Death Row Inmates Plead for Humanity

William Lynd will be the first to be executed in more than seven months.

May 05, 2008, 10:17 AM

May 6, 2008 — -- "Let's ride" were the last words spoken by Michael Richards before the syringes containing a lethal concoction of chemicals were pumped into his veins in Texas' Huntsville death chamber Sept. 25, 2007.

Richards was the last man to make the long walk from death row to the death chamber before an unofficial moratorium was placed on executions that same day when the Supreme Court began to deliberate on the constitutionality of the three-drug lethal injection method.

As with each person executed for a crime, Richards got to state his own epitaph, and while some remain defiant, many use that last breath to try to redeem themselves.

The grim and often haunting tradition of a doomed inmate's last words will resume today -- three weeks after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of lethal injection April 16 -- when William Lynd will be led into Georgia's death house.

Lynd, who has spent 17 years on death row for killing his girlfriend in 1988 with three shots to her face, will be the first execution in the United States in more than seven months.

But what Lynd will say, should he decide to speak at all, is likely to include one of the many themes heard in the last statements made by the condemned.

Larry Traylor, the director of communications for the Virginia State Department of Corrections, has witnessed more than 40 executions and told that the final words of offenders typically possess a sort of "very calm anger."

"Some are very repentant and some are not," said Traylor. "A lot of times they may ignore us and not say a thing."

Virginia is second only to Texas as the state with the most executions, having carried out 98 executions since the death penalty's reinstatement in 1976 compared to Texas' 405.

Some, in their last moments, defy reason or compassion.

Granville Riddle, for example, was the 295th person put to death in Texas and until his very last breath argued his good character.

"I would like to say to the world, I have always been a nice person," said Riddle, who was 19 when he was convicted of murdering an Amarillo, Texas, resident with a tire tool during a break-in. "I have never been mean-hearted or cruel."

And a few, either from a perverse taunting of society or a plea for a posthumous exoneration, insist on their innocence.

"There have been those who have said that they're innocent, but in the last 40 or so that's generally been a small percentage," said Traylor. "The larger percentage say nothing or ask God for forgiveness."

In Georgia, the most recent final statement was that of John Hightower, who was executed in June 2007.

Hightower, 63, apologized for what he had done and thanked his family for standing by him, according to Paul Czachowski, the spokesman for the Georgia Department of Corrections who witnessed the execution.

"Some last statements are pretty simple. The No. 1 theme was that offenders tend to give well wishes," said Scott Vollum, who studied 292 execution cases that occurred in Texas from 1982 to 2002 as research for his book "Last Words and the Death Penalty: Voices of the Condemned and Their Co-Victims."

"They express their love and good luck to family and loved ones and sometimes express words of encouragement to other inmates," said Vollum. "Others even wish the [victims' families] peace and closure."

Upon his execution, David Herman, Texas execution No. 110 and one of the cases Vollum studied, said, "[I]f my death gives you peace and closure, then this is all worthwhile."

Herman, 39 when he was executed, was convicted of the 1989 murder of a 21-year-old topless dancer.

After well wishes, Vollum's research showed references to religion, requesting forgiveness, expressing gratitude and pleading their innocence were among the more common themes among last statements.

"To see people asserting themselves in the moments before they're going to die is fascinating," said Vollum, who did not witness an execution during his research of the Huntsville death chamber. "Most people don't have the opportunity to do that, and it's an odd thing to see a lot of them trying to redeem themselves."

Twelve of the 292 cases Vollum studied explicitly referred to their desire to humanize themselves.

"You have these individuals who are defiled -- and rightfully so, they're capital murderers," said Vollum. "They're dehumanized, depicted as animals in a lot of ways. And so at the very point of their death, it's interesting to see them trying to make something out of their lives."

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