Last statements from death row shine light on paradoxes of the death penalty
A 10-year UCD research project has been analysing prisoners’ final words
Lethal injection chamber in Huntsville, Texas: the state of Texas performs more executions than any other US state. photograph: david j sams collection/the image bank
On February 15th 1998, Michael Wayne Hall (18), a labourer from Dallas, abducted a 19-year-old woman and shot her several times with a .22-calibre pistol.
Hall was given the opportunity to make a last statement immediately prior to his execution on February 15th, 2011. His last statement was duly published on the website of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice:
“First of all I would like to give my sincere apology to Amy’s family. We caused a lot of heartache, grief, pain and suffering, and I am sorry. I know it won’t bring her back. I would like to sing, I would like to sing, for that person’s dead. The old is gone. I am not the same person that I used to be, that person is dead. It’s up to you if you would find it in your heart to forgive. As for my family, I am sorry I let you down. I caused a lot of heartache, and I ask for your forgiveness . . . I’ve been locked up 13 years. I am not locked up inside, all of these years I have been free. Christ has changed me. Even though I have to die for my mistake, he paid for mine by wages I could never pay. Here I am a big strong youngster, crying like a baby. I am man enough to show my emotions and I am sorry. I am sorry for everything. I wish I could take it back, but I can’t.”
Immediately after saying these words, Hall was executed. His last statement, with its apology and religious references, stands in stark contrast to his brutal offence. His words also highlight, however, some of the inherent contradictions in the use of capital punishment in the US and beyond.
In 2012, there were 682 confirmed executions recorded in 21 countries worldwide, according to Amnesty International. Three-quarters of these confirmed executions occurred in Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, but the figures exclude the unknown number of executions in China, which Amnesty estimates to be in the thousands. The US is the only G8 country that still performs executions and even there it is in decline. Just nine US states performed executions in 2012, compared to 13 in 2011. Overall, there were 43 executions in the US in 2012, with Texas, where Hall was executed, performing more executions than any other state (15).
There is a small but compelling literature on mental health and death row. Over half of all death row prisoners have major mental illness and most if not all have histories of severe head injury. Mental health deteriorates sharply while awaiting execution and the suicide rate on death row is five times higher than that of the general US male population.