Texas prison officials on Tuesday abruptly halted the practice of sharing death row inmate’s final written statements after a lawmaker expressed outrage over the state relaying the last words of an avowed racist executed for the 1998 dragging death of a black man, James Byrd Jr.
It marks the second recent change to execution-day procedures in the nation’s busiest death chamber. Earlier this month, Texas also stopped letting clergy inside after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the execution of a man who wanted his Buddhist spiritual adviser with him.
Death penalty opponents criticized the back-to-back changes, saying they underscore a need for more oversight in decision making surrounding executions in Texas, where a fourth person this year is set to die by lethal injection Thursday.
State Sen. John Whitmire had chastised prison officials Monday for reading John William King’s final written statement last week after he was executed for Byrd’s killing.
“If a death row inmate has something to say to the public or victims, let him or her say it when they are strapped to the gurney,” Whitmire wrote in a letter to prison officials.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice swiftly responded, and within 24 hours told Whitmire it would change the policy to only publicly relay verbal comments made in the execution chamber. Any written statements by the condemned will now be “inventoried with their belongings” after they are executed, said Bryan Collier, the agency’s executive director.
Whitmire has served nearly 40 years in the Texas Senate and is one of the most powerful lawmakers over the criminal justice system. In 2011, the Houston Democrat also spurred the prison system to do away with allowing inmates to pick their final meals after Whitmire took issue with one inmate’s extensive request.
King, who was white, said “no” when asked by a warden in the death chamber on April 25 whether he had any last words before being executed. Afterward, prison officials released a statement prepared by King: “Capital punishment: them without the capital get the punishment.”
Kristin Houle, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said changing longstanding practices shouldn’t be influenced by one person and defended letting the condemned relay their last words on paper if they choose.
“None of us know what our state of mind or composure is going to be as we face imminent death,” she said. “It’s another kind of punitive measure at a time when they are being put to death by our state.”