmonary resuscitation, that we could have brought Eric back to life, except for the chemicals that were pulsing through his body that we sent there because he wasn't ready to die; we were ready to have him dead. 
  •  And so the issues around those last moments of life are certainly shared between Lin and myself. 
  •  When I came to—Lin's a Texan—so when I came to Texas I was enlightened and happy to learn Lin was against the death penalty. 
  •  She didn't have a firm sense of why, but she was Catholic and I'm certain that helped her, and so it's easy for a Catholic to say, "Well, the church has said it's bad so we're not gonna do it," 
  •  even though as I said, the Ladies of St. Thomas haven't quite captured the meaning of pro-life, but Lin was pro-life in all ways. 
  •  And so we were symbiotic in that regard. 
  •  She didn't begin her hospice work until probably two years ago.But part of that, one of the things that Lin would bristle at was when I would come back from an execution. Sometimes she would say, "Did they do it?" and I would say, "No, we did."So whenever I talk to my students about executions I say, "We are executing," or "We executed."Sometimes, and Lin did this with me, she said, "What do you mean we; I wasn't there." 
  •  I'll say, "Oh yeah we were. We were all party to it. Every one of us, especially every one of us in Texas, and every one of us in Huntsville is closer in proximity to it, and we have maybe more of a moral responsibility to own it as something we have done."And so she kind of bristled at that "we." She still— she accepts it now. 
  •  Students don't like it at all. They always want "them" to have executed, that third party, and usually it's "them" with great authority, and I try to challenge that. 
  •  And that's part of the dignity that gets lost, the dignity of the person we are killing gets lost because it's "them" who's doing it, it's not us. 
  •  And so "they" are doing it in our name, or for us, so they are willing maybe to own that part of it. 
  •  But would you be the one to push that plunger in the syringe, or would you be the one to insert that catheter of your mother, who's getting ready to die? 
  •  Maybe not by execution, but because she's got emphysema and can't breathe on her own? 
  •  I wouldn't, and the hospice movement helps us learn that it's not about death, it's about life, and how to preserve dignity for all the people we can in those last moments of life. 
  •  Fortunately, the hospice movement isn't about killing them.The prison, the execution chamber is, and the people who— the workers in the system, everyone from the technician who inserts the catheters, 
  •  to that physician who comes in at the very, very end and pronounces death, 
  •  they're functionaries in that process who are expediting the end of life. 
  •  They've got a hard, hard moral issue to deal with. And if you get a chance to talk to—there's a, and I hope you've been in contact with him, I don't know his name. 
  •  I can find it out for you if you haven't—but one of the men who was part of the tie-down team for Karla Tucker, a correctional officer who had prior to that participated in a hundred executions, had a nervous breakdown shortly after Karla Tucker's execution. 
  •  And that nervous breakdown was partly a result of his awareness of all those people he had helped kill. 
  •  And so if his experience is common, we've created more victims than just simply the victims of the persons we've killed and the family members of the persons we've killed, 
  •  but also all of the people in the prison system who have helped make that process happen. 
  •  Hospice workers know it's happening. They—death is part of life. 
  •  It's not about anti-death; it's about pro-life, and how we can keep the dignity for those who are dying as present as possible up to that last moment? 
  •  RAYMOND: Thank you very much. I wonder [do you mind if I ask you two more things?] 
  •  Watch Video 1, Video 2, , Video 4, Video 5, Video 6of "Interview with Professor Dennis Longmire." 
 
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Title:Interview with Dennis Longmire
Abstract: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.
Sequence:3 of 6
Creators:
  • Dennis LongmireRole: Narrator
  • Texas After Violence ProjectRole: Collaborator
Contributors:
  • Gabriel Daniel SolisRole: Interviewer
  • Virginia Marie RaymondRole: Videographer
  • Jorge Antonio RenaudRole: Transcriber
  • Virginia Marie RaymondRole: Proofreader
  • Kimberly Ambrosini-BaconRole: Proofreader
Publishers:Texas After Violence Project
University of Texas Libraries
Date Created:2008/10/29
Languages:eng
Geographic Focus:North America--United States--Texas
Geographic Base:North America--United States--Texas--Austin
Type of Resource:Moving image
Genre:Interview
Identifier:tav00032
Rights:
    This electronic resource is made available by the University of Texas Libraries solely for the purposes of research, teaching and private study. All intellectual property rights are retained by the legal copyright holders. The University of Texas does not hold the copyright to the content of this file. Formal permission to reuse or republish this content must be obtained from the copyright holder.

 

 

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