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September 2000

A Death In Texas

by Steve Earle

"Hey, man."

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 me."

Hathorn moves on without another word.  I excuse myself to go to the bathroom.  The truth is I simply need a break.

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 she died.

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 yourself."

"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 better.

"OK, but if you need to cry, it's all right, go ahead and cry."

"When this is all over I'll cry."


"I promise."

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 coat.

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 anyway.

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 other.

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 every word.

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 floor below.

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.

Singer-songwriter 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 Nobles.

 © 2000 Institute for Labor and Mental Health
© 2000 Gale Group
© 2000 Tikkun

© 2003-2005   Clint Harris  (clint@steveearle.net) – All Rights Reserved
© 1995-2003Lisa Kemper  – All Rights Reserved

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