Ex-Texas Warden Reflects After 140 Executions
FORNEY, Texas (AP) — Charles Thomas O’Reilly supported capital punishment when he oversaw his first Texas execution. And he still supported it after his 100th.
In six years as warden of the Huntsville Unit, the prison that houses Texas’ death chamber, O’Reilly supervised about 140 executions — more than any other warden in state history.
Now retired, he reflected on his career this week as the nation’s busiest death penalty state prepared to execute its 500th inmate since resuming capital punishment in 1982.
The 62-year-old said he has no regrets about a process he considered to be a relatively unemotional and small part of his job.
“If you do 140 of them and then decide you can’t do them, then I think you’ve pushed it a little too far,” O’Reilly said during an interview with The Associated Press in Forney, about 175 miles away from Huntsville. “If you can’t do it, you should have made that decision after one, or maybe two.”
O’Reilly, who retired in 2010, recalled meeting condemned inmates when they arrived at Huntsville the afternoon of their executions.
“I’ll tell him that we’re going to treat him with as much dignity as he’ll allow us to,” O’Reilly said. Then at 6 p.m., he would return to the inmate’s holding cell and say two words: “It’s time.”
A five-man team walked each inmate to the death chamber and tied the prisoner to a gurney. Other staff members ran IV lines for the execution drugs.
Before the lethal injection began, O’Reilly would ask the inmate for any last words. He liked to give each inmate about three minutes, though he rarely cut anyone off.
Once the inmate’s final statement was complete, O’Reilly used a handheld clicker to signal to the drug room that it was time to start. Minutes later, he would signal to a doctor to check the inmate’s pulse and declare him dead.
Relatives of the condemned inmates and victims typically watched through a window.
“There’s not a lot said,” O’Reilly said. “Everybody knows their job, knows how to do it, when to do it.”
He doesn’t remember the name of the first inmate executed during his tenure, but a few names stand out. They include Frances Newton, the only woman executed on his watch. Condemned to death for killing her husband and two children, she was executed in 2005, becoming just the third woman put to death since Texas resumed capital punishment.
O’Reilly said he was more concerned with making sure executions were done professionally. He recalls the professionalism of the prison chaplain and the staff he hand-picked to assist with executions.
Speaking in a low Texas drawl, O’Reilly’s voice hardens when asked about his personal views on the death penalty. He said it’s the appropriate way to deal with society’s worst criminals, such as someone who rapes and kills a 7-year-old girl.
“As far as I’m concerned, that person probably got a just punishment for the crime that he committed,” O’Reilly said. “Like me or anybody else, we all have to take responsibility for our own actions. Our actions are our choice. The consequences for those actions are not our choice.”
Although the fight over the death penalty is often heated, O’Reilly said the process of an execution is quiet and simple.
“It doesn’t take long. There’s not a lot said,” O’Reilly said. “All you’re going to do there is watch a guy go to sleep.”
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