Sunday, May 22, 2011
DXM History Repeats: Television
Our look back at some of the best television-related DXM pieces of the last five years continues with one of my personal favorites. It relates the details of an assignment that I and a CNN crew undertook to interview a death row inmate just outside Houston. This is what I call a "Special Edition" of the original piece, in that I added a couple of bonus features: playable audio of the music mentioned within the column and the truly shocking final twist to the story. The original piece has also been adjusted slightly, as I'm now in a position to disclose the name of the CNN anchor who worked with me on the story. In the original version, that anchor remained nameless.
The DXM Fifth Birthday Jubilee
Number of Posts: 317
"Things To Do in Texas When You're Dead" (Originally Published, 8.25.06)
By the time you read this, Justin Fuller will be dead.
There's a specific mathematical equation which can be used to help understand why Houston is arguably the most God-awful place on Earth. It all comes down to the numbers: the fifth-worst traffic in the country, plus the second-worst air-quality, minus the constant 72-degree temperature which makes Los Angeles livable despite such problems, multiplied by the number of Texans equals, well, Hell.
A few minutes ago I purposely ignored the flight attendant's request that I switch off all portable electronic devices, choosing instead to continue listening to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's Howl album blasted at full-volume through my iPod. Anything to make descending through a layer of shit-brown haze slightly less depressing.
I'm now standing in baggage claim with my photographer. We've unloaded six pieces of luggage filled with heavy camera equipment and are currently engaged in a harried conversation with an employee of Continental Airlines. This employee's sole reason for existence over the next few hours will be to find a seventh piece of luggage which has apparently vanished into thin air somewhere between Laguardia and George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
That's my first impression of Houston this morning: lost luggage, an airport named after the man whose sperm mutated into George W. Bush, and a sign I'm leaning against which bears a likeness of the Houston Police Department seal. It reads, "Order Through Law. Justice With Mercy."
I can't leave this place quickly enough.
Fortunately, the wayward bag didn't contain any vital piece of camera equipment; unfortunately it did contain a vital pair of shoes -- which is why we're now parked outside of a Wal-Mart along Route 59 North. My anchor, Carol Costello, and I sit in the Jeep Grand Cherokee which the network has been kind enough to rent for us; I'm in the driver's seat, she's next to me. We're discussing the pros, cons and innate weirdness of going to your twenty-year high school reunion. Apparently at hers, she and her husband shared a table with a couple that argued the entire evening; he was a farmer, she was a stay-at-home mom. Eventually, after several drinks, the farmer threatened violence against his timid wife and was forcibly removed from the table.
Carol has just unknowingly convinced me to attend my own reunion next year.
At some point, the other producer traveling with us on this little adventure comes running out of the front of the monolithic Wal-Mart -- bag in hand. When she throws open the back door of the SUV, my anchor and I giddily ask to see her purchase. She shows us the shoes she just bought -- which are about as impressive as you'd expect a pair of shoes bought at a Texas Wal-Mart to be, which is to say, not at all. They aren't open-toed, however, which means that they meet the stated requirement for entry into the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Polunsky Unit's Death Row area. Why anyone's choice of footwear would be a sticking point, I'm not quite sure. I'm not willing to argue, though, given that I've already had nightmares in which today's shoot turns into the last half-hour of Natural Born Killers. Best to get on the guards' good sides right off the bat.
The producer slips off the flip-flops she wore on the plane and slides on the new Wal-Mart specials.
Continuing north on Route 59, we pass another Wal-Mart; this one is a Supercenter.
Carol says she's hungry, so we pull over to a combination Chevron Station/Subway on the side of the road. The fact that I, the other producer, Carol and our photographer have all chosen to wear black shirts for today's shoot -- a decision made without a hint of pre-planning or irony -- doesn't go unnoticed by the locals, many of whom resemble the road crew of Monster Magnet. They look at us like we're A) lost B) gay C) from New York, or D) all of the above. I'm the last in line to order and the rest of my crew is already out the door when I look next to the cash register and notice a plexiglass box containing small bottles stacked neatly in rows. I recognize them immediately: Mini-thins -- illegal in most states because they contain ephedrine, which has been known to occasionally thin the herd of stupid high school kids by stopping their hearts. They're often found in convenience stores because they conveniently keep truckers awake during extended runs. They've been at my side through every cross-country drive I've ever made.
I'm smiling as I hand the cashier a ten, toss one of the little bottles into my Subway bag and walk out the door -- carefully sidestepping the display of Git-R-Done bumper stickers on my way -- and into the humid Texas air.
We pass another Wal-Mart Supercenter.
As Route 59 narrows into a four-lane stretch of road, we pass a small, yellow building on the right. Emblazoned on the front of it is a sign that reads: "Joy Juice Liquors."
I spit Dr. Pepper all over the steering wheel.
Up ahead of us on the side of the road is a large white tent. As the SUV approaches it and pulls parallel, we each stare silently; it's a massive display of swords, daggers and medieval-looking axes. There must be hundreds of them. Stretched across the top of the tent is a banner; it's succinct in its pronouncement: SWORDS!
As we glide past, Carol and I look at each other blankly. "Hey, you never know," I say.
From the outside, the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas looks about as you'd expect. It's a complex of ugly, two-story buildings surrounded by high fences topped with razor-wire that gleams in the oppressive, unobstructed sunlight. It sits in the middle of a barren field which is constantly patrolled by corrections officers in trucks, on ATVs and on horseback. At each corner of the complex is a tower; walking the landing of each tower is a guard armed with a Remington 11-87 combat shotgun and wearing the obligatory mirrored aviator sunglasses.
As we approach the guard gate -- which isn't a gate at all so much as a checkpoint -- a corrections officer tears himself away from a cooler of water that sits on top of a picnic table next to the road. He walks slowly around the front of our Jeep Cherokee. Before we even roll down the window, we go ahead and get it out of the way.
"What we got here is -- a failure to communicate," comes a disembodied voice from the backseat. It's my photographer.
"No one can eat fifty eggs," I respond.
We're allowed in without incident and I park in the visitor's lot, next to a dusty red Chevy Geo with the words "Just Married" scrawled across the back window.
The first thing I notice when I enter the lobby -- which acts as a sort of purgatory between the outside world and the interior of the prison -- is the large sign bolted to the steel door on the other side of the metal detectors. It reads in bold letters: HOSTAGES WILL NOT EXIT THROUGH THIS DOOR. Which makes me wonder if it's ever their decision which door they'll exit through.
We're met by a female corrections officer who bears a striking resemblance to Food Network host Paula Deen, right down to the comforting Southern drawl. Translation: She in no way looks like she belongs within ten miles of a place where some of the most dangerous men in the United States are at that very moment forcing the new guy to perform oral sex on them. She leads us through the metal detector and runs down the checklist: No cell phones or Blackberries, no paper money, no pens or pencils, no cigarettes (as they can be traded for contraband), no sunglasses (as they can be traded for good contraband), no gloves (as they can be used to climb the fence), and of course -- no weapons (which suddenly makes me glad we didn't stop at Earl's Fabulous House of Swords).
Once we're given our visitors' passes, we're introduced to a young woman whose intention is to sell us Avon, or maybe recruit us for Junior League, or perhaps take us to a sorority mixer.
This is my first impression upon meeting her anyway.
The media liaison for the Polunsky Unit's Death Row is the kind of girl that folks around these parts no doubt describe as "Cute as a Button." She's an attractive brunette in her mid-20s with a perfect complexion and -- for some reason I can't possibly fathom -- a smile that you likely couldn't remove from her face with a crowbar. Quite simply, like Guard Paula Deen, she's the last person anyone would expect to willingly spend her days surrounded by guys who are about to be executed. She seems more like a cruise director than someone who works for the Department of Criminal Justice.
After a few minutes of small-talk, which only adds to the palpable surrealism, we're escorted into the prison yard via the large steel door -- the one hostages will not be exiting through.
On our way across the yard, Julie Your Cruise Director points to a nearly windowless structure that looks as if it's been flattened with a giant steam iron.
"That's Death Row. It's actually kind of a nice building," she exclaims.
I don't even know how to respond.
A few minutes ago, I and my crew were led into the visitors' wing which is attached to Death Row. Now that I'm looking around, the entire area reminds me of my elementary school -- right down to the bizarrely encouraging affirmations painted on the walls. "Remember, Safety is Priority One!" proclaims one. "Welcome to the Polunsky Unit!" screams another. There are picnic tables outside. There are vending machines against the far wall. I find myself looking around for a shuffle-board court.
In the room the inmates come and go, talking of life on Death Row.
As my photographer finishes setting up for our shoot, I walk slowly toward the partitioned glass booths in the center of the room. The front of the booths face outward, but the back is attached to a long hallway which leads directly to and from the Death Row cell block. The prisoners are never brought into the part of the room I'm standing in; they're simply shuffled into the hallway then dumped into one of these little cages. It's like a macabre peep-show -- complete with a telephone. It's only when I look up that I notice that the subject of our interview -- the person we came all this way to see -- is already in his assigned booth; he's directly in front of me.
When our eyes meet, we exchange a cordial smile.
This is Justin Fuller.
In 1997, Justin Chaz Fuller -- at that time an 18-year-old recent high school graduate -- participated in the kidnapping and murder of an acquaintance. 21-year-old Donald Whittington was taken from his apartment in Tyler, Texas, driven to an ATM where he was forced to take out $300, then to an area near Lake Tyler where he was shot in the head. Witnesses say in the days following the murder, Fuller led them to the body and bragged about shooting Whittington. Three other people participated in the crime and during the trial Fuller insisted that although he took part in the kidnapping, he wasn't the trigger-man. He expressed sorrow to the victim's family for his role in their loved one's death, but he's always insisted that he can't apologize for something he didn't do -- and he says he did not shoot Whittington.
Fuller has a baby face. In keeping with the confusing, paradoxical nature of everything in this place, he doesn't look like he belongs here. He's soft-spoken and has an easy, almost infectious smile. At one point, he makes eye-contact with one of the guards and both of them begin to laugh, as if sharing an inside joke. I'm not quite sure how he has the ability to be so insouciant, given that he'll be dead in less than thirty-six hours.
Houston, we have a problem.
My photographer has just informed me that his camera isn't working.
As he was hauling it out of the airport, he accidentally slammed it against the automatic doors. We assumed it was fine. We apparently assumed wrong.
Suddenly I'm no longer waxing philosophical in my mind about the justice system and Justin Fuller's place in it; I'm trying to figure out how to salvage an important and expensive interview -- one which needless to say can't be "rescheduled." In a flash I'm back out into the hot sun and walking quickly across the protected area of the prison yard, out through purgatory and finally into the parking lot. I'm cursing under my breath and sweating like Oprah on a Stairmaster.
When I get back to the SUV I begin making desperate phone calls to our National Desk. A few minutes later, I'm informed that a freelance photographer is being dispatched to our location and should arrive within the hour. Crisis averted. The power of network news emerges triumphant.
After another pass through the metal detector accompanied by another kindly smile from Office Paula Deen, I'm once again back in the Death Row visitors' area where I'm met by the other producer. She quickly gives me the thumbs up and informs me that in my absence the camera mysteriously began working properly. The interview is happening right now.
Since I have the phone number of the freelancer in my pocket, I ask Julie Your Cruise Director to borrow her cell phone and place a call to let him know to stand down.
Then I quietly walk over behind the camera, pull up a chair, grab an earpiece and listen.
Justin Fuller speaks softly and articulately; the effect is hypnotically disarming.
He talks first about his family: his father who coached his youth soccer team; his mother who believed for so long that she had raised him right. He expresses sadness at the fact that tomorrow these ostensibly good people -- these innocent people -- will sit by helplessly and watch their son die. He pauses for a moment as he says this -- exhales softly.
When asked about his crime, he stands by his assertion that he wasn't the one who fired the bullet that killed Donald Whittington. "I was 18. I was stupid," he says when pressed about why he became involved in the crime in the first place. "I was a follower, you know? I should've known better." Still, he believes that his own death won't bring peace to Whittington's family -- that it's simply a case of two terrible wrongs attempting to make an elusive right.
"You can't teach people not to kill by killing people," he says.
As I listen, I find myself wondering about the thought processes behind Fuller's statements. He appears, for all intents and purposes, to be a very bright young man, but I can't help wondering how much of his rhetoric is the result of his own personal reflection and how much is simply a series of talking points naturally absorbed into his character after almost ten years of steady repetition by defense lawyers. I pay attention to key words and phrases, unusual terms that seem to stand out in a sea of common language. I pay attention to how often he repeats these terms during the conversation.
He's asked if he understands what's going to happen to him tomorrow -- if he knows the details of the lethal injection process. His response is eerie in its matter-of-factness.
"Yes, Sodium Thiopental will put me to sleep. Pancuronium Bromide will paralyze my muscles -- and then Potassium Chloride will stop my heart and kill me."
That's it. It's that simple. He describes the process that will end his life as if he and Carol were at a table at an intimate restaurant -- and he was placing an order for the two of them.
It's at this point that I begin to wish that the subject of our interview bore more of a resemblance to Hannibal Lecter; that he was someone more cunning and unapologetic; that he was someone easily dismissible. It's at this point that I begin to wish that Justin Fuller were more of a caricature, and less human.
I remove the earpiece and step over to Julie Your Cruise Director, who's seated several feet away from the camera.
"How do you do this kind of thing?" I ask -- not accusingly, but out of a legitimate desire to understand something which seems incomprehensible.
She looks at me and, with a smile that adds a jarring irony to her words, says offhandedly, "I drink -- a lot."
Every Wednesday, she's here helping men make their final statements to the world.
Every Thursday, she watches those same men die. She attends every execution held here.
We thank Justin Fuller for his time, which at this point is something I'd imagine is quite precious to him. He remains in the caged booth -- behind the thick glass -- as we begin tearing down our equipment.
I'm staring out of the window onto the prison yard, trying to push myriad thoughts out of my head: the strangeness of a place where death is literally doled out on an assembly line; the questionable equity of a justice system which seems to arbitrarily condemn one murderer to die while allowing others to live; the possibility that lethal injection isn't so much a humane method of execution for the benefit of the condemned as it is a means to make us feel better about the process -- to help us sleep at night, as well as a means to make us feel superior to the condemned, who may have killed without such supposed humanity.
This reverie is suddenly broken by the three words no producer ever wants to hear.
"It didn't record," my photographer says.
I fight the urge to spin around in a panic, choosing instead to simply close my eyes and sigh.
"I figured I got the camera rolling. It looked like everything was alright," he continues.
I motion to Julie Your Cruise Director -- letting her know that I need her phone again.
"You guys gave me a thumbs-up. If I had known that there might still be a problem, I would've gotten the freelancer out here as a back-up."
I don't wait for my photographer to respond. I'm redialing the number for the freelance photographer; after five rings, I hear him pick up.
"How fast can you get here?" I ask him.
Not fast enough.
It's been a long time since I've driven. Aside from a recent car rental, I haven't been behind the wheel of a vehicle since I begrudgingly sold my Audi A4 and moved to the land of subways and taxis. Thankfully I've forgotten none of the technique I learned while growing up in Miami and tearing through the streets in an attempt to replicate the driving style of Miami Vice. I'm weaving through traffic at near warp-speed in the hope of quickly reaching a local affiliate station which has graciously agreed to allow us to play back the tape of our interview. Carol made the arrangement by phone just a few minutes ago. The prayer is that the problem we're having is with the camera's playback setting -- and not with the tape itself. None of us is very hopeful.
The other potential crisis at the moment is that our flight leaves in about two and a half hours, and I'm now about to drive into the center of Houston right at the start of rush hour -- in the rain.
I've got to get out of this business.
I pull the SUV up and slam it to the curb right outside the affiliate. My crew throws open the doors and runs up the covered steps and into the building. I close my eyes and try to remain calm.
As they exit the building, I can tell by the looks on their faces that things are not good.
"It's worthless," Carol says as she climbs into the passenger's seat.
We came all this way for nothing.
Our flight leaves in an hour and a half.
I have visions of the unparalleled benefits of profiling; it would have to work better than the system the TSA has in place right now at our nation's airports. I wonder how anyone can claim that confiscating water bottles and gel products prior to boarding is in any way keeping Americans safe in the skies. The question I want to ask one of these idiots is simple: "If you knew that liquid explosives were a potential threat -- then why the hell were we ever allowed to bring water on a fucking plane?" As usual, terrorists are thinking ahead, while the people paid to outsmart them have set up a safety net as secure and impenetrable as the space between Bill Buckner's legs.
I'm fidgeting. I'm angry. I'm about to miss my flight.
Our plane rises through the gruesome haze of pollution spread low across Houston. A moment ago, I stood up slightly and looked around the cabin -- making sure my anchor, my photographer and our other producer made it. They did.
The man seated next to me is reading Bernie Goldberg's 100 People who are Screwing Up America, now expanded to 110 people. I can only assume that Hillary Clinton had ten new children since the publication of the last edition, or maybe Bernie just had ten more mini-strokes which translated into ten more quixotic rants against liberals, feminists and any other Godless cretins his elderly mind deems offensive.
I lean back and close my eyes.
My iPod is plugged into my head.
The quiet beauty of Mazzy Star's Rhymes of an Hour washes over me.
I want to get Justin Fuller's comfortable smile out of my head.
I want to go home and hold my wife.
The first of three chemicals is pumped into Justin Fuller's body. He's looking at the faces of his mother and father as he drifts off.
Justin Fuller is pronounced dead.
Mazzy Star -- Rhymes of an Hour
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club -- Shuffle Your Feet
"The Final Act" (Originally Published, 10.20.06)
Not long ago, I wrote about an ill-fated trip to Livingston, Texas 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, though, die at the hands of Texas's executioner.
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 mischievous 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.