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."