TEXAS IS RICH WITH TALES of notorious criminals. Those who’ve lived outside the boundaries of the law have not only brought the limelight of notoriety unto themselves but also to the state’s criminal justice system. The Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville often finds its way into this spotlight as the execution site for some of the state’s most unlawful. Here are some facts about the Texas prison system’s Walls Unit and its history of execution.
In 1848 John Brown, William Palmer, and William Menefee spent $22 for 4.8 acres of land in Huntsville—the site that would become the state’s first enclosed penitentiary.
Why Huntsville? That remains a mystery, but citizens in the area contributed generous gifts of rock and timber, signs of community support that may have favorably influenced the state’s three-man selection committee.
The March 13, 1848, piece of legislation that called for the establishment of a state prison mandated that it be erected near a navigable body of water so that inmates could transport the goods they manufactured to market. The Trinity River fulfilled this order.
The penitentiary’s first residents arrived on October 1, 1849, to makeshift cells of logs and iron bars.
In the late 1850’s inmates were processing five hundred bales of cotton and six thousand pounds of wool a year. The cloth, sold to both civilians and Confederate personnel, grossed in excess of $1 million, $800,000 of which was deposited in the state treasury.
At the close of the Civil War, Huntsville was the only prison in the eleven Confederate states still standing.
In 1923 the state relieved counties of the responsibility of carrying out executions and stipulated that Huntsville prison be the sole location of executions. The state also amended the means of execution, replacing hanging, which had been standard practice since 1819, with the electric chair.
On February 8, 1924, Charles Reynolds of Red River County became the first convict to die by electrocution. Forty years, five months, and 22 days later, Joseph Johnson from Harris County became the final prisoner to be executed by electrocution in Texas. In the interim 359 inmates were electrocuted.
From 1928 to 1952, the East Building housed Texas’ death row. From 1952 to 1965, the electric chair resided in a building near the East Wall.
In 1931 prisoners got an opportunity to rope ’em and ride ’em in the inaugural Texas Prison Rodeo, an endeavor that proved financially viable for the state.
In 1977 lethal injection became the official means of execution in Texas. The lethal cocktail consists of sodium thiopental to sedate the offender, pancuronium bromide to collapse the offender’s diaphragm and lungs, and potassium chloride to cease the offender’s beating heart. On average, inmates are dead within seven minutes of injection.
Death-row prisoners live in a sixty-square-foot cell with one window. Some are allowed a radio.
Jay Pinkerton and Jesse De La Rosa, both 24, were the youngest Texans executed. At 62, Clydell Coleman and Betty Beets were the oldest. On average, prisoners are 39 at the time of their executions.
Excell White of Collin County spent 8,982 days on death row, the longest time on the books. Joe Gonzales of Potter County registered 252 days on the block, the shortest time in the history of the penitentiary.
Texas has executed six pairs of brothers.
Inmates come to spend time on death row by committing one of eight capital-murder offenses: murder of an on-duty public safety officer or firefighter; murder while in the act of kidnapping, burglary, robbery, aggravated sexual assault, arson, obstruction, or retaliation; murder for hire; murder while escaping prison or jail; murder of a prison employee; murder while serving a life sentence for murder, capital murder, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault, or aggravated robbery; multiple murders; and murder of a child under the age of six. Such convicted inmates spend an average of ten and a half years on death row.