Friday, October 20, 2006

The Final Act


A while back I wrote about an ill-fated trip to Livingston, Texas (Things to Do in Texas When You're Dead, 8/25/06) to interview a death row inmate named Justin Fuller. Despite all of the effort put into that excruciating day-trip, it ended futilely, with a tape of little more than digital static -- the result of an accident involving the camera, which happened before my crew and I even got out of the airport in Houston.

Fuller was executed a little more than 24 hours after our pointless interview.

What I neglected to mention, is that the show -- as always -- must go on.

We still needed to complete our story on lethal injection, which meant that we returned to the Polunsky Unit's Death Row two weeks later. This time we interviewed a young inmate named Michael Dewayne Johnson, and strictly from the somewhat soulless perspective of a television news producer -- I was glad we did.

Johnson was, as I remarked to my anchor after the interview, "our star."

He was fresh-faced and attractive.

He was funny, fiery and friendly.

He was smart, charismatic and eminently likable.

What was most frightening however, is that he was above all believable. During the interview, Michael Johnson produced a signed affidavit -- a confession that he claimed proved the assertion that he'd been making in court for almost ten years: that his accomplice shot a 27-year-old gas station attendant in 1995, and that he was sitting in the car the entire time and knew nothing of what was happening until he heard the gun go off. That accomplice, a man named David Vest, rolled on Johnson while in custody and offered up his friend as the shooter in exchange for an eight year prison sentence (a deal I thought to be unbelievably inequitable, regardless of who pulled the trigger).

The bottom line is that I'm well aware of the banality -- even the likability -- of evil; however, my anchor and I left death row that day burying a certain amount of our well-worn cynicism and truly wanting to believe the man we'd just spent a half-hour talking to through a thick sheet of glass.

That was one month ago.

This morning Michael Dewayne Johnson is dead.

He didn't however die at the hands of Texas's executioner -- he died at the hands of himself.

Just fifteen hours before he was scheduled to be taken to the death chamber where a cocktail of chemicals would be pumped into his body, ending his life -- he pulled a hidden metal blade from somewhere in his cell and slashed his own throat and his own wrists.

Guards say that just moments before, he had been upbeat and jovial -- cracking jokes and showing off his trademark boyishly mischevious grin.

In his final moments, as his life ebbed out of him and onto the floor of his tiny windowless cell -- he scrawled a message on the wall in his own blood.

That final, gory epitaph read simply, "I didn't shoot him."

8 comments:

Eric said...

This is a chilling entry. Absolutely chilling. And a scary admonishment to our legal system where it concerns the death penalty and some regions' overzealous desire to see it (pardon the pun) executed frequently.

Discouragement Kitten said...

There are so many issues present in a discussion of the death penalty - where to begin. I won't - it will have to suffice for me to say that I am adamantly opposed to the death penalty for a multitude of reasons.

With that out of the way...


1. Why is the death penalty carried out with the most zest in states with large fanatical Christian populations? It is my understanding that the teachings of Christianity promote forgiveness - that if as a Christian you are unable to forgive - God will be unable to forgive you.
2. Given that it's fairly well known that the process of putting an inmate to death is more costly (monetarily) than a life sentence I can only assume that Christians have abnormal blood lust. Since your average Christian death penalty supporter is probably not inclined to kill someone with their own hands (a certain measure of distance and plausible deniability for their true ugly feelings is needed for the sake of sanity) - they fall back on state sanctioned murder to satisfy the itch.
3. If exterminating someone via our legal process is OK why can't I step on fetuses?
4. Supposing that the death penalty was acceptable - it's unfairly applied - minorities, retards and poor people constitute the majority of death row victims. Can I then make the mental leap(I know this is flawed logic but it makes me laugh) and assume that this is a back door method for racist, homophobic, ignorant Christian bible belt freak shows to eradicate what they perceive as God's mistakes?

Just asking...

unended said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Chez said...

Shocking and disturbing.

Call me naive -- which is an adjective that almost no one I know has ever applied to me -- but I believe him.

I believe him wholeheartedly.

VOTAR said...

I remember having this conversation with, of all people, your dad, Chez. Remember his reply? "The death penalty is the ultimate crime deterrent." i.e., dead people don't commit crimes.

Chez said...

Yes, but that is and always was inverted logic. There are a litany of other punishments which would also ensure that a person doesn't commit a crime again -- and if absolute deterrence is your aim when it comes to dealing with a singular criminal, then it would make just as much sense to cut off someone's hands when they steal, or better yet, just behead him or her.

Any of this sound familiar?

It's worth mentioning that being waterboarded everytime I stayed out past curfew has had a lasting effect on me.

I kid, I kid.

Also worth mentioning: Jayne and I had had a few drinks last night when I learned about what the late Michael Johnson had written on his cell wall. My last comment probably wasn't posted with a clear head -- all things considered. I'm not going to remove it, since I damn well felt that way in the heat of the moment last night. But in truth, I have no idea whether Johnson killed that man; I do know however that the criminal boasts of a stupid 19-year-old don't constitute strong evidence, and the deal his partner got -- which I still insist was an appalling fucking travesty -- ensures that we'll never know truth about what happened that night.

Justice was not done. Period.

But judging by the plea agreement, that was never the intended goal to begin with.

mike m said...

this is off topic, but I thought you might be interested
madmike9@verizon.net

http://www.citypaper.net/articles/2006/10/19/A-Heroin-epidemic-runs-wild-in-Bucks-County

Chez said...

A story that's completely unsurprising -- despite the fact that the local paper will try its best to convince you that it's exactly the opposite.

I have a massive problem with any news organization's attempt to scare the living hell out of the public (which means that I hate most news organizations these days); this one fits the bill perfectly. "Epidemic" is one of those hyperbolic words we love to throw around -- indiscriminantly labeling everything from the typical flu patterns each winter to the tendency for people to lose one sock in each load of laundry with it.

No place however does it make more of an impact than when we can frighten the piss out of suburbanites by telling them that every child they come across throughout their week is on drugs.

I don't doubt that there are kids (and adults) in mostly quiet Bucks county doing smack. I also bet that the actual numbers are greatly exaggerated. That's because exaggeration sells papers.