OBITUARY FOR JOHNNY JOE

BY DAVID R. DOW

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My client, Johnny Joe Martinez, was executed on Wednesday, May 22. The time of death was 6:30. Two days before, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted against commuting Martinez's death sentence to a sentence of life in prison by a vote of 9 to 8.

Several weeks before his execution, Martinez met with Lana Norris, the mother of Clay Peterson, the man Martinez murdered in 1993. They spoke for nearly four hours. It was the first face-to-face meeting in Texas (and perhaps any state) between a murderer and the mother of the victim. Ms. Norris, who is not an abolitionist, subsequently wrote a letter to the Board pleading for Johnny's life.

The first thing Martinez did in his final statement was apologize for having committed a horrible crime. Then he thanked Ms. Norris for her efforts on his behalf.

One news report characterized his final statement as bitter. That report illustrates the hazard of using adjectives to describe people whom we do not know.

I met with Martinez in the holding cell outside the death chamber at around 3 o'clock. Martinez had read an article I wrote for the Texas Observer, where I pointed out that Martinez was not being executed for his own mistake, but for the mistakes of his lawyers. Martinez asked me if he could say in his final statement what I had written in my article. I told him of course; it was his final statement, he could say whatever he wanted.

Someone who didn't know him might have thought that he was bitterly blaming others. He was actually thanking me.

Johnny was not bitter. He was wry and nervous, and of course a little scared.

We had tried nine times to have a court address the merits of the case. We did not have nine appeals, because an appeal means that someone addresses your arguments. Someone listens to you. We had nine failed efforts of having someone pay attention

He told me in our final meeting that the prison spokesman had come to visit him to ask why he had forced the guards to "gear up," using an expression I was unfamiliar with. Then I noticed the helmets with face-masks adjacent to the guards: the gear. Martinez had told them that he was not going to fight (not going "to buck" was the expression he used), but neither was he going to walk the fifteen feet to the gurney. They were going to have to carry him.

That morning when they told him to change clothes, he didn't. They had to change him. When they told him to get in the van, he didn't. They had to hoist him.

I won't walk, he said to me. He wasn't mad. He was telling me that my client had not forgotten, even now, that he was a human being with will, not a cow at the slaughterhouse.

He nodded toward a closed metal door and asked me whether that was the room where they do it. I think so, I said. What, you've never been in here before? I told him I hadn't. You've never witnessed one of your clients get executed? I told him he was only the second one who had asked. He wanted to know why I hadn't witnessed the other guy's. I told him it was because I had been filing an appeal up until moments before the injection.

He started to suggest another appeal I could file for him. He stopped in mid-sentence and shook his head, realizing the futility. He cried softly for a moment

A week before, Martinez had asked me whether we could get a stay of execution by claiming he is retarded. I told him the problem with that claim, aside from the fact that he was a bright guy, is that there was no evidence of it. He screwed up his face, trying to remember his test scores.

He nodded toward the guards outside his holding cell and laughed. Those guys mean business, he said. To me a guard is a guard. Inmates draw distinctions. These guys aren't like the other ones, Martinez said, meaning the guards he had dealt with on a daily basis. He smiled again. He had respect for these guards who had dressed him and thrown him into the van, these men who would drag him to his death. His point would not be lost on them. They were smart enough to need rationalizations.

Martinez told the prison spokesman they wouldn't need to gas him. He was not going to buck, wasn't going to try to hurt anyone. They would, however, need to carry him. If regulations required them to gear up for that, they should get the gear.

Death row inmates have no contact visits, with their families or anyone else. So the last person to touch Martinez's skin, other than the geared-up employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, was Lana Norris.

During their meeting, she clasped his hands and told him she had forgiven him. It was the first time I saw Johnny cry.

Martinez smiled as he thanked a long list of friends and supporters - a list that the warden must have thought would never end, because he squeezed Johnny's shoulder, letting him know that he should wrap it up.

Not counting Johnny himself, the last person who smiled before the execution was me. We witnesses (his brother, sister, a friend, and a spiritual advisor) had been sitting outside the execution chamber for about ten minutes longer than the intricately choreographed procedure contemplates. I hoped that the Governor was thinking about granting a thirty-day reprieve, but the realist in me knew that that far-fetched possibility was not responsible for the delay. What was taking so long was that Johnny was limp.

Johnny knew he could not escape. He also knew that by not walking, his executioners would not be able to escape either. Making the people who take a human life confront what they are doing is probably a small victory, but it was the only victory he had.

See Related article - Mom asks parole board to spare son's murderer

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