How do you stand on the subject of capital punishment, the death penalty?
Many will assault your ears with opinions on this subject at the least encouragement. Debating teams jaw about it endlessly, when they aren’t dissecting the Electoral College, or determining whether global warming is real or myth. Editorial writers don’t even have to be asked. But how many folks who flap their lips on this subject have ever attended an execution?
My own education in this particular phase of crime and punishment took place in 1957 when I was reporting for the State Times, a daily newspaper of record in Jackson Mississippi. The city editor called me aside one day to ask how I felt about covering an execution. He was in a tight spot because another of our reporters – a mousey individual named Fitzmaurice – had punked out during a previous exhibition of capital punishment. Fitzmaurice nervously vomited all over the floor of the witness area, which earned our newspaper bad credits with the Highway Patrol and administrators of The Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.
I accepted on the spot, knowing my heavy burden would be to redeem the honor of the editorial staff. Very quickly I began boning up on the life and career of one William A. Wetzel, scheduled to be the main event at Mississippi’s forthcoming execution. For the first part of this job I talked to law enforcement people – there’s nothing like a cop for dirty details, without the boring blather of court documents.
According to the Mississippi Highway Patrol, Wetzel was convicted of killing one Edgar G. (Sonny) McGraw while both were serving time at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. McGraw had been a member of an organized crime gang on the Mississippi Gulf Coast who decided to freelance deeper into the state with a robbery. They were caught, and Sonny McGraw squealed, turned state’s evidence in exchange for shorter time. He was sentenced to serve at Parchman, over the protests of highway patrolmen and sheriff’s deputies. They begged the judge to let Sonny spend his sentence in the county jail under their watchful eyes, but that eminent jurist would not be swayed.
And surprise, in McGraw’s first day hoeing cotton on the prison’s long line, his throat was slashed by Wetzel – or at least that’s what fellow convicts swore. Wetzel was already serving a life sentence for murder when he was accused of whacking Sonny. So, prosecutors and prison officials didn’t feel especially merciful. They demanded the death penalty and got it.
Lawmen suspected Wetzel himself was an organized crime hit man out of Elmira, New York. Sonny’s fate was the mob’s affirmative action program, affirming that “nobody squeals on us and lives to crow about it.” Back then most Mississippians didn’t like to hear their Gulf Coast was infested with the Mafia, likely Carlos Marcello’s family out of New Orleans, but it was true nevertheless. Like an invisible beast the mob leaves clear footprints, if one cares to look for them. George Metz, a veteran Mississippi lawman turned newsman once told me:
“Fellow, when you see a place where there’s illegal gambling, B-girls, prostitutes, and maybe dope, there’s a ‘family’ about in the vicinity.” The Gulf Coast had them all, and more.
Next I consulted the file on Wetzel’s lawyer, who seemed to think McGraw’s demise was the result of a disagreement between gentlemen convicts, and that further: (1) His client was wrongfully and illegally convicted in violation of his constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, by the knowing use of perjured testimony, and the suppression of evidence favorable to his defense; and further: (2) That Wetzel was being confined and punished by virtue of ex post facto legislation in the maximum security cell block at the Mississippi State Penitentiary while awaiting execution, and was there subjected to punishment and treatment to which under the original sentence he could not be subjected.
Another file indicated the court didn’t think much of the lawyer’s arguments. Wetzel’s appeal had been pumping through the judiciary’s circulatory system for years, all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court and back. His petition for a writ of habeas corpus was tossed out, and the execution ordered to proceed.
Lastly I attended a clemency hearing for the condemned one, held in the
governor’s office and attended by a group of citizens who had come to beg for Wetzel’s life. The gist of their argument was that the convict had acquired religion. After receiving the death sentence he immediately consulted the chaplain and was saved – further, that if permitted to live, he could instruct other prisoners in the pathways to heaven. The gubernatorial aide conducting the hearing was unimpressed and turned them down.
Parchman Penitentiary, site of the execution, was a spooky place at night. Separated into camps, from a distance it resembled a group of dimly lit football fields surrounded by fences, the highest of which seemed to be those encompassing the maximum security camp, location of the execution chamber. I drove in and joined witnesses in the “death house.” We were a somber bunch, composed of law enforcement officers and newsmen. Topic of conversation revolved around the possibility of a late telephone call from the governor’s office which might stop the execution. There wasn’t one.
Lethal gas was the fashionable mode of execution then. Hanging had given way to electrocution, which was succeeded in turn by hydrogen cyanide, as society sought a truly “humane” way to kill people. The gas chamber was a steel and glass bubble in a wall separating two rooms: we witnesses occupied one room and could see through the bubble into the other room, which housed the execution crew.
In a few minutes that crew began to file in headed by the executioner, a thin individual with a gas mask strapped across his chest. I was told his regular job was head of maintenance at the Hinds County courthouse, and this was his “moonlight” occupation. After him came the chaplain who seemed to be engaged in a non-stop prayer; I could see his lips moving, but heard nothing through the steel and glass separating us. And last came Warden Bill Harpole with Wetzel.
I had never seen Wetzel before, not even a picture. He was a large person with a striking face. His eyes were deep-set, and together with his huge beaked nose, they gave the impression of a bird of prey, an eagle or a hawk. It was easy to believe the jury had convicted him on his looks alone. Details of his personal life in prison were scanty: he had scored the highest intelligence test result of any convict in Parchman. He apparently could influence other persons positively: he certainly convinced the chaplain of his religious conversion. One member of the Parchman staff had broken down in tears when he heard that Wetzel’s final appeal had been denied.
Wetzel strode into the gas chamber, and stared a long moment at us witnesses as though memorizing our faces. Then he placed his face to the glass and plainly mouthed: “I…wish…I…was…out…there…and…you…were…in…here.” Another pause, as he studied our faces to gauge the effect of his words. Then he sat down and was strapped in the chair by the warden, who retreated and locked the chamber door. I had not noticed until then that a highway patrolman and I had been unconsciously backing up and away from Wetzel until we were flat against the wall of our witness room. The patrolman’s Smokey the Bear hat was bent out of shape. And for a moment I knew what it felt like to be a small, fuzzy rodent under the gaze of a hawk or a cat.
The executioner threw a switch which dropped cyanide tablets into a container of acid under Wetzel’s chair, and fumes began rising in the chamber. Test glasses filled with a milky liquid sat on shelves inside, and as they absorbed the gas their milky liquid turned pink, then vermillion, then bloody red. Wetzel’s face flushed scarlet and his head fell forward on his chest, then flopped backward. It kept up this gruesome nodding for easily a full minute before he was finally still.
After a much longer wait the executioner started a fan to clear gas from the chamber. At intervals he tested the chamber’s air by piping a little of it through a plastic hose into a device with a beaker of the milky liquid. Everything was proceeding according to plan, but quickly went frighteningly wrong: the plastic hose suddenly popped loose from its connection and chamber air began hissing out into the room. The executioner didn’t bother with his gas mask – he was first to sprint out the door, followed by the chaplain and the warden in that order.
At that point the prison staff were shooing us out of the witness room and into the hallway leading to the exit. I got momentarily lost and bumped into Warden Harpole in a corridor.
“Well, are you going to spend the night with us?” he asked.
“Just show me the door and watch,” I replied.
Outside the air was chilly, and as I drove through the gate the fences seemed even higher, at least 30 feet high.
Already I was writing the story in my head. Somewhere in the back of my mind was a quote from Roscoe Hicks, the prison chaplain, who summed up Wetzel and similar folk this way:
“You can be smart and still lack wisdom.”