Execution chamber warden shares worst memories

This the gurney used for executions at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville.

Protecting the state's executioner is so important, state legislators passed a law in 2015, prohibiting the disclosure of their identity.

There has been a lot of media coverage about Texas leading the nation in executions, but there has been little published about the executioner.

News 4 interviewed retired death chamber warden, Jim Willett about his staff and his work at the state penitentiary in Huntsville.

During the 3 year period Willett was the senior warden at the Walls Unit, he green-lighted 89 executions.

It was his job to signal the executioner when it was time to deliver the deadly dose and he chose to do it in an understated way, by taking his glasses off.

"For me the thought was, especially at first, was that this is gonna happen because I'm gonna tell somebody it's time to happen," Willett said.

Willett said while it became routine, it never got easy.

During the years he managed the death chamber from 1998-2001, Texas had a record number of convicts put to death.

There was one span, where he supervised 6 executions in 17 days.

"It really drained me emotionally," Willett said. "I was tired, I was really tired so I began to worry about staff being the same way."

The tie-down team was usually made up of security supervisors at the Walls Unit.

The medics, who inserted the IVs in each arm were often hired from the outside.

Specifically, Willett recalls looking for those who were used to working under high stress conditions.

"Maybe I would go look for somebody who was in the military who was a medic and had bombs going off all around him while he's trying to insert IVs," Willett said.

The medics would sometimes transition into the job of executioner.

While Willett's job was not far removed from the one who was putting the convicts to death, it's not a line he would've crossed.

"I wouldn't have wanted to do it," Willett said. "I know that sounds hard because I'm the guy that says o.k. executioner, it's time to do your job."

Over the years, Willett remembers being questioned about his role.

"There were people that said to me I'd hate to have your job," Willett said. "I always thought, I'd hate to be on the jury."

Looking back over his 30 year career, he said he has no regrets, but has had some doubts about the innocence of a couple of the men put to death.

On the day of, Willett would make time to talk to the inmate in the hours leading up to death.

"There were a few who when I first went back to talk to them were extremely nervous and some of those I went back a second time and visited with during the middle of the afternoon," Willett said.

Among Willett's worst memories inside Texas' death house, was a man throwing up right before the lethal drugs began to flow.

"Just as he was about the pass off into never never land, some of that stuff started to come out of his mouth again," Willett said.

It's been more than 15 years since he witnessed an execution, but his eyes began to tear up almost instantly after sharing this memory.

"One of the worse memories I have is hearing a mother cry, yeah, that's pretty rought," Willett said.

He prayed for her and also for some of the inmates as they took their last breathe.

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