HUNTSVILLE, Texas — As Billy Joe Woods waited to die, the manager of public information for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice ate a pretzel.
In less than an hour, a needle would be inserted in Woods' left arm, and then in his right, filling his veins with a lethal dose of sodium thiopental. There was really no doubt that this would happen, no possibility that Woods would be spared by a last-ditch appeal, no question about the swift and clinical effect of the injection.
There was so little drama, in fact, that Larry Fitzgerald, the public information man, tried to create some.
"Who wants in on the pool?" he asked, turning his attention to the four reporters who had come to witness the execution.
6:17 p.m.? 6:18? 6:21?
What time would the drugs finally flow into Billy Joe?
No other state puts as many people to death as Texas does. No other state even comes close. Since the U.S. Supreme Court paved the way for the resumption of capital punishment two decades ago, Texas has executed 119 convicts. That accounts for nearly a third of all executions in America.
Compared with California, which has executed just four inmates in the same time, Texas' death chamber runs like clockwork. Billy Joe Woods was one of six men executed here in April. Four others have been executed so far in May, including one Monday night. Another is set to be executed today. And another Wednesday, and another the day after. In June, 10 more men are scheduled to die, few with any hope for a reprieve.
At this rate, with 12 executions already, 1997 is expected to become the busiest year ever on Texas' death row--or any other state's, for that matter--surpassing the previous record of 19, set here in 1995. If and when that happens--most likely next month--it could very well reignite the debate over capital punishment across the nation, inspiring activists on both sides of the issue alternately to hail and condemn the milestone.
But among average Texans, the historic tally is being greeted with a collective shrug.
Despite the extraordinary pace--or because of it--executions don't generate much news here anymore. There's no media circus, no countdown to death, no drumbeat of coverage--neither for killer nor victim.
TV crews almost never show up on execution days in Huntsville, home to death row, about 70 miles north of Houston. No major newspaper, not from Houston or Dallas or Austin or San Antonio, bothers to send a reporter regularly. It's quite possible to wake up in any of those cities without an inkling that a man was put to death the night before.
In most other states, even with widespread support for capital punishment, tension and ambiguity still swirl around each execution. In Texas, those conflicts--legal, moral, political--were long ago laid to rest. Elected officials don't wring their hands. Appellate courts don't often impose eleventh-hour stays. Prison guards don't brace for glitches or snags.
As it did with the space shuttle-- another Texas achievement--repetition has rendered the execution business routine.
"You've seen one, you've pretty much seen 'em all," Fitzgerald said.
From the public information office, the four media witnesses were led outside, across a short walkway and into the Walls Unit, an enclosed prison yard so named for the towering red-brick walls that form its perimeter. There is usually room for five reporters to attend an execution here. But, as is often the case, less than a full contingent was on hand.
Two of the witnesses were Huntsville journalists. A third, Michael Graczyk, staffs the Houston bureau of the Associated Press. He is somewhat of a legend in the annals of death chamber correspondence, having covered about 70 executions (he claims to have lost count), more than any other reporter in America.
"It's my job," he once told an interviewer. "It's like going to cover a baseball game, or a basketball game, or an explosion at a chemical factory."
After being frisked by a guard, Graczyk plopped into a seat in the Walls waiting room, his manner unruffled and easygoing. Years of experience had taught him not to expect surprises.
In his laptop computer, he already had written a story that said Billy Joe Woods was dead.
When he was convicted July 13, 1976, of murdering Mabel E. Ehatt, Woods was front-page news. The hideous nature of his crime had something to do with that.
A high school dropout and itinerant oil rig roustabout, Woods, then 29, had broken into Ehatt's Houston apartment, strangling the cancer-stricken 62-year-old widow and smashing in her head with a frying pan. Evidence indicated that he had raped Ehatt, who used a walker to get about, then continued the assault even after she was dead. Police arrived to find Woods still at the scene, a bottle of Ehatt's pain medication in his pocket and her bracelet on his wrist.