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

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.”

Inherent contradictions
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.

Our research group at UCD, including Dr Sharon Foley, has been studying last statements from death row in Texas for the past 10 years in an effort to understand better the psychological state of prisoners immediately prior to execution. We have now analysed all 179 last statements made between 2002 and 2011, and our most recent paper appears in the current issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. All executed prisoners in our sample were male and all offences involved killing; one-third involved more than one victim; one-fifth involved at least one child victim; and one-fifth involved sexual assault.

The most common themes in last statements are expressions of love (present in 75 per cent of last statements), spirituality (54 per cent) and apology (37 per cent). Around 53 per cent of last statements contain evidence of psychological “egression”; eg regarding death as a form of escape rather than an end to life. Many also show aggression or rejection; eg vengeful thoughts or impulses (40 per cent).

‘Competence to be executed’
We also found that almost half of all last statements (46 per cent) demonstrate substantial psychological pain, further highlighting the importance of mental health care on death row. A paradox arises here, however, owing to the peculiar concept of “competence to be executed”. In 1986, the US supreme court ruled that an individual should not be executed if he or she is deemed incompetent. This means that if a prisoner is treated for mental disorder on death row, the prisoner may regain “competence to be executed” and then be executed as a consequence of successful treatment.

This is just one of the many disturbing paradoxes presented by capital punishment. Another relates to the involvement of physicians in executions. Physician participation in capital punishment is expressly prohibited by the American Medical Association, among other bodies (including Ireland’s Medical Council). Nonetheless, 17 US states still require physician participation in executions, often offering physicians legal immunity and anonymity for participating.

Given these insoluble paradoxes, clear evidence of deterioration in mental health on death row, and our group’s demonstration of substantial psychological pain in last statements prior to execution, there is a compelling, ethics-related medical duty for psychiatrists to object to individuals being sent to death row, owing to its devastating effects on mental health and suicide risk, quite apart from the ultimate execution.

Looking more broadly at the issue of capital punishment, the inevitability of errors in any judicial process, and the requirement for society to maintain a set of decent fundamental values, demand the immediate abolition of capital punishment, worldwide and without exception.

Dr Brendan Kelly is senior lecturer in psychiatry at UCD and consultant psychiatrist at the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital

Dead men talking: Death row last statements
Offender: George Alarick Jones.
Date of execution: June 2nd, 2010.
Age: 21. Prior occupation: Hairstylist.
Summary: Jones was convicted of the robbery and murder of 22-year-old Forest J Hall in Dallas. Hall was shot twice in the back of the head and his body was dumped.

Last statement: Yes, I do, uh at this time I would like to thank my parents who have been my pillar of strength throughout this. To my brothers and sisters and all my family members who have supported me and who have loved me despite my faults and imperfections. I would like to thank Pastor Williams for counselling me and guiding me. As I look to my right and I see the family of Forest Hall, I hope this brings you closure or some type of peace. I hope it helps his family, son and loved ones. This has been a long journey, one of enlightenment. It’s not the end, it’s only the beginning.

Offender: Billy John Galloway.
Date of execution: May 13th, 2010.
Age: 31. Prior occupation: Labourer.
Summary: On August 9th, 1998, Galloway and three co-defendants met a 40-year-old man at his motel room. They left the motel in the victim’s rented vehicle and turned into a car park. As the victim left the vehicle Galloway hit him several times with a hammer and one of the co-defendants hit him several times with a log. Two other co-defendants moved the body.

Last statement: If I can go back and change the past I would, there’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry. I love you, Adonya. That’s it.

Offender: Bobby Wayne Woods.
Date of execution: December 3rd, 2009.
Age: 32. Prior occupation: Unknown.
Summary of incident: On April 30, 1997, Woods entered the home of his ex-girlfriend. Woods sexually assaulted an 11-year-old girl, then abducted her and her 9-year-old brother. Woods severely beat the 9-year-old boy about the head, resulting in serious injury, and cut the throat of the 11-year-old victim, resulting in her death.

Last statement: Bye. I’m ready.

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