A Death In Texas
by Steve Earle
Jonathan Wayne Nobles grins at me through
inch-thick wire-reinforced glass, hunching over to peak in a deep, resonant
voice through the steel grate below. A feeble "What's up?" is the best
I can manage. The visiting area in Ellis One Unit is crowded with
other folks who have traveled, in some cases thousands of miles, to visit
relatives and correspondents on Texas's Death Row. They sit at intervals
in wooden chairs surrounding a cinder block and steel cage that dominates
the center of the room. There are cages within the cage as well,
reserved for inmates under disciplinary action and "death watch" status.
Falling into the latter category, Jon must squeeze his considerable bulk
into one of these phone-booth-sized enclosures.
It's an awkward moment for both of us.
In the ten years we have corresponded we have never met face to face.
The occasion is auspicious. Jon and I will spend eight hours a day
together for the next three days and then another three days next week.
Then, the state of Texas will transport Jon, chained hand and foot, eleven
miles to the Walls unit in downtown Huntsville. There he will be
pumped full of chemicals that will collapse his lungs and stop his heart
forever. This is not a worst-case scenario. It is a certainty.
The only action pending in the courts on Jon's behalf is an unprecedented
petition to have Jon's vital organs harvested and donated for transplant
before his execution. The supposedly "non-violent" lethal injection process
literally destroys the lungs and renders all the other organs too toxic
for transplantation. Neither Jon nor his attorneys have any faith that
their motion will prevail. There is no doubt in my mind (or Jon's for that
matter) that Jonathan Noble has precisely ten days to live . And I, at
Jon's request, will attend the execution as one of his witnesses.
Over the next few days a routine develops.
I arrive at Ellis at 8:30 in the morning. We usually spend the first
two hours talking about music, politics, religion — subjects that we have
covered thoroughly enough in letters over the years to know that we have
widely divergent views and tastes. We fill the long awkward silences
that seem inevitable in prison visiting areas with trips to the vending
machines for soft drinks, candy, and potato chips. I pass Jon's goodies
to the guard on duty through a small opening in the steel mesh.
Inevitably, we move on to life behind bars,
drugs, and recovery — topics where we share considerably more common ground.
We are both recovering addicts who got clean only when we were locked up.
Jon began reading about recovery and attending "twelve step" meetings in
prison years ago. I can remember a time, back when I was still using
drugs, when the "recovery-speak" that filled his letters made me extremely
uncomfortable. Now it is a language that we share — sort of a spiritual
shorthand that cuts through the testosterone and affords us a convenient,
if uncomfortable, segue to the business at hand.
There are arrangements to be made.
If Jon's body goes unclaimed, as is the case with half of the men executed
in Texas, he would be buried in the prison cemetery on the outskirts of
Huntsville. Called "Peckerwood Hill" by the locals, it is lonely
space filled with concrete crosses, adorned only with the interred inmates'
prison numbers. Those executed by the state are easily identifiable
by the "X" preceding their number. There are, however, no names on
the stones. Jon doesn't want to wind up there.
Instead, he wants to be buried in Oxford,
England — a place he's never seen. One of his pen pals, a British
subject called Pam Thomas, has described it to him in her letters.
He likes the picture Pam paints of the springtime there, when the bluebells
are in bloom. Jon says that Pam is working on permission from the
landowner. I, for my part, have a Plan B on the back burner.
A Dominican community in Galway, Ireland has offered Jon a final resting
place. At some point in the proceedings it dawns on me that I have
spent the last hour helping a living, breathing man plan his own burial.
One thing Jon and I don't talk about much
is the movement to abolish the death penalty. In fact, Jon's suspicious
of abolitionists. We were "introduced" by a pen pal of his and an
acquaintance of mine. She had heard that I sometimes corresponded
with inmates and asked if she could give Jon my address, I said "sure."
Within a month I received my first letter. It was a page and a half
long in a beautiful flowing script that made me more than a little jealous.
It contained a lot of the usual tough rhetoric and dark humor I had learned
to expect in letters from men and women in prison. After several
readings I realized that all of the jailhouse small talk was merely a medium,
a vehicle for one pertinent piece of information — that Jonathan Wayne
Nobles was guilty of the crimes he was charged with.
Jon Nobles was found guilty (almost entirely
on the strength of his own confession) of stabbing Kelley Farquar and Mitzi
Nalley to death in 1986. He also admitted struggling with and stabbing
Ron Ross, Nalley's boyfriend. Ross lost an eye in the attack.
Jon never took the stand during his trial. He sat impassively as
the guilty verdict was read and, according to newspaper accounts, only
flinched slightly when District Judge Bob Jones sentenced him to death.
When Jon arrived at Ellis he quickly alienated
all of the guards and most of the inmates. He once broke away from
guards while being returned to his cell from the exercise yard and climbed
the exposed pipes and bars like an animal, kicking down television sets
suspended outside on the bottom tier. Not exactly the way to win
friends and influence people in the penitentiary. On another occasion
he cut himself with a razor blade, knowing that the guards would have to
open his cell to prevent him from bleeding to death. He just wanted
to hit one officer before he passed out.
But somehow, somewhere along the line,
in what is arguably the most inhumane environment in the "civilized" world,
Jonathan Nobles began to change. He became interested in Catholicism
and began to attend Mass. He befriended the Catholic clergy who ministered
in the prison system, including members of the Dominican Order of Preachers.
He admired the Dominicans so much that he set his sights on becoming one
of them. He eventually achieved that goal, becoming a lay member
of the order and ministering to his fellow inmates, even standing as godfather
at inmate Cliff Boguss's baptism. He later helped officiate at the
Mass that was celebrated the night before Boguss' execution. When
I mentioned in a letter that I had found a bag of pot in my oldest son
Justin's laundry, Jon suggested that I bring him to Ellis. He believed
his word might carry a little more weight than mine, coming from the other
side of the razor wire. I was tempted, but in the final analysis
I couldn't bring myself to drag my firstborn through the gates of Hell.
I watched this transformation in the letters
that I received. There is no doubt in my mind or my heart that the
Jonathan Nobles that sat on the other side of the glass from me in September
of 1998 is a different man than the one that the State of Texas sentenced
to die almost twelve years ago. The greatest evidence of this fact
is the way that Jon is treated by everyone he encounters, inmates and prison
officials alike. A prison clerk, displaying obvious, genuine regret,
interrupts our visit. She needs Jon to sign some papers. Jon does
so and then informs me that the documents allow me to pick up his personal
property and distribute it to a list of people detailed in a note that
the clerk will hand me on my way out. He winks and says that he has
left something special to me. Inmate Richard Bethard on his way down
the line to visit with a family member stops to talk and Jon introduces
us. Bethard beams, saying that he is one of my biggest fans.
The guard patiently waits until the exchange is over before escorting him
along to his assigned cubicle. Such socialization during inmate transfer
is a clear violation of policy at Ellis, but a lot of the rules have relaxed
for Jon. He says that it's like the last week of the school year.
I believe that it's more likely that he has earned the genuine respect
of everyone at Ellis.
The scene is repeated all afternoon.
One visitor is a prison employee, who three years earlier went out and
bought the Dead Man Walking soundtrack CD so that Jon could hear
my contribution, a song called Ellis Unit One, about a corrections
officer suffering a crisis of conscience. There is an elderly woman
who has moved to Huntsville from England to be near the twenty-six inmates
she corresponds with. She is a recovering alcoholic, and when Jon
tells her that I'm in the program she offers to take me to a meeting that
night. At this point I could use a meeting so I make a date to meet
her at a local church at 7:00. Richard Bethard's codefendant Gene
Hathorn stops by. Hathorn, it so happens, is one of my other correspondents
at Ellis. "Hey Jon, I hear you got a date. Is it serious?"
Jon visibly stiffens. He and Hathorn were friends once but something
happened years ago, something Jon is reluctant to talk about.
"Serious enough that they're going to kill
Hathorn moves on without another word.
I excuse myself to go to the bathroom. The truth is I simply need
On the way back I run into Father Stephen
Walsh, a Franciscan friar from Boston who makes regular trips to Ellis
to minister to its Catholic inmates. He will serve as Jonathan's
spiritual advisor. In that capacity he will wait with Jon in the holding
cell over at the Walls until he's escorted into the death chamber itself
and will administer the last rights. Fr. Walsh introduces me to Bishop
Carmody, of the East Texas Diocese in Tyler, who like me has been asked
to witness on Jonathan's behalf. He is a native of County Kerry,
Ireland, but has lived in the States for forty years, twenty of them in
Texas. Being a sometime resident of County Galway, a little further
up the island's west coast, I find his accent familiar and comforting.
He has never witnessed an execution before and admits to being just as
scared as I am. "With God's help," he says, "we'll get through this
thing together, Stephen."
Every visit ends the same way. A
guard gives us a five-minute warning, and Jon hurriedly dictates a list
of "things to do" which I must commit to memory, as visitors are not allowed
to bring writing instruments and paper into the unit. Then Jon presses
his palm against the glass and I mirror his with mine. Jon says,
"I love you. I'll see you tomorrow." That is until Wednesday,
October 7 rolls around. It's hot and humid, even at 8:00 AM as I
thread my rented Lincoln through the drive-thru of a fast food restaurant
near my motel. As I pull up to the window, a pretty Hispanic girl
in her early twenties takes my money and hands me my breakfast: an egg
and sausage taco and a medium Dr. Pepper. She smiles and says, "You
don't recognize me, do you?" Before I can place her myself she volunteers,
"I work at Ellis." Of course — behind the reception desk. I
received Jon's property from her last night. "I just wanted to say
I'm sorry. Jon's a good guy."
I glance at her nametag. "Thank you,
Delores. I'll tell him you said that. It will mean a lot."
I guess that she is probably around the same age as Mitzi Nalley was when
Over the last few days the other witnesses
have arrived in Huntsville. I had dinner the night before with Dona
Hucka, Jon's aunt. She is the only blood relative to make the trip.
She has driven all night to be here. Pam Thomas is in from England
as well. Both are already on the unit when I arrive. Jon's
fifth witness is the director of chaplain's services for the Texas Department
of Corrections, Rev. Richard Garza. We take turns leaning close to
the glass while a prison employee takes Polaroid snapshots of each of us
with Jon. The prison provides this service for the nominal fee of
eight dollars each.
10:00. There isn't much time left.
At 12:30 we will be asked to leave the unit and Jon will be transported
to the Walls. In the death chamber we will be able to hear Jon over
a speaker in the witness room, but this is our last opportunity to speak
to him. Jon divides the remaining time between us more or less equally.
I go first. Jon looks tired; the stress is showing for the first
time. He leans down and motions me closer. I realize he's assessing
my condition as well. "You all right, man?" I tell him that
I'm okay. Jon is not convinced.
"I'm worried about you. You don't
have be Superman or nothin'. This is insane shit that's goin' on
here today. You don't have to be strong for the women if that's what
you're thinkin'. They're big girls. You need to take care of
"I know, Jon. I'm all right.
I went to a meeting last night and my manager's here now. I've also
got a couple of friends up from Houston who have done this before."
"Yeah." That seemed to make him feel
"OK, but if you need to cry, it's all right,
go ahead and cry."
"When this is all over I'll cry."
Jon shifts gears suddenly. Back to
business. He looks both ways to make sure the guard isn't watching.
"Take this." With much effort he pushes a tiny slip of tightly rolled
paper, the diameter of a toothpick, through the impossibly tight mesh.
Somehow he pulls it off. "That's my daughter's phone number in California.
Dona read it to me over the phone last night. They're going to strip
search me and I can't take anything to the Walls and I'm afraid I'll forget
it. Give it to Father Walsh. Then I'll have it when I make
my last phone calls."
I poke the paper in the watch pocket of
my Levi's. There were a few other requests. He wants me to
call his foster mother and his sister after the execution, and send flowers
to two women who worked for the prison who had been kind to him over the
years. I promise that I won't forget. All right, bro.
Take care of yourself and your kids. Tell Dona to come back."
Hands against the glass one last time.
"I love you, Jonathan."
"I love you too, bro."
Noon. I head hack into Huntsville.
My manager, Dan Gillis, arrived last night and not a moment too soon.
Suddenly, driving has become difficult. It's weird. I'm simply
not as coordinated as usual and the world has taken on a kind of surrealistic
patina. I need someone to drive for the rest of the day. Also
waiting at the hotel are two friends from the abolition movement, Karen
Sebung and Ward Larkin. Both have witnessed executions and they have
made the trip to support me and assist in any way they can. We talk
over arrangements for the transportation and cremation of Jon's body, which,
as it turns out, Dan has already taken care of. I make a couple of
phone calls and check my messages. Then I shower, shave, and put
on a pair of black jeans, a blue short-sleeve shirt and a black linen sport
4:00. We leave the hotel and Dan
drives us to Hospitality House, a guest residence operated by the Baptist
church for the families of inmates. Dona and Pam, as well as Pam's
friend Caroline, are staying there. Bishop Carmody and Rev. Garza
are already there when we arrive. We are assembled here for an orientation
session to be conducted by Rev. Robert Brazile, the chaplain at the Walls
unit. He and the warden will he the only two human beings inside
the chamber with Jon when he dies. He goes through the execution
process step by step so that "we will know what to expect" and, though
it's obvious he speaks with authority, I'm not listening. I can't
concentrate so I just nod a lot. It doesn't matter. No matter
how well or poorly the witnesses are prepared, they are going to kill Jon
5:05. Rev. Brazile answers his cell
phone and it's Fr. Walsh. He is over at the Walls with Jon and wants
the phone number. The one that Jon passed me through the ... oh my
God. I can't find it. I was sure that I transferred the slip from
my other jeans into my wallet when I changed clothes but it's simply not
there. Dan runs to the hotel and checks my room, but it's hopeless;
it was tiny. Rev. Brazil relays the bad news back to Fr. Walsh.
I feel awful.
5:30. We arrive at the visitors'
center across the street from the Walls unit. Karen Sebung accompanies
me as far as the waiting area where we witnesses are searched, then Dona
and Pam are escorted to another room by a female officer. When they
return a large man enters the room and introduces himself as an officer
of the prison's Internal Affairs Division. He informs us that if
we should feel faint, medical attention is available. He also warns
us that anyone who in any way attempts to disrupt the "process," as he
calls it, will be removed from the witness area immediately. Bishop
Carmody sits down next to me and asks when I was last in Ireland.
I can't remember. Nothing about my body is working right. My
feet and hands are cold and the side of my neck is numb. The bishop
is telling me a story about his childhood in Kerry but I can't get the
thread of it. I am suddenly fixated on the idea that somewhere nearby
Ron Ross and Mitzy Nalley's mother are undergoing a similar process.
They are waiting for the closure that the State of Texas promised them
twelve years ago. I sincerely hope that they get it
5:55. The corrections officer returns.
"Follow me, please." I haul myself to my feet. We walk across
the street and through the front door of the old gothic prison administration
building. We turn left as soon as we enter and find ourselves in
the waiting area of the governor's office, where we are asked to wait once
again. There are two reporters already there. The other three
members of the press pool, along with the victims' family members, have
already been escorted to the witness area, which is divided by a cinder
block wall. The procedure has been carefully planned and rehearsed,
so that the two sets of witnesses will never come in contact with each
6:00. A corrections officer enters
the room. I hear him tell the Internal Affairs officer that "they're
ready." We walk through a visiting area similar to the one at Ellis,
then out into the bright evening sun for a moment and turn left down a
short sidewalk. Another left and we enter the first door of two set
side by side in a small brick building built into the side of the perimeter
wall. We enter the tiny room in single file. Father Walsh appears
from somewhere inside the death chamber to join us. The reporters
enter last and the door is locked behind us. I can hear the reporters
scratching on their notepads with their pencils. There is only room
for three of us on the front row, Dona, myself, and Pam. Dona grabs
my left hand and squeezes it hard and then realizing she may be hurting
me, she whispers an apology and relaxes her grip a little. She already
has tears in her eyes.
Jon is strapped to a hospital gurney with
heavy leather straps across his chest, hips, thighs, ankles, and wrists.
His arms are extended at his sides on arm boards like you see in the blood
bank and they are wrapped in ace bandages. At either wrist clear
plastic tubes protrude from the wrappings, snaking back under the gurney
and disappearing through a plastic tube set in a bright blue cinderblock
wall. I think I see movement behind the one-way glass mirror on the
opposite wall — the executioner getting into position. Jon is smiling
at us, his great neck twisted uncomfortably sideways. A microphone
suspended from the ceiling hangs a few inches above his head. The
speaker above our heads crackles to life and Jon speaks, craning his head
around to see the victims' witnesses in the room next door.
"I know some of you won't believe me, but
I am truly sorry for what I have done. I wish that could undo what
happened back then and bring back your loved ones but I can't." Jon
begins to sob as he addresses Mitzi Nalley's mother. "I'm sorry.
I'm so sorry. I wish I could bring her back to you. And Ron
... I took so much from you. I'm sorry. I know you probably
don't want my love, but you have it."
Turning to me he seems to regain his composure,
somewhat. He even manages to smile again. "Steve, I can't believe
that I had to go through all this to see you in a suit coat. Hey
man, don't worry about the phone number, bro. You've done so much.
I love you. Dona, thank you for being here. I know it was hard
for you. I love you. Pam, thank you for coming from so far
away. Thanks for all you have done. I love you. Bishop
Carmody, thank you so much. Rev. Garza and you, Father Walsh, I love
you all. I have something I want to say. It comes from I Corinthians.
It goes..." and Jon recites the lengthy piece of scripture that he agonized
over for weeks, afraid he would forget when the time came. He remembers
When he finished reciting he took a deep
breath and said, "Father into thy hands I commend my spirit." The
warden, recognizing the prearranged signal he and Jon had agreed on, nodded
towards the unseen executioner and Jon began to sing.
Silent night/Holy night
He got as far as "mother and child" and
suddenly the air exploded from his lungs, making a loud barking noise,
deep and incongruous, like a child with whooping cough — "HUH!!!!"
His head pitched forward with such force that his heavy, prison issue glasses
flew off his face, bouncing from his chest and falling to the green tile
And then he didn't move at all — ever again.
I actually watched his eyes fix and glaze over, my heart pounding in my
chest and Dona squeezing my hand. We could all see that he was gone.
Dead men look ... well, dead. Vacant. No longer human.
But there was a protocol to be satisfied. The warden checked his
watch several times during the longest five minutes of my life. When
time was up, he walked across the room and knocked on the door. The
doctor entered, his stethoscope's earpieces already in place. He
listened first at Jon's neck, then at his chest, then at his side.
He shined a small flashlight into Jon's eyes for an instant and then, glancing
up at the clock on his way out, intoned, "6:18."
We were ushered out the same way we came,
but I don't think any of us are the same people that crossed the street
to the prison that day. I know I'm not. I can't help but wonder
what happens to the people that work at the Walls, who see this horrific
thing happen as often as four times a week. What do they see when
they turn out the lights? I can't imagine.
I do know that Jonathan Nobles changed
profoundly while he was in prison. I know that the lives of other
people who he came in contact with changed as well, including mine.
Our criminal justice system isn't known for rehabilitation. I'm not
sure that, as a society, we are even interested in that concept anymore.
The problem is that most people who go to prison get out one day and walk
among us. Given as many people as we lock up, we better learn to
rehabilitate someone. I believe Jon might have been able to teach
us how. Now we'll never know.
Steve Earle works with many death penalty abolition groups including The
Journey of Hope. His latest CD, Transcendental Blues, contains
the song "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)," written for his friend Jonathan