“He Gave A Final Gasp, A Cough And Closed His Eyes”
It was 6:19 p.m. on Wednesday, June 13, 2001, when my brother, John Leslie Wheat, was pronounced dead. The official cause of death — homicide by court-ordered lethal injection.
He was the eighth person to lose his life to the state of Texas in the year 2001 and the 247th executed since Texas reinstated the death penalty.
This was the hardest thing I have ever witnessed, but it would have been harder not to be there for my brother.
Visitation at the Terrell Unit in Livingston started at 8:00 a.m. Only two visitors at a time were allowed back with him. I wore a heavy button-up shirt over my “Don’t kill for me” t-shirt. I also wore my solid black button on the outside of the shirt. During one of the times when I was back with him, I was able, without the guards noticing, to unbutton the shirt and show my brother that I was wearing the T-shirt.
Visitation ended at noon. The family members then got in their respective cars for the trip to Huntsville.
I drove with another brother, and on the way, we stopped at a fast-food restaurant and watched the van carrying John pass by. The windows were blackened, and you couldn’t see in or out, but we knew it was him.
We joined the rest of the family at the hospitality house where the minister “prepared” those of us who were going to witness the execution. Then came the final phone call from John. I asked him about his last meal. He had already eaten it. It was Salisbury steak and onions, mashed potatoes with gravy, crackers, cookies and fruit punch.
We then went to the administration building where we were patted down and searched. We then made the trip to the Walls unit.
Walking across the barricaded street, I waved to the protesters. One of them said through a bull horn, “Our sympathy goes out to the family of John Wheat.” My mother turned and said, “They said his name.” I hadn’t thought about it, but it was a surprise to my mother. She also waved to the protesters. A little later, we were lead to “our” witness room.
Through a window in the room we could see John strapped to the gurney. He was covered with a sheet. He had told us he would give us the victory sign, but his hands were wrapped. He was doing his best to wiggle his fingers repeatedly, saying, “I wonder if they can see me wiggling my fingers.” Then he remembered the microphone above him and said, “Oh yeah, they can hear me saying I am wiggling my fingers.” I held my hand to the glass and signed “I love you.”
Once we were inside, the warden asked John if he had any final words. He said “yes” and waited for the warden to tell him to start. After a moment of silence, he asked “Am I suppose to start now? I’ve never done this before.” Again the warden said nothing, and John began “I deeply regret what happened. I did not intentionally or knowingly harm anyone. That’s it and didimau.” (“didimau” is Vietnamese and means “Let’s get out of here”).
That was the “signal” he chose to let the warden know he had finished his statement. Next, we heard the clunk of the valve opening to allow the first of the three drugs to begin flowing into John’s body. He gave a final gasp, a slight cough and closed his eyes. He never moved again. Two more clunks as each additional drug was administered.
Moments later, the coroner came in and pronounced the time of death as 6:19 p.m. We were immediately escorted out. As I headed toward the front door, I unbuttoned and removed my outer shirt. I walked out the front door of the Walls unit boldly wearing my t-shirt.
We were given the option of talking to the press inside, but I headed out the front door and joined the protesters (the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty had announced in a press release that we would be making statements there). Other family members had made arrangements with the funeral home to touch John’s body while it was still warm. It was as close to giving him a hug as we could get. Although we were told the victims advocate was allowed a contact visit, his family was not. Other than the guards touching him while handcuffing and moving him, the only human touch since it began was the minister touching his leg while he was on the gurney.
Many people traveled long distances to be there to support me. Words don’t seem adequate to thank them. One very nice card I received expresses their thoughts the best. On the front is said “Maybe I can’t stop the downpour…” and inside “…but I can join you for a walk in the rain. You can count on me.”
I am proud to be joined by such wonderful people for this “walk in the rain.” Thank you all.