Book Review: ‘Death Row Welcomes You,’ by Steven Hale

DEATH ROW WELCOMES YOU: Visiting Hours in the Shadow of the Execution Chamber, by Steven Hale

In 2018, Steven Hale, a writer for The Nashville Scene, was selected by lottery to be among the handful of witnesses to a Tennessee man’s death by lethal injection. Hale knew about the condemned man, Billy Ray Irick, only from court records that detailed the abuse he’d suffered as a child and the horrible suffering he’d gone on to cause. In 1985, Irick raped and murdered a girl he was babysitting.

After more than three decades on death row, Irick, 59, was bound to a gurney by thick straps. As a strong sedative entered his veins, his eyes shut and he started to snore. Then his body responded to another drug, maybe the one meant to stop his heart.

“He jolted,” Hale writes in “Death Row Welcomes You,” an up-close exploration of the recent revival of capital punishment in Tennessee. “His face turned almost purple.” Eventually, he stopped breathing. “That concludes the execution of Billy Ray Irick,” a voice announced over a loudspeaker. “Please exit now.”

The last public hanging in the United States was carried out in 1936, in front of 20,000 people, like a medieval revenge ritual. Today, even the most extreme punishments are administered privately, behind prison walls, with efforts to inflict as little pain as possible. “Barbarism dressed as bureaucracy,” Hale writes of a century’s progress.

The Supreme Court actually ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972. A majority of justices argued that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. They gave different reasons — because it was “excessive” and “morally unacceptable”; or because Black defendants were sentenced to die far more frequently than white ones, even when convicted of the same offenses. Four years later, however, the court softened its position, deciding that capital punishment, if administered more fairly, could provide a legitimate “expression of society’s moral outrage.”

The death penalty was legal again, but many states still found it too troubled by chronic unfairness, long delays, wrongful convictions and inhumanity. The District of Columbia and 23 states have outlawed the death penalty, and more than a dozen other states either have moratoriums or haven’t carried out an execution in at least a decade.

Hale is focused on Tennessee, which has conducted more than 500 legal executions since it became a state in the late 18th century. In the 1930s and ’40s, Tennessee sometimes electrocuted three people on the same day. But in 1959, Gov. Frank Clement announced his opposition to the death penalty, saying he was haunted by the men he’d met on death row whose executions he’d overseen: “I had no idea what it was like to look a man in the eye and know I had to decide on this man’s life.” From 1961 to 2000, Tennessee did not carry out a single execution.

Hale writes with urgency about a startling reversal of this trend. In the 19 months after Billy Ray Irick’s 2018 execution, Tennessee put six more men to death. Hale was in the death chamber as witness for three of these executions. During that time, he also joined a group that visited a maximum-security prison most Mondays and spent time with the men on death row, becoming part of “a fellowship of the living and the condemned.”

“Death Row Welcomes You” is an eye-opening journey to a place that’s hard to access, rarely seen and shrouded by myths of monsters and abominations. The weekly gatherings in the prison, Hale writes, “are so ordinary as to be extraordinary and so life-giving as to feel defiant.”

Support for capital punishment spiked in the 1990s, during the height of the tough-on-crime era. Support today is at a 50-year low, at 53 percent, but Tennessee, once a swing state, has gotten steadily redder in the past two decades and Republican backing for capital punishment has remained solid, at around 80 percent. This may help explain both the resurgence in Tennessee and the 13 federal executions carried out in a rush during the last months of the Trump administration.

Hale does not unpack the many legal and philosophical arguments surrounding the death penalty, nor does he explain why public opinion and policies have continued to shift. What he does do powerfully, however, is show that all people have the capacity to change. When Hale introduces the men on death row, he is careful to describe their crimes and the tremendous pain they caused their victims. But Hale also insists on seeing them as they are in the present — as far more than their worst acts.

We meet a man named Terry King who has been awaiting his execution for murder since 1985. King puts together welcome packages for new arrivals to the unit and cares for others as they become sick or enfeebled. He tells Hale that “he hated who he’d been but that he loved who he’d become.”

Another man, Donnie Johnson, declined his last meal before his 2019 execution, asking instead that the clergy members and other visitors who supported his clemency feed the homeless, prompting churches and activists to pass out pizza on the streets of Nashville.

Hale comes to share the opinion of many of the regular visitors: “that support for executions, or indifference to them, could not survive a Monday night with the men facing them.”

As he delves into one capital murder case after another, Hale is aware of a blurring sameness to these horrific crimes and to the people who commit them. “The stories start to run together, of boys whose bodies and brains were beaten and bruised before they became the violent men who were sent to death row.”

Too often the book’s own storytelling and structuring contribute to this blurring of people and events. But these shortcomings also reflect the broader challenge of making people confront the cruelty and ineffectiveness of extreme punishments. Hale observes that, as the executions in Tennessee continued, the news crews and crowds outside the prison disappeared. Putting people to death had become both too distressing and too routine.

Death Row Welcomes You” demands that we not look away, that we reckon more honestly with how and whom we punish. After one execution, in which the condemned man chose to die in Tennessee’s electric chair rather than be injected with a dubious new drug cocktail, the man’s lawyer addressed the news media. He asked them a question that, inexcusably, we as a society still can’t adequately answer. “What is it we did here today?”

DEATH ROW WELCOMES YOU: Visiting Hours in the Shadow of the Execution Chamber | By Steven Hale | Melville House | 276 pp. | $28.99

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