Interview with Dennis Longmire

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Table of Contents 
  •  Eric Nenno's Execution and Standing on the Corner 
  •  The Corner outside the Executions: Protests, Vigils, Witnessing 
  •  Gloria Rubac's Activism 
  •  Murder vs. Homicides: What to Call Executions 
  •  The Scene Outside the Execution 
  •  The Multiple Purposes of Witnessing an Execution and the Change from Midnight to 6PM Executions 
  •  The Hospitality House 
  •  The Role of the Chaplains at Executions and the Hospitality House 
 
Transcript 
  •  RAYMOND: Last night was the first time any of the three of us had been to a vigil in Huntsville. And we met Gloria [Rubac] who I had corresponded with briefly via email several months ago. Gloria had told us that you had asked her to make sure to be there, or at least to try to be there, even if she lives in Houston because Eric really wanted somebody to be on the corner, and in fact if you, if there was nobody else he wanted you on the corner rather than witnessing his execution. Is that-? 
  •  PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: Yes. Interesting. Let me— I'll give you in context. I'll talk first about that and then I'll back up to Gloria and something that also happened last night. When I talked to Eric, and told Eric — and I first asked who he had listed on his witness list, and he told me his sister and his attorneys, two different spiritual advisors who had corresponded with him over his long term of confinement, who had also come to visit him; they were all on his list. And I said, Good, so there will be someone there with you.And he said, "Well, no, my sister and her husband are not going to witness. I prefer that they not see this. 
  •  They will come visit me for the long weekend visits that they give prior to an execution, and then they're gonna go home back to their home." He said, "My body will be cremated and the ashes will be transported to her and then later at some time she will take them and spread them in a small property in Pennsylvania where we grew up and it is the best time I can remember in my life. 
  •  "So," he said, "They won't be there." And I said, What about the spiritual advisors? He said, "Well, it's a very long trip. One of them is in Florida, one of them is in France. I know they won't be coming." 
  •  And I said, What about your attorneys?He said, "Well, I don't think they'll be coming either." So I said, Oh, Eric, if it's possible to get on the list, I will come. I will be happy to come. And then I stopped. I don't mean happy, but I will come. He said, "I appreciate that, but," he said, "I'm concerned. I know you do a vigil outside, and I know that vigil is an important part of the death penalty movement, the anti-death penalty movement." He said, "I want someone to be present, witnessing from the outside what's happening." 
  •  I said, "I'm sure there will be someone else there, I promise, and if there isn't someone else there, I think someone should be in here witnessing, personally, whether there is someone outside on the corner or not. 
  •  So I would prefer to be here with you, even if the corner is vacant and absent of anybody." 
  •  And he said, "I appreciate that, and I really do appreciate that and certainly you can come to witness, but, if there isn't going to be anyone out there, I would prefer for you to be out there than in here. 
  •  Because there's going to be more impact with your presence out there." 
  •  Subsequently, I learned from his two attorneys that they did plan to witness. I don't know when they did make that decision, and so had I not, had there not been anyone on the corner I very — I would have stayed on the corner rather than going inside because there would have been two witnesses: the two attorneys who worked on his appeal case. I don't organize a vigil. 
  •  I go to the corner at five o'clock prior to every execution and I do whatever happens there and then I go home and pray. 
  •  Sometimes I come home and get my guitar out and sing, "I shall be released." So, that's another part of my ritual. That's what I would have done in Eric's execution had there been noone able to be there. 
  •  I had previously corresponded with Gabe and I knew you guys were planning to come. There was also previously to this going to be a film crew from the National Geographic crew that's doing a documentary. 
  •  So I had this hopeful thought in my mind that you all would be there and/or they would be they so there would be someone there even if the three of us were not able to, any one of us was not able to be on the corner. 
  •  I also had written a note to Gloria, because Gloria is one of the people who has been regularly involved in the anti-death penalty movement and I say that with emphasis because I'm not a hundred percent sure they're pro-life. 
  •  But I know they're anti-death penalty and I expect they're pro-choice but I don't know. I never talk politics much with the people on the corner. Gloria Rubac has been at vigils at the corner periodically for the last twenty years. 
  •  I've seen her there, oh, dozens of times. In fact, early in the process of my vigils, I was serving as a consultant to the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement. 
  •  And we were executing at midnight at that time, and during the period of the executions, Gloria would often show up with a bullhorn, with that megaphone, and she would start doing chants. 
  •  And she would start chanting, "Huntsville, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Huntsville, Buchenwald, Auschwitz. You in the grey shirts; you're murderers tonight. George Bush is a serial killer." 
  •  And she was doing a lot of agitative type of demonstrations, which I think is useful in some form of demonstration. I don't think it's useful on the corner of where we're conducting the executions because there isn't anybody there except us and the prison workers. 
  •  There's very, very rarely a crowd of anybody. And as you know now, where it's situated, it's not like we're on a highly public corner, where people are going to hear us and suddenly say, "Oh yeah, I forgot I was against the death penalty." 
  •  So it's not a really productive venue for a bullhorn. At least I didn't think.Other people, and as a consultant to the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, I asked them, What do you think about the bullhorn? And everybody immediately said, "It's agitating andirritating and we don't like it." 
  •  And so, Gloria was a member of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, and so she was approached and she was encouraged to continue coming up to the protests, to the anti-death penalty protests, that they were encouraging, but she was told not to use the bullhorn, that the bullhorn was not only irritating to the other people on the corner, but it was offensive to the witnesses who were proceeding in. 
  •  Sometimes the family members of the victims would be subject to this anti-death penalty rant that was being chanted, about Buchenwald and Auschwitz and George Bush, and it didn't, I'm sure, make any sense to them at all, but I suspect it was agitating to the family members of the victims. 
  •  I don't know about the family members of the condemned and what they felt about it, but she was asked not to do the bullhorn. 
  •  Gloria, in her wonderful wisdom, said, "Okay, I won't do it as a member of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement. Instead, I hereby declare that I am the founder of the Anti-Death Penalty Movement in Texas." 
  •  So there's— so she started a whole new protest group. And she shows up periodically. Recently, she's been coming for every execution because apparently there's a radio station down in Houston that is broadcasting what they call Deathwatch, 
  •  so some time in June they announced they were going to have a broadcast from the corner of the death house for every execution for the remainder of this year. 
  •  And so I guess it started in June, when Texas again began executing again after the brief hiatus, and Gloria has been up for every one of those, except one, where I had agreed to be the voice form the corner. 
  •  Two, I think, I had agreed to be the voice on the corner. I think Gloria had other commitments.But all of the times Gloria has come up, both in the recent vigils that she's coming up very regularly, and also the previous ones, she brings her bullhorn and she does these chants and these confrontational kind of broadcasts. 
  •  I don't believe myself that confrontational protest is productive. 
  •  What you end up seeing, if you ever see any footage about the death penalty on television in Texas, you will often see Gloria with a bullhorn, shouting something that I think is insane, calling the governor of Texas a serial murderer, calling what's taking place murder 
  •  I think is offensive to people who have been victims of murder, who prosecute murder, because it's homicide, it's not murder. It certainly would be appropriate to call it a homicide. 
  •  In fact, until the last legislative session, if you'll look at the death certificate of the people who have been executed, the cause of death has been listed as homicide. The victims' rights group movement down in Houston got offended by that and they petitioned, and during the last legislative session they passed legislation that now calls what we do "Judicially Imposed Execution," or something like that. 
  •  It's no longer homicide. If you look at the World Health Organization's statistics for Walker County, you'll see that Walker County has one of the highest rates of homicide in Texas. 
  •  Well, that's because historically, every execution has been called a homicide, and the World Health Organization looks at the death certificate and sees homicide, and says, "We've got another one in Huntsville." So, it's clearly a homicide, it's not a murder, and it's offensive in many regards to call it that. It's offensive, I think, because I think an execution is even more repugnant than a murder. Most murders are impulses that happen, like Eric's murder. The murder that he committed was not something that he predetermined and deliberated on. Most murders are, in fact, acts of an explosive passion or a sense of fear when somebody is robbing a grocery store and something goes wrong; that's murder. 
  •  Most of them aren't these pre-calculated, anticipated murders that you do sometimes hear about. Most of them are less anticipated. And so Gloria was asked not to do the bullhorn. She's an American citizen and doesn't have to listen to the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement any more, since she's not a member, so she's there and she does do that. I've talked to her about it. She gives me a hard time often because I won't hold signs. I go there with a candle, and it's a prayer candle, that's very common among the ethnic community in the Catholic Church. I light a candle and I have a silent prayer. Some other people who attend fairly regularly are also Catholic and they will move to the side and they will do a circle of Rosaries, and a circle of prayer after the witnesses go in. 
  •  Other people are there for all of their own reasons. When Gloria's there, she's there chanting. Some people think it's a good feel, I don't particularly like it. 
  •  I find it irritating and offensive. But there is almost always, as long as I'm around, there is a presence on the corner. Most of the time, there are seven people, sometimes three. The execution that we conducted immediately after Hurricane Ike, I was the only person on the corner, not surprisingly, and I've been the only person on the corner – if I've been to three -hundred and seventy – I've been the only person there for maybe fifteen, maybe twenty. 
  •  When they were at midnight was more common for me to be the only person there. When we started doing them at six o'clock, there's usually a student or somebody who shows up, or somebody who comes. Sometimes I call them accidental tourists. Sometimes somebody will drive by and then they'll drive by again, then drive by, and I'll see them looking at me, and the next thing I know they've parked their car and they'll walk up and they'll say, "What's going on?" And I'll say, Well, we're having an execution and we're killing somebody, and I'll always know who's being executed. 
  •  I always know a little bit about their crime. Sometimes I learn about that execution the day of the execution. I get the information from the Internet. My opposition to the death penalty isn't about any particular case; it's about the death penalty. 
  •  But I always make it a point to know who's being executed. I know them by name. I know their victim or victims of their execution by name, and in my prayers their names become very present. I then have people ask, like I say, the accidental tourist will say, "What's going on?" 
  •  Sometimes there are people who are there in support of the execution. They will stand off to the side. Very infrequently will they come over and interact with me or anyone else who's under there, who's around that area. 
  •  Normally where I stand is not up by the yellow tape that you saw, but there's a dump station, a big septic dump station that's across the street, and on that corner there' a stop sign, and there's a little, black, iron gate/guard/fence, so that you don't walk up on this dump station. 
  •  I normally stand there. I stand there for two reasons. One, it's the place where all the execution vigils have taken place since I've been going. 
  •  The second reason is that from that angle, people in the Walls unit, inmates in the Walls Unit, can look out over the window and look down and see you. 
  •  If you go across the street and you're near that yellow tape, nobody, they can't see. And so I think there's a certain sense of solidarity that I feel for the men in the Walls Unit. 
  •  None of them are in there for capital punishment. None of them are doing long-term prison time, I doubt, but there's a sense of solidarity with those who have been thrown away, I suppose, that I feel. So I stand there. And whenever Gloria gives me a hard time for not carrying a sign, I simply say, "The state put one up for me," and I point to the stop sign. And that's the only sign, I think, that needs to be said. All we need to do is stop, and I don't think we're going to stop by calling the governor a serial murderer, or calling the people in gray shirts murderers. 
  •  The people in gray shirts are the prison guards. I wrote an article for the Huntsville Item a long time ago, and the purpose of that article was to explain my presence on the corner. 
  •  And in that article I explained to them that I don't consider the prison guards or Huntsville residents any more responsible for the killings than myself, but that I think we are all collectively responsible, and that all of us, whether we support it or whether we oppose it, ought to be out there where it's happening to witness it because it's happening in our name, and we've got responsibility for it. 
  •  RAYMOND: I have — I still want to follow this up. This is very interesting. You're from Maryland and an Anne Tyler fan, perhaps, and that term, "accidental tourist," I've not heard in any other context except her novel, so I recognized it. 
  •  PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: I know I'd have to give her rights whenever I publish, but I'll certainly give a footnote. 
  •  RAYMOND: Yeah. She's a wonderful writer. You've alluded to, and I've put together an [inaudible] the meaning of witnessing inside versus witnessing outside to you, but maybe you could say what those two things mean to you and perhaps to Eric as well. 
  •  PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: Okay. I'll do it by returning to the issue of hospice and the last moment of death; that last breath the person takes who is dying, a very natural process. I believe that as humans we are comforted by the presence of another human, another person, amongst us. Whether that person is touching us or whether that person is separated from us by a double-lined Plexiglass window with bars between it, there's a presence there. And there's a presence there that is more profound than the presence of the people, the dignitaries, the officials.One of the things that hospice is able to do, if it's an effective hospice process, 
  •  is encourage the family members of the people who are dying to be present in that moment of death, to be physically present. 
  •  Sometimes the people die in the middle of the night, but there is always a nurse. There is always someone in the physical contact of the— in the presence of the person who is passing. They are witnessing their transition. 
  •  And that's the internal witness, that's the inside witness that I believe Eric, and I truly believe, Eric needed. I don't think that Eric felt he needed it, but I think he needed, I think we needed for there to be an internal witness there who was not oppositional to the creature that was being put down. 
  •  I've talked to prison workers before who'd say— they won't ask me, "Are you going to the execution tonight?" 
  •  Or they won't say to me, "There was an execution last night, was there?" They'll say to me, "We put another one down, didn't we?" And that's like talking about them as if they're not human, and that's offensive. 
  •  And so I think if there's an internal witness, if there had been no one outside of the prison, there needed to be someone inside of that building to witness the passing of Eric's life, and someone who's capable of, if not objective indifference, someone who's not there with a vengeance and with a celebration of the passing of his life. 
  •  And I don't know what's in the hearts of those who witnessed for the victim, but I suspect many times that's where they are. They are so angry and so hurt still that they're celebrating the passing, and that's not the presence, that's not the witness that I think we need. When I told Eric that I wanted to be there, that I needed to be there if there wasn't going to be anyone else witnessing, that's what I meant: that there needs to be someone there. 
  •  One of my former friends, a member of our church, I say former—one of my friends, the brother of the man who lives in the house right beside me—for years worked as the correctional officer who transported, who escorted, the witnesses for the condemned from the Walls Unit, from the administration building into the execution. 
  •  And he stood in that witness room with them. Catholic, very, very much opposed to the death penalty, and he always said to me, I asked him, "How can you do this, knowing what we're doing?" 
  •  And he said, "It's going to happen. We can't stop it. And I believe there should be someone there who is praying for the soul of the man we're killing. 
  •  There should be someone there who is compassionately concerned about his life even if it's only me."And so he was able to reconcile that functionary role, serving a function for the people who are on the other side of that issue, of that particular execution.On the corner, I am witnessing as a representative of us, of us as a human species, of us who are disconnected in a larger way from what's really happening, but very, very, very responsible for it- more immediately responsible for it than anyone in that prison is. 
  •  Even the prison workers, as humans and citizens in a state that continues to elect, continues to support elected officials who pursue this culture of death, which the death penalty is a product of, it's a part of— if we continue to reinforce this culture of death as citizens, 
  •  we are undermining our own humanity, and I guess I have this sense, I'll tell it in another macabre joke, and I thought about this yesterday. 
  •  The chaplain who was sitting with us, sat with us — I was asked to be at the Hospitality House, which is a facility that is available for people visiting inmates in the prison system who can't afford hotels, and it makes a special accommodation for the nights of execution for family members of the people being condemned to go there in preparation for their witnessing and also for a place to stay if they need to.So they asked that everybody that was going to witness the execution show up at the Hospitality House at three o'clock. The execution is scheduled for six. So from three o'clock until five, we sit in this Hospitality House, and then from five, at five we're escorted over to the Administration Building where we wait, or we wait until all of the appeals have been held, have been stopped, and so we could have been in that room from five o'clock until eleven-thirty, and still not known what was happening. There is no clock in that room, and it's not a very comfortable room. So anyway, we, I sat from three o'clock until five with the chaplain, until six, with the chaplain, who is, who escorted us and stood with us.And at one time, I can't remember how it came up, but it had to do with the chaplain is a Catholic, a Catholic deacon, from a church far away from here who is one of five chaplains who volunteers to work this particular ministry. 
  •  So he's been to several of these executions in the last several years he's been doing this. But in the process I ask him, I say — he's got the collar on, he acknowledges that he's Catholic to me, and he referred to himself as a Catholic. 
  •  He had a wife and a child, and I thought, man, Catholic priests are going out there farther than I thought they were. 
  •  Later I found discovered he's a deacon. But as he's telling me about his Catholicism, he says, "Oh yeah, yeah, I'm a Catholic," he says, "as a matter of fact," he said, this is awful. 
  •  One of the things that he lost, one of the reasons that he thought that executions, that electrocutions were a good thing was because when the person who was electrocuted faced his maker, he would go to St. Peter, and—St. Peter is the keeper of the gates to heaven—and would face St. Peter. St. Peter would immediately look at those who had been electrocuted and say, "Well done." 
  •  And I stopped myself and I thought, This is not conducive to where we're going with this.We're going to be witnessing this guy be, not electrocuted, being lethally injected, and so I thought, even the spiritual advisor slips sometimes. 
  •  I'm sure he didn't think clearly what he was saying or how he was saying it, but he was there and so he was part of that. 
  •  But I think that as the external witness, the role that I play, ninety-nine point nine percent of the time in this capacity, I do it not only on the corner, but I feel that there has to be a presence there because I believe that whatever happens in our transition, we will be asked, whether it is St. Peter, we will be confronted with the killings. Anything and everything that happens in our lives that undermines the dignity of the human condition, whether it is the psychiatric hospital where people are straitjacketed with chemicals, 
  •  or whether it's the execution chamber where we kill them with chemicals, or whether it's the schoolhouse bully who's bullying the child; we are responsible for it, and we are responsible collectively for undoing those kind of acts.And as long as I'm a resident of Huntsville, Texas, as long as I'm a citizen of Texas, I think, and as a resident of Huntsville, it's easy for me to get out of my chair and go to the corner and light a candle and stand there, maybe from five-thirty until midnight, if I'm lucky, and it shuts down and doesn't happen, but to be there as a personal witness outside to the undermining and degradation of humanity that's taking place, and to call it what it is, whenever I can, speak the words. 
  •  So one of the roles I play is as this tour guide. I also spend a lot of time there talking to the media, with the media. Unfortunately, not very often because when the people from the media cover executions, they're not covering the execution. 
  •  They're covering the crime that happened ten years ago and they might ask, "Why are you here?" 
  •  And I'll tell them why I'm here. Rarely does that footage play on the six o'clock news, but instead you see Gloria with the bullhorn screaming, and you can't really hear what she's saying. Last night she had a particularly good bullhorn. 
  •  It wasn't the one she normally has. Usually it's very muffled and I often pray for the batteries to run out, and they have on occasion run out. So the witnessing from outside is really that sense I have of collective responsibility. And if I'm here in Huntsville, and if I'm going to tell somebody we executed somebody here in Huntsville last night, I'd better be there, and as soon as I can possibly be. 
  •  It's been extraordinarily difficult since they've been scheduled for six o'clock. When we executed at midnight, there's not much going on in Huntsville at midnight, so it was easy for me to get up at eleven. That was also before the Internet, so often I'd get to the corner and I wouldn't know what, whether there was going to be an execution or not. If that yellow tape is out there at eleven, then I know something is likely to happen. Sometimes I would call the Public Information Office at about ten to find out if it was still scheduled and they would usually be very cooperative and they would say, 
  •  "Well, there's still stays and we don't know," and sometimes they would say, "No, it's been called off." With the Internet it's easy because I just Google the name of the person being executed, I News Google it, and I get updated every three or four minutes about whether anything has changed. 
  •  But I would— I can get there an hour earlier and be there for as long as I need to be.When we started doing them at six o'clock— I'm raising a child. We're raising my grandson and there were times when I would go from the execution to music recitals. 
  •  He was in the children's choir. Or one of the times I remember, I was kind of one of the voluntary coaches to his soccer team, so he showed up for one of his soccer games, and his coach asked, "Where is your poppy?" 
  •  "He's not here." "We need him to do—," do whatever it is that I do, and Phoenix said, "Oh, he'll be here later. There's an execution." 
  •  And he went off to play soccer, and the coach told me later, he was like, "What does he do? What does he do at the executions?" He didn't know what I do. So when I finally did show up, he pulled me aside and said, "Do you work for the prison system? What role do you play?" 
  •  And I said, "No, I'm opposed to the executions. I go and stand on the corner in opposition to them and in support of life." And he said, "Oh, okay." So he then went on and we played soccer. Sometimes that transition is very, very complicated, because I move from the corner of death to what is sometimes is like the essence of life. 
  •  And that's hard.It's a lot harder for me now than when we did them at midnight. 
  •  Something about the light of day also makes it more real. In the wintertime, the time period from five until six is when dark starts to happen, and it's a very, very kind of morose moment sometimes. The lights that are on the walls of the Walls Unit are some kind of an electrical, neon gas light and the first couple of, the first minute or so when they click on, they are blood red, and I have had witnesses ask me, who are there ask me, "Do they do that because the execution has started?" Or, I don't know if the clock chimed at six o'clock for you guys, we didn't hear it inside, but that's something fairly recent, but the clock chimes every hour. It's not just six o'clock. It just happens. And they would say, "Does this mean it's happening?"And there's nothing public that happens to let the people outside know what's happening. So as a witness, I'm not only there witnessing as a sense of spiritual connection to what's happening inside, and a spiritual ownership for us as a larger community, but I also help. 
  •  I'm kind of a tour guide and tell people what's happening, and sometimes, as with the woman whose father was to be executed the next night, there are many, many times I've been there and family members of the man we're executing just need someone to hold them and let them know what's happening. 
  •  "How do we know?," "Is it going to hurt?" Those kinds of questions are very common, and so I do feel like I provide a positive role, but my real purpose in being there is that when I go to St. Peter, I think St. Peter will say, "Longmire, you're opposed the death penalty and you sat at home eating a cheeseburger every night? How do you reconcile that?" So I've got a sense of a personal stake in that as well." 
  •  VIRGINIA RAYMOND: Would you tell us a little bit about the Hospitality House? We've had people mention it to us and I'm very interested in your experience there and also what you know about it from talking to other people. 
  •  PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: Okay. First, my only experience with the Hospitality House, direct experience came yesterday. 
  •  They are very, very good about not allowing press, not allowing publicity—discouraging anything, so if I were there as a family, if I'd wanted to interview, if you'd wanted to interview me there, they wouldn't have allowed it, and I like that. I respect that because it's a place that has a sense of safety for people who are anticipating the process.As I said, the Hospitality House itself is not specifically for executions. It's a facility that exists that provides a place for family members who have a loved one locked up in prison who want to come visit their loved one but have to travel such appreciable distances that they will have to stay overnight. 
  •  And I had a direct experience with something like the Hospitality House with my grandson. When my grandson was two years old he was diagnosed with cancer. We were in Austin and we took him to the Ronald McDonald House, and the Ronald McDonald House does the same thing for family members of children who are suffering with cancer and they need a place to stay. 
  •  And so that's what their principle function is, to provide a place of quiet and a place to stay for people who are coming to visit loved ones in prison, and there is a Hospitality House located in Huntsville and a number of other communities. 
  •  If you'll look at the map, Texas' prisons are kind of clustered together. Some of them are way off in the distance, but wherever there is a cluster or prisons, there's a Hospitality House. It's actually run by a Baptist ministry. I think the people who are actually managing it right now are not Baptists, I don't think that's necessary, and there isn't any religious affiliation shown in anything there. 
  •  There is a room there where people can go to pray. They call it a chapel. It's a non-denominational kind of setting, and it has— it looked to me like maybe fourteen or fifteen rooms where people, with bunk beds or single beds, where maybe as many as three people in a room could stay, not unlike the Ronald McDonald House. 
  •  They have a kitchen there; they have all kinds of food facilities. They made for us— There was a Crockpot with a beef stew that was available. They had coffee, and they had food that we could have taken and shared with everyone. 
  •  None of us; all of us, politely, I think, took a bowl of soup, but none of us did much more. But that's what their purpose is. 
  •  The Hospitality House is there to provide a place for people who otherwise could not afford to come and visit their loved ones: beautiful ministry. Since Huntsville is the location for executions, they also have a special function in their Huntsville Hospital House. 
  •  They've provided since, I think the person told me yesterday, that they started doing this in 1986 or eighty-five, so it would have been right about then, in the early eighties they started the Hospitality House in Huntsville, so it didn't exist prior to that, and one of the things they started immediately doing is immediately providing a place for the people who were there to visit their loved one who is about to be executed to stay. At that time the executions were at midnight, so they would come earlier in the day. They would provide them with a briefing session so they would know what to expect, very much like the briefing they gave us, basically telling us that at this hour this is what we're going to do, we're going to move from here to there; you can't bring anything but a picture I.D., no tobacco, no cell phones, no anything, and when everything has been cleared we'll transport you there. 
  •  We have no communication between you and the lawyers, so once you get into the Administration Building, you're where I call limbo, a kind of unknown what's going to happen. So they do that, they tell the people who are there to witness the execution for the condemned what to expect. 
  •  They also provide— if I had of wanted to after the execution, I could have gone back to the Hospitality House and I could have stayed there that night if I needed to, but they also provide a spiritually flavored opportunity for family members who have witnessed, to debrief. 
  •  And often there will be maybe two or three people witnessing from a family of ten. So they will go back to the Hospitality House and they then talk amongst themselves and they grieve and do all of the things that a family will do following the execution in the Hospitality House, privately, separated and away. 
  •  Their service, from my experience, was very positive and very appreciated, very kind and open. I've heard people from the corner, people who have had someone executed express just the opposite. 
  •  They expressed a sense of judgment from the people managing the Hospitality House, a sense of feeling un-welcomeness rather than welcomeness. 
  •  The Hospitality House, like the Ronald McDonald House, has house rules, and the house rules are expected to be followed. No alcohol outside, no alcohol displayed, no smoking in the facility, no guests. 
  •  You can't bring family friends in and it's not a flophouse. It's a house that's dedicated to the family members of the people in need, whether it's a child with cancer or a loved one of the executed. 
  •  And so immediately I began listening to the people who were telling me these horrible experiences they'd had, and I asked myself, I remember at the Hospitality House, there were many times, not many, there were sometimes when the manager of the house would have to exercise discipline. 
  •  They would have to go to one of the families and say, "You're not allowed to do this. We can't have it. If you're going to continue to do it we're not going to be able to let you stay here." 
  •  And I wonder to myself if those are the kinds of experiences that they're having. Because sometimes there are, I mean, I would imagine, and it's understandable, sometimes there are very angry, angry people who are in that circle of people who are family members of the condemned, and cultural clashes occur. And I didn't— I've never had any direct experience with people from the Hospitality House being anything other than kind because the only experience I had directly there was yesterday. 
  •  But I have heard people express concerns and usually when I hear these concerns they are expressed by people of color who believe they are being treated differently because they aren't white, and I'm sensitive about that and it's certainly a possibility. It's America. It's Texas. It's East Texas. 
  •  I also know that there have been transitions, that the people who were there last night were not the same people who were there three years ago, or five years ago or ten years ago, that there is some turnover in whoever it is who's doing that, so I'm confident that there have probably been clashes, 
  •  and those clashes I don't think are biased toward particular people but it's probably biased toward the behaviors those people are bringing into what is supposed to be a quiet and peaceful setting. 
  •  I know there are— I can't remember a specific instance but I know that on some of the instances that people want to go and come and go and come freely and the house rule is that after ten o'clock, you've got to be in for the night. That's it. So if you want to go out and do something, you've got to be in by ten. And if you're not in by ten, the doors lock and you find somewhere else to stay. 
  •  Being adults, we don't like that. "Why can't I go and come?" We did it at the Ronald McDonald House. They've got rules, and house rules are house rules. So my sense is that sometimes people can't live by those kind of rules, and that might have been part of the agitation. 
  •  RAYMOND: When you say they briefed you on what to expect, I just want to make sure I understand that when you say that "they" is "they" the Hospitality House? Or is the "they" T.D.C.J.? 
  •  PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: T.D.C. The "they," the people giving the debriefing, who gave us the debriefing were, there were two of them. They started out with two of them. One of them was the chaplain for the Walls Unit and he was the chaplain who was in the room, his hand on Eric's leg, tapping the Bible. There was another chaplain; apparently there will always be two chaplains. I say apparently because this is what we were told. There will always be two chaplains. One of them is going to be in there with Eric, the other is going to be in there with us, and the chaplains are the ones who are giving us the debriefings. And so I got three debriefings, because I got one myself, I then got— I listened to the debriefing that was given to Chris, one of the attorneys who came in. 
  •  While I was getting my first debriefing, both of the attorneys were across the street having their last visit with Eric in the death house. 
  •  So they were over there meeting in the death chamber, in the cell outside of the death chamber, where they'd had Eric since about noon. Each of them had a thirty-minute meeting. Chris must have been first, he met with Eric and then came over to the Hospitality House, at which time the chaplain, at which time the chaplain who had stayed with Eric in that room had left and the other chaplain was there, so that chaplain debriefed Chris, or briefed Chris. 
  •  And then when Dick came over, the other attorney, that chaplain briefed Dick. So I listened to those three briefings and they were very much the same. And so the "they" who is doing the briefing is the chaplain. I think that the chaplain who was with us in our room would have gone back to the Hospitality House with us had we been normal witnesses and would have been there with us to answer questions or to help us in any way, or families who were with us who had not been present in the witness booth. 
  •  I think that he would have stayed with us as long as we needed him there. He is the one who went to the funeral home with me, or got there before I got there, so I think as long as I had wanted him to be around he would have stayed around, then left. So they are the ones doing the debriefing. I don't know that the people who are managing the Hospitality House themselves have any direct role beyond house maintenance, making food available, trying to answer phones. 
  •  They did let us know that had Eric wanted to, he could have called us at the Hospitality House anytime between five, anytime between four and five, when we would have been no longer available, so they would have answered the phone and done those things. 
  •  RAYMOND: The second chaplain, the one who was not in the death chamber but was there for you, what was he? Is he associated with or paid by the Department of Corrections? 
  •  PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: Yes, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has a prison chaplaincy program and those people are all employees of the prison system and they work as non-denominational chaplains. 
  •  All of them has a particular faith system, but their role there is not proselytizing toward conversion but providing faith services, whatever they are. 
  •  I believe their role probably is proselytizing, but they aren't necessarily recruiting Baptists or Methodists, but they're providing, I believe, a sense of Christian support. 
  •  I think that they're all probably Christian, and I know that there have been some.I do know that one of the people who was a very frequent visitor to people on Death Row was a Roman Catholic priest from Boston, a Franciscan monk, who ministered to Buddhists, and ministered to Muslims, and ministered to Christians. 
  •  I have had stories from all sorts of different people telling me how Father Walsh was a wonderful inspiration to them even though they were Hindu. 
  •  I mean it didn't matter to him who you were. He died. He ended up dying. He had brain cancer and ended up dying four years, maybe three years ago. But prior to that, even when the executions were at midnight, I would see him not infrequently. 
  •  I suspect he must have witnessed hundreds as a spiritual guide for men on death row. Not part of that Hospitality House process, and many times Father, most of the time Father Walsh would not go to the Hospitality House. He would walk straight from wherever he parked his car up into the unit and then leave. 
  •  For many years he never spoke a word to us on the corner. After a while he recognized my face and came over. 
  •  We had a couple of brief talks, sometimes when I was alone. He realized I was Catholic, and so he would then come over to me and sometimes share with me the last moments that he'd shared with the person being executed, but most of the times he was very private and just did his ministry and left. 
  •  RAYMOND: So normally, at least the way it is now, I recognize there have been changes, there would be at least two clergy on staff with T.D.C.J. present, one on the so-called offenders' side in the room where you were last night, and one in the death chamber itself. Does the department provide chaplain or clergy of any kind for the family members of the murder victim? Do you know? 
  •  PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: I'm pretty sure the answer is yes but I can't say with any certainty. I think that question was asked last night. I think one of us, the three of us, asked whether or not there was clergy present for them and I'm pretty sure the answer was yes but I'm not a hundred percent sure. 
  •  I do know that the family members of the victims are given a lot more preparation than we were. 
  •  In fact, after I had talked to Eric and had found out that I might be the only person there, I wanted to make sure that I would be able to execute, able to execute, able to witness the execution. 
  •  And so I waited and waited. I was told that I would receive a letter from the Office of Victim Services telling me what I needed to do and when I needed to do it. Friday of last week I had not heard anything, so I called public information and I asked Michelle Lyons, Am I on the list? And she said, "Yes." And I said, Well, I'm not sure. What am I supposed to do? She then said, "Well, haven't you gotten a letter?" And I said, No. She said, "Gee, I don't know what's going on. Let me find out." She subsequently called me back and said, "Yeah, there's been a slowdown. There was a problem and we confirmed that you were authorized, and in fact Quartermant"—who is the director of the institution—"has just authorized the witnesses' list, and you've been approved. So here's what you need to do." And she told me orally. I then sent an email to Dick and to Chris, the two attorneys, here's what we need to do, and what I'd been told. 
  •  Otherwise, I had received no contact whatsoever from anyone. Michelle told me that it had all gotten bottled up because of the cell phone crisis and that that was a low priority, and everything had been accepted.And I immediately then said, Well, I'm concerned because Eric's sister, I know Eric's sister was planning to come for her two visits. 
  •  The visitors get two visits, two long, all day visits with the condemned prior to the execution, on the weekend, prior to the execution. I wanted to make sure that, first of all I said, Is that still going to be possible, because what I'm reading in the media is all visits have been curtailed? And Michelle said, "Oh, no, don't worry. Eric is still able to have his visits, so his sister will be allowed to visit and don't worry about that. 
  •  And secondly, yes, you will be able to witness. Don't worry, just be there and do whatever they tell you to do." So I was concerned that maybe Eric's sister wouldn't have even come, because she might have read the news and said "I can't even visit," but they did allow her to visit. 
  •  RAYMOND: Okay thank you we have ten minutes of tape and I have more than a few questions. Are you doing okay? Everybody's doing okay? Alright. When you say, first of all, Eric was able to get his visits because he was going to be executed last night because some of the people, two of the people who were there on the corner last night, one was from Germany and one was from Belgium, they had not been able to visit their friends that they write to. 
  •  And that's because they were on Death Row, and they were on lockdown and increased security. Had it been their last visit, they presumaby would have been able to visit? 
  •  PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: Yes. Now, I'm not— we're executing someone tomorrow and I'm not one hundred percent sure if he would have been given the same privileges Eric was given, or if his witnesses, because they would have capacity to meet with their person tomorrow— today. 
  •  Is today Wednesday? Wednesday morning. They would have been able to meet with him Wednesday morning. So I'm not a hundred percent sure what his— Wright, Richard Wright, Greg Wright, I don't know what Gregory Wright's witnesses were allowed to do in terms of the long visit because I don't know when they would have been scheduled since his execution is on Thursday. But anyone else on Death Row, I don't know if they extended this privilege that they gave Eric in light of the system-wide lockdown. 
  •  I don't know if they extended it to him or all inmates who have a date, and so I don't know what they did. 
  •  My guess is they speculated that, if you have a date in January, we're going to have the lockdown fixed by then so you don't need a visit now. But if you've got a date within the next week we're going to give you this privilege. My guess is something like that. 
  •  Certainly they gave Eric that privilege. But witnesses that come and there's a lockdown, and there are lockdowns on Polunsky and frequently they don't get to visit. 
  •  It doesn't matter whether they've come from Spain or whether they're from Waxahachie or coming in from Huntsville. It's the rules. 
  •  RAYMOND: When you say the Hospitality House there is some kind of "spiritually flavored" debriefing, you meant in the sense that the chaplains are doing the debriefings but that is non-denominational but Christian. 
  •  Do you know, I know we're getting close, have there been, I know that there's been at least one Muslim executed since 1982. Do you know if there have been spiritual advisors for them [inaudible] or others? 
  •  PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: I can't speak to whether they're present in Hospitality House. One of the people who used to regularly come to the corner was also a student at Sam Houston State University for a period of time was Muslim, is Muslim, and he worked for the prison system, and so he would provide spiritual counseling for prisoners at large. 
  •  I don't think that he participated in any spiritual counseling for anyone executed or scheduled to be executed. But I don't think the Hospitality House would prohibit them from being there. My sense is that, provided that they're complying with the rules and that they're part of the family, I mean, they can be their spiritual person, because the men on Death Row can have a spiritual advisor of their choosing present, and they will then be able to have that last spiritual visit. 
  •  It's to their choosing, but the person will have to meet all the visitor requirements, and if you've got a previous felony conviction or if you've got some other problems in your past, they can deny you, but it's not because you're of a particular faith; it's because you're a security risk by their standards. So, I think, my sense is that the Hospitality House would not prohibit a Muslim from being there with a family who is Muslim, but I could be wrong. 
  •  RAYMOND: We saw a photograph that was taken in the Hospitality House. I don't know if it was taken against the rules or if it was taken before this rule was imposed, about no media or no photography. But the photograph showed that in the Hospitality House there was a wall on which there were pictures, of essentially the mug shots, or the photographs that are on the Texas Death Row website of the convicted persons and that that was up because you could see it in the photograph. Is that still present in the Hospitality House? 
  •  PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: I didn't see it. I didn't tour the entire facility. They did— the chaplain did tell us we've got free rein; we could walk all over the place and go anywhere we want to, and mentioned there is a hall that has art, artwork that has been produced by people who had been executed, and they then donated their art to that wall. So there's hypothetically a possibility that some inmate may have done a drawing of these kinds of things, but I don't know. I didn't see it so I don't know that it's there. 
  •  RAYMOND: Okay. Thank you. 
  •  Watch Video 1, Video 2, Video 3, Video 5, Video 6of "Interview with Mr. 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:4 of 6
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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